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In December 2018, Yair Netanyahu, then the 27-year-old son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, raised eyebrows when he accompanied his parents to the inauguration of Brazil’s then-President Jair Bolsonaro — and racked up a $2,560 bill at the Copacabana Hilton.
That’s small change compared with the reported $6,000-per-night villa where Yair has spent the past week in San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to photographs posted by Israeli Channel 12 News showing him in the company of eccentric cryptocurrency billionaire Brock Pierce.
Israelis are used to seeing Yair, now 31, by his father’s side, on Israeli airwaves, and as a constant and irreverent, not to mention, crass, Twitter troll. Yair’s social media presence is widely understood among Israelis to be a preview of his father’s policy announcements.
His disappearance from the public eye more than two weeks ago, only to show up halfway around the world, has sent Israel’s rumor mill into overdrive, with various insinuations that Yair is in some sort of rehab or was sent away by his parents, who finally snapped after the U.S. State Department was forced to condemn their son’s claims.
The prime minister’s son inhabits a murky space in Israel’s public arena, somewhere between public figure and unabashed mudslinger, switching between the two as it suits. Last December, after having been convicted of libel for tweeting that a former senior aide to his father was “a plant” and “a mole,” Yair demanded the state cover his $117,000 fine. (He was turned down.)
Asked about the lodging in Puerto Rico, the Netanyahu family spokesperson told Israeli media outlets that this was “another big and wicked lie. Yair was not staying at a hotel at all but at a friend’s private home. Beyond that, who Yair met with, where he stayed and what he ate for lunch [are] none of your business.” The spokesman refused to identify the “friend.”
Yair’s last tweet was posted on March 28, shortly after the State Department slammed his claims that the United States was funding the protest movement against his father’s radical judicial overhaul as “completely and demonstrably false” and shortly before his father was asked, on live television, to what extent his son influences national policy.
Netanyahu replied that his son has “zero influence,” insisting that Yair, a bachelor who lives in his parents’ home – the official residence of the head of government – was instead “an independent person.”
Speaking to New Lines, a source close to Israel’s top leadership scoffed at this notion. Asking for no attribution so as to be able to speak candidly about delicate questions, the source said, “It’s not so much that Yair’s influence has grown per se, it’s that the circle of advisers Netanyahu trusts has shrunk to almost zero, so the impact of Yair’s voice has grown.”
The source added that the great expansion of Yair’s influence on his father dates to 2018, when Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, for which he is currently on trial in Jerusalem. “All his advisers began testifying or became state’s witnesses. Yair has been left there almost alone.”
Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, now a political opponent, said that “in the best-case scenario, Benjamin Netanyahu now does Yair Netanyahu’s bidding.”
The disappearance of Yair, who has become a fixture in Israel’s political sphere and is credited with much of his father’s combative, pugnacious style and, increasingly, his substance, has only deepened questions about his actual role in his father’s public life.
Yair has no known sources of income and has never held a job. Most days, he posts to Twitter, Telegram and Instagram — one day, he did so 77 times — a volcanic production of extremist, alt-right complaints and conspiracy theories that reached their apogee in late March, in a sequence of tweets that accused the State Department of funding his father’s opponents, possibly to benefit Iran.
Three sources with knowledge of President Joe Biden’s thinking told New Lines that the American leader’s extraordinary public rebuke of the prime minister on March 29 was a direct reaction to a column published one day earlier, the day of Yair’s final tweet, by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which cited Yair saying that “the American State Department is behind the protests in Israel, with the aim of overthrowing Netanyahu, apparently in order to conclude an agreement with the Iranians.”
Friedman’s next paragraph was worse: “While Netanyahu the elder was on an official visit to Rome, a ‘senior official’ in his traveling party (which everyone in the Milky Way galaxy knows is code for the prime minister himself) was quoted as saying (without a shred of evidence): ‘This protest is financed and organized with millions of dollars. … This is a very high-level organization.’ The story continued: ‘Another member of the premier’s entourage confirmed that the senior official was referring to the United States.’”
The notion that Israel’s prime minister — whom Biden has known for 40 years — and one of America’s closest allies could accuse the U.S. of subversion and repeat a false claim first propagated by the alt-right Breitbart website, which is run by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, seems to have been a step too far for the American president.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden told reporters, in shockingly undiplomatic terms. “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can work out some genuine compromise. That remains to be seen.”
“Biden is old school,” one source told New Lines. “He actually reads the newspaper on a Sunday morning.”
The younger Netanyahu is considered the leading edge of his father’s association with global alt-right peers, like Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Even when they lean into overt antisemitism, Yair enthusiastically engages.
The Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and left-leaning benefactor, is a particular focus of his contempt, to such an extent that the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, in 2017, called Yair a “total bro” when he posted on his Facebook page a cartoon showing George Soros and reptilian animals as puppet-masters of his father’s political rivals.
In January, Yair, identified as a “columnist, radio show host, Israeli political social media influencer” spoke at a gathering of the European ultra right at Budapest’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which is closely associated with Orban’s Fidesz party. Dressed to the nines, he posted pictures of himself surrounded by the gilt finery of central Europe and defended “Sorosization,” as Orban’s nakedly antisemitic campaign against Soros is called. Yair insisted that “Sorosization” was not antisemitic because Soros caused damage to the world’s only Jewish state by funding pro-Palestinian NGOs.
The Israeli premier rarely makes himself available to the media. On the rare occasion when he does, he tends to emphasize that his son speaks in his capacity as a private citizen. He refused to denounce Yair even when, last December, the younger Netanyahu called for his father’s prosecutors to be tried for treason and, if convicted, to be sentenced to death.
“Yair Netanyahu is known to be extremely influential over his father’s policies and political decisions,” the Jerusalem Post reported at the time. Forced to react, Netanyahu tweeted, “I love my son Yair, who is an independent person with his own opinion. While everyone has the right to voice their opinion, I disagreed with the things he said that were made public yesterday.”
That isn’t how Israelis see it. As winter turned into spring, Israelis trying to understand what the increasingly enigmatic prime minister intended to do clicked onto Yair’s Twitter feed or listened to his Friday radio program on right-wing station called “Galei Israel,” where, among other things, he referred to the protesters on Israel’s streets as “indistinguishable from Nazi stormtroopers.”
Last week, pictures surfaced on Israeli websites showing Yair, partially concealed by a baseball cap and mask, at Ben Gurion Airport, trailed by two Israeli security agents.
This was followed by reports that there had been an “explosion” among the close-knit Netanyahus, with the parents demanding the son stop “causing harm.”
The Haaretz journalist Haim Levinson, a long-time Yair-spotter, believes that “he is the de facto prime minister.”
“You can see,” he said in a radio interview, “that this is the first Yair Netanyahu government — until now Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister, and now we see that this is the Yair government.”
“The Yair government” is one of the ways Israelis accustomed to a more conventional, level-headed Netanyahu are explaining what appears, to all intents and purposes, to be the veteran prime minister, Israel’s longest-serving leader, losing control of Israeli governance.
Until late March and his mysterious vanishment, Yair ardently applauded the most irrational or illegal step undertaken by Netanyahu, who returned to power in late December after an 18-month hiatus in the opposition and almost immediately unleashed a package of over 100 laws aimed at upending the balance between Israel’s judiciary and the executive.
The firings of both Tel Aviv Police Chief Ami Eshed and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, both eventually reversed, were moves advanced by Yair. In the days between Gallant’s dismissal and his reinstallation, Yair posted dozens of tweets against him, including the accusation that Gallant “destroyed Israeli democracy” and was allowing “hundreds of left-wing reservists” to “cancel the ballots of 2.6 million citizens.” Yair has railed against army reservists, civilians who serve up to 70 days a year in active military duty, who have become important protagonists in the Israeli protest movement.
“He drives everyone crazy from morning to night,” Channel 12 reported, citing members from the prime minister’s Likud party.
Though Yair was 5 years old when his father won his first national elections, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s, during the elections of 2015, when he began to draw public attention. It was revealed that Yonatan Orich and Topaz Luk, two whiz kids running Netanyahu’s social media campaign, were Yair’s friends. The three men had served together in the army.
Since then, during eight years and five electoral campaigns, the pair have been credited with Netanyahu’s most audacious social media efforts, including the use of shaky video clips and snappy slogans that sometimes take off and other times sink like lead balloons. Netanyahu’s notorious 2015 video clip warning Israelis that “droves of Arabs are being bused to the polling stations,” for which his Likud party had to pay a fine, was widely credited to the pair — and widely considered the trick that won Netanyahu a tight election.
But now, that magic may be fading. In all polls taken since Netanyahu’s return to power, he is dramatically dropping. “Back in 2015 everything was new,” the political source said. “They basically showed up and said, ‘Netanyahu, meet Facebook.’ But they haven’t changed, and it’s not having that impact anymore.”
Late last week, the prime minister floated a possible slogan, as he has successfully done so many times in the past, posting two video clips over two days that were typical of Orich and Luk, complete with gushing music and a new catchphrase, “Share the Truth.” The meme failed to catch on. It’s as if father without son also means a prime minister without his mojo.
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