Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday said his office would open a preliminary investigation into alleged financial misconduct at the private and state residences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but only after the upcoming elections.
Weinstein said the investigation will take place only after the election because there is not enough time to complete the probe before March 17. He stressed that Netanyahu himself is not suspected of involvement in the alleged misdemeanors.
The findings, dealing with the official Jerusalem residence and Netanyahu’s private Caesarea home, as well as the testimonies of a former employee at the residence, raised only mild suspicions, a statement from Weinstein’s office read.
“But the state attorney’s office believes that the variety of affairs justifies a probe, at the end of which it will be decided whether to launch a criminal investigation,” it said.
Weinstein noted the importance of cautious conduct in the weeks leading up to elections.
“One must note that in the material accumulated to this point, there is no evidence that raises the suspicion of involvement of the prime minister himself in the said deeds,” the statement read.
Following the initial examination of the charges outlined in a State Comptroller report published last week and in testimony by an ex-custodian who worked with the couple at the Prime Minister’s Residence, Weinstein will decide whether to open a criminal investigation.
The spending report released by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira last Tuesday detailed lavish spending by Netanyahu and his wife at his official residence in Jerusalem as well as at their private home in Caesarea and alleged possible criminal misdeeds by the two.
State prosecutors were expected to recommend that Weinstein widen the probe into the allegations and summon employees at the official residence for interrogation.
Police have said that the Netanyahus may also be called in for questioning.
The Netanyahus’ ex-caretaker, Menny Naftali, arrived at the Lahav 433 fraud investigation unit on Thursday to complete his testimony. Last week, Naftali testified for a marathon 11 hours with the Israel Police against Netanyahu after receiving limited immunity from prosecution. He reportedly provided documents and recordings detailing alleged financial abuse by the couple.
Earlier this week, the ex-custodian said he was receiving death threats and demanded a security detail following his testimony. He also filed a defamation lawsuit against the Likud and several close associates of Netanyahu for “smearing his name” following the publication of the state comptroller’s report.
The Likud publicly blamed Naftali for much of the excessive spending at the Prime Minister’s Residence and at the Netanyahus’ home in Caesarea that was detailed in the comptroller’s report. Infuriated, Naftali, who was already involved in legal proceedings against the Netanyahus, returned to the police and offered further testimony.
On the basis of the State Comptroller’s report, the Netanyahus could face criminal charges over the accusation that Sara Netanyahu pocketed some NIS 4,000 ($1,035) of bottle refunds for recycling. Accusations that she purchased a set of patio furniture identical to the patio furniture at the official residence, which was subsequently delivered to the Netanyahu’s private residence, could also get them into trouble.
A third alleged scandal, over a scheme to overpay electrician Avi Pachima — an apparent Likud apparatchik — by inviting him to do work on weekends and holidays and a subsequent cover-up, may also result in criminal charges.
The allegations against the prime minister amount to suspicions of “low level” criminality, a Channel 2 TV report said Friday, and a formal police investigation of the Netanyahus “appears inescapable… if only to clear away the cloud of suspicion.”
“The police are preparing to take testimony,” Channel 2 reported Friday, “and it is not inconceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mrs. Netanyahu will be asked to give testimony.”
David Shimron, the Netanyahu family lawyer, said Friday that Naftali was not a credible witness, and added that the State Comptroller’s “minor” report did not contain allegations of criminal behavior. Shimron said the entire scandal was the work of “a very large campaign… by very large forces… designed to bring down” the prime minister. “Why was it so urgent” for the state comptroller to submit his report days before the elections?” Shimron asked in a Channel 2 interview, blaming “the media” and other powerful forces for the campaign against Netanyahu over alleged spending abuses.
Last Thursday, Netanyahu hired top criminal lawyer Jacob Weinroth to defend him in any potential criminal investigation that could emerge from Naftali’s allegations, and from the accusations of abuse of funds at the Prime Minister’s Residence detailed in the state comptroller’s report.
The spending allegations initially did not seem likely to harm Netanyahu’s chances of winning reelection on March 17, with polls showing that the affair had little impact on voters’ intentions. But the opening of a criminal investigation into Netanyahu’s spending could prove more significant.
Naftali served as caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence for nearly two years. He resigned after he wasn’t given the tenure that, he claimed, was promised him.
He has filed suit against the Prime Minister’s Office; the deputy director general of operations at the office, Ezra Saidoff; the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu; and Netanyahu himself.
Naftali seeks NIS 1.1 million ($286,000) in damages. He also separately sued Netanyahu for libel following an interview where Netanyahu said Naftali had been fired, even though he claims to have resigned.
Naftali recently asked the Jerusalem Labor Court to summon Sara Netanyahu to testify, and she is set to appear at the court after the March 17 elections.