It was supposed to be some happy news, if not simply small-talk, and perhaps even offer a new bond between Israel and Norway. Instead, the decision by a smiling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tell his new Norwegian counterpart Erna Solberg that his son Yair has a Norwegian girlfriend has stirred up some political backlash for him at home.
The romantic revelation came during a meeting at the World Economic Forum last week between Netanyahu, Solberg and Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende. The meeting between the Norwegian and Israeli leaders in itself was significant, after years of disagreements between the Norwegian and Israeli governments, and claims in some quarters that Norway has been anti-semitic when it has criticized Israel’s politics.
The meeting between Solberg and Netanyahu was also attended by several Norwegian reporters, who spread word of Netanyahu’s delight over his son’s romance with a young Norwegian woman. His delight, it turns out, isn’t shared by ultra-Orthodox politicians in Israel or by a hardline member of Netanyahu’s own ruling Likud party.
Dagen.no, the website for newspaper Dagen in Norway, quickly identified the girlfriend of 23-year-old Yair Netanyahu, son of the prime minister’s third wife Sara, as 25-year-old Sandra Leikanger of Grimstad (external link, in Norwegian). Norwegian news bureau NTB had already reported that Netanyahu told Solberg that his son also had recently vacationed in Northern Norway, and that he’d heard a lot about the Norwegian winter.
Dagen.no tracked down Leikanger, who is from the southern Norwegian town of Grimstad in Aust-Agder County and studies visual communication at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya in Israel. Her Facebook profile contained photos of her posing with Yair, with one of the photos appearing to have been taken along the southern Norwegian coast last autumn.
Reluctance to comment
By Friday afternoon, though, Leikanger had removed both photos from her Facebook page and declined requests for comment on her relationship with Yair Netanyahu, whose father is one of the world’s top terror targets, surrounded at all times by strict security.
When Dagen.no called Norway’s own anti-terror police unit, PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste), they declined to reveal what kinds of special security, if any, were imposed around Yair Netanyahu when he was in Norway. Nor would PST confirm that Israeli Prime Minister’s son Yair Netanyahu had been in Norway on holiday.
Conrad Myrland of the Norwegian organization Med Israel for fred (With Israel for peace) told Dagen.no that he was delighted the Israeli prime minister himself “could tell Norwegian journalists” about the relationship. Myrland wished the couple well and said he hopes that the relationship between the young Netanyahu and Leikanger could give the Israeli prime minister “a new source of knowledge and contact” in and around Norway. “That would be an advantage,” Myrland said.
No joy among the hard-liners
His good wishes for the couple were not shared by several Israeli politicians, though, who immediately complained that Leikanger is not Jewish. Nissim Ze’ev, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told the Jerusalem Post that Prime Minister Netanyahu must “display national responsibiity” as prime minister. “It’s a big problem,” Zeev told the Jerusalem Post (external link).
Moshe Feiglin, a Member of Parliament from Netanyahu’s own party, called the relationship “very unfortunate,” while the organization Lehava called on Netanyahu to “prevent” the relationship. Any grandchildren resulting from the relationship, Lehava director Bentzi Gopshtain warned in a Facebook post, “will not be Jewish,” since a mother’s religion determines the child’s religion in Judaism.
Even though Netanyahu himself had praised the relationship in his meeting with Norway’s prime minister, his office wouldn’t comment on the controversy that later flared up. Wire service AFP reportd that Netanyahu himself was once married to a non-Jewish woman, Fleur Cates, in the early 1980s. She converted to Judaism.