When US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrived at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem during their visit to Israel this May, the couple were met at the entrance by an abashed-looking Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.
After sarcastically welcoming their guests to “our palace,” and apologizing for the “modest” decor, the Netanyahus dropped their apparent irritation over the humble house on Balfour Street to proudly introduce their eldest son Yair. (Avner Netanyahu, the younger of the two children, was in the army at the time, the prime minister said.)
Versed in diplomatic etiquette from a young age, Yair, now 26, lavished the presidential guests with praise.
“Thank you for coming, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m a big big fan of you both, ” he told the president and first lady. “I have heard so much from my mother. She talks about you all the time,” he said to an elated Melania.
Then, before the two couples embarked on a tour of the residence surrounded by staffers and press, the younger Netanyahu offered a brief word of encouragement to the newly elected US first family and their 11-year-old son, Barron Trump, who had not joined his parents for the trip.
“You know, I can relate a lot to what Barron’s going through because I’ve been in his age in my dad’s first term,’ Yair said of the 1996-1999 premiership, when he was 5, in slightly broken English.
“And look how he turns out,” President Trump interjected, gesturing to the grown Yair Netanyahu, to the delight of the prime minister and his wife.
“It’s very, very hard,” Yair added bitterly. “You know, they [the media] were doing satires on me when I was 3 years old.”
The presence of Yair Netanyahu at the welcome reception, given that it was held at his home, was not unexpected or out of place.
But the prominence he was given in the on-camera introduction to the US president reflected his growing influence within Balfour Street and his burgeoning public profile over the past months and years. And his on-record dig at the media’s treatment of him and his family signified a tendency, much like that of his father, for cultivating (and hitting back hard against) public scandals.
“That was classic Yair,” said a Likud party activist who has worked with the prime minister’s son. “He knew exactly what to say to get everyone talking about what he wanted — him.”
Life in the public eye
Recent weeks have seen a slew of headlines over Yair Netanyahu’s personal life, his connection to a pair of corruption investigations against the prime minister, and a series of controversial social media posts that have landed him in hot water.
The most recent (and vociferous) scandal came after he posted a cartoon this weekend that appeared to have anti-Semitic themes and origins and had circulated on anti-Semitic websites.
The image, posted Saturday on Yair Netanyahu’s private Facebook profile, featured references to Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, the Illuminati and a some form of reptilian overlord. It took aim at his parents’ critics, including former prime minister Ehud Barak, lawyer and Labor party activist Eldad Yaniv, and Menny Naftali, a former caretaker at the Prime Minister’s Residence who is at the heart of allegations of wrongdoing over which Sara Netanyahu is facing indictment.
The response to the image came hard and fast. US Jewish leaders decried the cartoon and its posting by the prime minister’s son. The Anti-Defamation League said it contained “blatantly anti-Semitic elements.” Political leaders in Israel also lashed out at Yair Netanyahu, calling on the prime minister to tell his son to remove the post immediately.
Just as bad, Yair Netanyahu was suddenly embraced by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, the very people his father has sworn to protect the Jewish people against. The Daily Stormer neo-Nazi website called him a “bro” and later declared itself “The World’s #1 Yair Netanyahu fansite.”
Following the widespread criticism, Yair Netanyahu did remove the meme from his Facebook page on Sunday night. But using that same Facebook account — under the name Yair Hun — that has launched numerous attacks against perceived enemies of his family, the prime minister’s son appeared unrepentant Monday, posting a number of messages slamming “left wing hypocrisy” over the response to the image.
Notably, there was no post offering an apology for the cartoon and his parents have refused to address the issue, despite numerous inquiries from the media.
The same Likud party activist, who asked to remain unnamed, said he was surprised to see Yair Netanyahu back down by removing the cartoon post. “He likes the controversy. And the thing is, he’s gotten good at playing it over the years. I guess this just caused too much of a stink,” he said.
Born in 1991 while his father served as deputy foreign minister in then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government, Yair Netanyahu, as he told the Trumps, has known no other reality than the at times-harsh public exposure of political celebrity life.
When Benjamin Netanyahu ran for prime minister in 1996, Yair, along with his three-years-junior brother Avner, joined the campaign trail as his father traipsed across the country seeking the voters that would eventually make him premier for the first time.
After the narrow election victory over Shimon Peres, the Netanyahus chose for their sons to live with Sara Netanyahu’s parents, Hava and (famed Israeli poet and educator) Shmuel Ben Arzi, instead of at the official Prime Minister’s Residence.
But Yair and Avner were never far from the public eye, appearing in numerous photo ops depicting a loving and warm first family-in-the-making and being included, to some extent, in their father’s work.
In 1998, when King Hussein of Jordan fell ill with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a 7-year-old Yair even sent the Hashemite monarch a self-illustrated get-well card.
As the years went by and Netanyahu senior went from prime minister to political outsider to finance minister to leader of the opposition and then back again to prime minister in 2009, Avner Netanyahu — and to an even greater extent Benjamin Netanyahu’s daughter Noa, born to his first wife Miriam Weitzman in 1978 — sought a life away from the cameras, rarely appearing at public events.
But Yair appeared to thrive on the attention, and as he gained his own public persona, scandals began to emerge.
In 2012, he was sentenced to 21 days of military detention after leaving his base without permission and lying to his commander about his whereabouts. Serving on the international desk of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, Yair Netanyahu was supposed to be on duty over the weekend when he decided to leave the base for a few hours and go home for the family’s Friday night dinner.
Two weeks later, after presenting his commanding officer a letter in which he expressed his regret and asked for forgiveness, the army decided to shorten his sentence and allow him to go home to attend the Passover seder.
After the army, while he was studying international relations at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya — he would later switch to Hebrew University in Jerusalem — the Norwegian daily Dagen broke the news that Yair Netanyahu was dating fellow student 25-year-old Sandra Leikanger.
The romantic pursuits of the prime minister’s son would not normally have made headlines. But when it was later discovered that Leikanger was not Jewish and hailed from an Evangelical Christian family, the story triggered a small public storm, with several religious groups and figures criticizing the relationship as one that promotes intermarriage and assimilation. The young couple was said to have later split. (Benjamin Netanyahu’s own second wife, Fleur Cates, was a non-Jewish woman of British origin.)
Facebook posts, and libel lawsuits
As a student, Yair Netanyahu initially kept his social media interactions secret, joining Instagram under the pseudonym Yair Hun and keeping the account “private.” When he joined Facebook in 2014, however, he turned off all the privacy settings, allowing anyone to read his posts, and making no effort to hide the fact of his true identity as the prime minister’s son, though he rarely posted until a few months ago. Once an alias to stay under the radar, Yair Hun became his nom de guerre.
Two months ago, as Hun, he made international waves by saying in a post that American left-wing groups are more dangerous than neo-Nazis, following deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a far-right march, and US President Donald Trump’s controversial statements that “both sides were to blame” for the violence.
In July, he lashed out at a group called Sixty One, accusing it of serving an anti-Israel left-wing agenda after it criticized his lifestyle in a Facebook post of its own.
Under the headline “5 facts about Yair Netanyahu, our national son,” and accompanied by a photo of him doctored to look like he was wearing a clown suit, the organization castigated the premier’s son for living with his parents at the taxpayer’s expense, taking lavish vacations, seeking to influence his father, and encouraging a boycott of Arab-owned businesses.
The group also quoted several of Hun’s Facebook posts in which he called Arab business owners “bastards” and slammed the “left-wing authorities” for turning a blind eye to Arab-on-Jewish crime.
חמישה דברים שלא ידעתם על יורש העצר, יאיר נתניהו:1. יאיר, צעיר בן 25 שאינו עובד לפרנסתו ומתגורר בבית הוריו על חשבון משל…
Hun accused Sixty One, which is run by the dovish Molad NGO, of being a “radical, anti-Zionist organization funded by the Foundation for the Destruction of Israel [a reference to the New Israel Fund, in a Hebrew play on words] and the European Union.”
“How nice that your side is always going on about incitement, demonization, character assassination and crossing of all red lines,” he wrote, before signing off with a character of a middle finger and poop emoji.
In response, Molad sued Yair Netanyahu for libel. The case is expected in court later this year.
A few days before the online brawl, Yair Netanyahu made the news over an incident in which he reportedly refused to clean up after his dog. A woman, also writing on Facebook, said Netanyahu junior flipped her the bird after she asked him to collect the family dog’s excrement in a Jerusalem park. Her accusations were also met with a bitter attack from Hun.
In September, Yair Netanyahu filed his own libel suit for NIS 140,000 ($40,000) over a Facebook post that claimed the prime minister asked the Mossad to issue Netanyahu junior a passport in a different name, which he then used to hide money offshore. The implications of the post were that the Netanyahu family were involved in money laundering or tax evasion.
Growing influence, and suspicions
In addition to highlighting the aggressive social media messages and accusing Yair Netanyahu of living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the Israeli tax payer — it was claimed that a ski vacation abroad last year, which required a full security detail, was the most expensive trip ever paid for by the Defense Ministry — the post by Sixty One claimed that the younger Netanyahu wields growing influence over his father, particularly regarding media matters.
According to Sixty One, Yair Netanyahu was responsible for his father’s softened stance toward Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron last year.
Several reports have pointed to Yair Netanyahu as an unrestrained voice in the Balfour residence, often edging his father to the right on key issues.
In April last year he was said to have played a central role in pushing for the controversial appointment of a media spokesman who had called President Barack Obama anti-Semitic.
A month later Yair Netanyahu was reportedly instrumental in advancing the controversial bill banning mosques from using loudspeaker systems for the Muslim call to prayer. According to reports at the time, the prime minister had told several associates that as a resident of Caesarea, where the Netanyahu’s own a house, his eldest son could not bear the noise from a nearby mosque in the neighboring Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa.
But two former employees of the Prime Minister’s Office, speaking with the Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, both said the notion that Yair Netanyahu is a powerful influence over his father has been grossly exaggerated.
“Of course he [Benjamin Netanyahu] discusses some policies and strategies with Yair and his family, and Yair, being his son, gives his opinion,” one former employee said. “But he’s no puppet master pulling Bibi’s strings. Lots of people give him [Benjamin Netanyahu] advice. Yair is one of them. But it’s just advice.”
The other ex-staff member said that the media played up Yair Netanyahu’s role to create “a narrative of mystery and late night scheming.”
But he added that he thought Yair Netanyahu “probably likes this portrayal, even if it is bullshit.”
Yair Netanyahu’s controversial “anti-Semitic” cartoon post came in response to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement last week that Sara Netanyahu was to be indicted, pending a hearing, for fraud, for allegedly diverting some NIS 360,000 ($102,000) in public funds for her own use, with the specific intention of avoiding payment of personal expenses over private meals ordered to the Prime Minister’s Residence.
The looming indictment comes at the conclusion of just one in a series of graft investigations against the Netanyahu family, including two that appear to have links to the eldest son, even if he is not “at the center of things.”
In January, Yair Netanyahu gave testimony to police as part of an investigation into suspicions against his father in “Case 1000.”
His hours-long testimony focused on the allegations that the Netanyahu family received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of illicit cigars, champagne and other gifts, including hotel rooms for Yair — from billionaire benefactors, among them Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian gambling billionaire James Packer.
The prime minister is reported to have helped Packer in seeking permanent residency status in Israel, despite him not being Jewish, so he can benefit from a tax exemption on his foreign earnings designed for new immigrants.
Yair Netanyahu was reported to have told investigators that Packer is his friend, and that any gifts he received were on the basis of their friendship.
Late last year, Channel 10 reported that Packer had lavished Yair with gifts that included extended stays at luxury hotels in Tel Aviv, New York and Aspen, Colorado, the use of his private jet, and dozens of tickets for concerts by Packer’s former fiancee, Mariah Carey.
The younger Netanyahu has also been linked to “Case 2000,” which explores suspicions the prime minister promised to advance legislation to hobble the Israel Hayom daily in exchange for more favorable coverage from its main competitor, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Negotiations between Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes were said to have begun over the prime minister’s efforts to prevent the publication of a story about Yair.
Yair Netanyahu’s removal of his cartoon post is unlikely to keep him out of the headlines for long, with investigations ongoing and his social media activity still in full sway.
According to one former staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office, Yair Netanyahu is probably fine with that.
“From what I know of [Yair],” the former staffer said cautiously, “he’s not going to deny that he’s at the center of things, because he likes to be.”