InterviewLeaders of the past didn't smoke cigars. They lived modestly

Sara Netanyahu’s estranged brother not impressed with PM’s glitzy lifestyle

Hagi Ben Artzi says his sister and brother-in-law may fear a leftist takeover, but they aren’t right-wing enough

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Hagi Ben Artzi. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Hagi Ben Artzi. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

BEIT EL, West Bank — With an indictment against his sister looming over her misuse of public funds, the brother of Sara Netanyahu is not shying away from criticizing her and her prime minister husband over what is seen as their less-than-modest lifestyle.

Sipping coffee, Hagi Ben Artzi reminisced recently over past leaders who apparently avoided the luxurious trappings of government service, and says his sister was raised in a household with the same ethos.

“I remember how after winning the National Bible Contest in 1965, I was invited with my father to the home of Prime Minister [David] Ben Gurion in Sde Boker. I saw there a prime minister who spoke knowledgeably of the Bible, lived in a simple cabin and took part in the community’s kitchen duties,” said Ben Artzi, who is eight years older than Sara Netanyahu.

“’This is how the leader of Israel is supposed to act,’ my father told me after we left,” Ben Artzi added, smiling.

Over 50 years later, Sara Ben Artzi (now Netanyahu) is being accused of acting exactly the opposite. According to a draft indictment leaked to the press in early October, Netanyahu is suspected of “exploiting her status as the wife of the prime minister” and working “to circumvent the rules and restrictions in order to fraudulently obtain funding for the meals… of her family at the expense of the public.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) celebrating his 64th birthday with his wife Sara and their son Yair, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. October 20, 2013. (GPO/Flash90)

“I miss that era where we had such idealistic leaders,” said Ben Artzi. “Leaders of the past didn’t smoke cigars. They lived modestly and were dedicated to the state,” he added, alluding to allegations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from Hollywood billionaire Arnon Milchan.

But Ben Artzi, who described himself as a “close adviser to [Benjamin] Netanyahu who wrote many of his speeches” during his first stints as leader of the opposition (1993-1996) and prime minister (1996-1999), pushed to move the topic of conversation away from personal issues relating to his sister and brother-in-law, whom he has not spoken to in years.

“This is how I communicate with them these days — through the media — so I’d rather discuss more important matters,” he said.

Ben Artzi’s main beef with the Netanyahus isn’t their lifestyle but rather the policies of his brother-in-law, which he sees as too far to the left side of the political spectrum, despite Netanyahu heading a governing coalition seen as the most right-wing in the country’s history.

The 67-year-old father of four shared how the first couple “completely cut off contact” with him after he came out publicly against Netanyahu’s signing of the 1997 Hebron Agreement, which relinquished 80 percent of the city to the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat.

Hagi Ben Artzi (middle), looks on as then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu shakes the hand of a young boy during a visit to the West Bank settlement of Kidda on August 1, 2007. (Flash90)

“He let American pressure get the better of him at the time, as he continues to allow today,” Ben Artzi said. “He went and shook hands with Arafat instead of spitting in his face.”

But before relations soured, Ben Artzi pointed out, he once had the ear of the budding politician.

In the fall of 1995 when then-opposition leader Netanyahu was planning a right-wing protest against the Oslo II Accords, Ben Artzi was tasked with drafting the slogan to be used at the demonstration, one that convincingly summarized the right’s disapproval of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s agreement with Arafat, which carved up the West Bank and granted the Palestinians limited autonomy over roughly 40 percent of it.

“I had wanted it to be ‘the Jewish people did not decide,'” said Ben Artzi. Rabin was only able to ratify the Oslo II Accords in the Knesset with the help of the two Arab parties, he explained. “The government of the Jewish state agreed to return land to Arafat without a Jewish majority. Can you believe that?”

Then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu overlooks a right-wing rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square in 1995. The slogan on the sign below him reads “the nation did not decide” and was the brainchild of Hagi Ben Artzi (screen capture: YouTube)

“Bibi was scared of being pinned as a racist against the Arabs so they altered the slogan a bit,” he said, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

But when the rally against Oslo convened on the evening after the Knesset vote, the massive sign draped over the balcony from which Netanyahu addressed the crowd of 100,000 read, “the nation did not decide.”

“They still used my idea,” said Ben Artzi as he slapped the table and leaned back in his chair, smiling.

Hagi Ben Artzi at the Jacob’s Rock tourist site in Beit El on October 2, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Despite roughly two decades without contact with the Netanyahus, Ben Artzi still felt comfortable enough to psychoanalyze his sister and brother-in-law.

“Bibi and Sara — I think they got this from my father — feel an obligation to stay in politics for as long as necessary to prevent the left, which they see as a danger to the future of the state, from leading the country,” Ben Artzi said.

And he is sure Benjamin Netanyahus is convinced, as he often says, that his political career is not nearing its end.

“He thinks that nobody as charismatic as he is could take over. That’s how I read him, at least,” he said as he sat in a local government building in Beit El, a large settlement outside Ramallah.

‘Tel Aviv imperialists’

Hagi and Sara were raised in a secular Zionist home in Jerusalem, but Ben Artzi attended yeshiva upon graduating high school, where he became a religiously practicing Jew.

After being discharged from his army service in the artillery brigade with the rank of captain, he studied philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, eventually becoming a professor of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University.

In the 1970s, Ben Artzi got involved in Gush Emunim, a movement that promoted Jewish settlement in the West Bank following its capture by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967.

A Ben Artzi 1960 family photo. (From L-R) Hagi, Hava, Matanya, Shmuel, Sara (Netanyahu), Amatzia. (Courtesy)

“I remember how we shouted ‘go home Yankee, go home!’ at Kissinger when he came to visit,” said Ben Artzi, referring to the US secretary of state who had been pressuring Israel to return some of the territories it recently had won.

Since then, he has apparently moved further toward the hard-right, urging his brother-in-law to annex the West Bank, “or at the very least, the Jewish communities (over the Green Line).”

“We are the only people living under military occupation,” he said, employing rhetoric that most of the international community has reserved to describe the state of life for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Ben Artzi’s preference for the settler life extended to describing those who live in Israel’s coastal regions — areas outside the biblical heartland — as “imperialists.”

“Zionism is a return to the land of the Bible,” he said. “Without a settlement movement, there is no justification for Zionism.”

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