Elections 2015

Likud: Sara Netanyahu bottle scandal is ‘left-wing plot to bring down PM’

Meretz urges investigation of alleged theft; PM’s aide dismisses ‘ridiculous matter,’ asks why media ignoring ‘millions in illegal funding’ for left-wing groups

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, celebrating his 64th birthday at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 20, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, celebrating his 64th birthday at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 20, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Much-publicized allegations that Sara Netanyahu stole thousands of shekels in deposits on returned bottles are a baseless “political story” highlighted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s left-wing rivals “in order to bring down the prime minister,” a Likud spokesman claimed Saturday night.

Nir Hefetz, a longtime Netanyahu aide and a Likud party media spokesman in the current election campaign, spoke after the left-wing Meretz party leader demanded that the attorney-general investigate the alleged theft. The Attorney-General’s office, for its part, announced Saturday that it would soon publish a long-anticipated report on alleged spending aberrations at the prime minister’s residences.

Hefetz, in a Channel 2 interview, claimed the premier’s wife had, of her own accord, returned 4,000 shekels (about $1,000) to the state garnered from bottle deposits long before the story broke.

Sara Netanyahu, “by her own initiative, without being required to do so, decided to return the money after several years in which bottles in the (prime minister’s) residence were sent for recycling and (the money was) returned to the petty cash fund,” Hefetz said.

He did not directly respond to allegations that more money was involved, and said he could not detail the process by which the money had originally gone to Sara Netanyahu. He also denied claims that the Netanyahus spent 100,000 shekels ($25,000) or more in a year on alcohol. The correct sum was the equivalent of the cost of a bottle of wine a day, he said, and that included light refreshments.

Hefetz claimed the “true data” would be published on Sunday. He called the whole saga “a ridiculous matter,” and asserted that “most of the viewers watching us are fed up with hearing about it.”

The media ought to be focusing on “millions” in illegal funding for left-wing organizations working to oust Netanyahu in the current election campaign, Hefez said, citing the New Israel Fund among such organizations. The NIF promptly denied the claim.

The Likud is reportedly set to publicize its funding allegations in detail on Sunday.

Hefetz went on to insist the media frenzy over the actions of the prime minister’s wife constituted “a political issue brought up by the left in order to bring down an Israeli prime minister.” Why wasn’t the media focused on the imperative to stop Iran and to protect the security of Israel’s children? Hefetz asked.

On Thursday, reports emerged that Sara Netanyahu had allegedly bilked the state out of thousands of shekels by pocketing the small change from bottle deposits during the first four years of her husband’s time in office. Israel’s Channel 10 said the attorney-general would decide in the next few days whether to open an investigation into the matter.

She made around NIS 24,000 ($ 6,115) for her efforts, claimed Meny Naftali, the former prime minister’s residence caretaker who is suing the Netanyahus for his treatment at the hands of the prime minister’s wife, according to Haaretz, which first reported the story.

The PMO said the sum was much lower, at around NIS 4,000, and that the Netanyahu couple returned it in 2013, based on an estimate of NIS 1,000 ($250) a year.

Channel 2 reported Thursday that the couple was spending vast sums of money on alcohol, with documents showing around NIS 100,000 spent on alcoholic beverages over a period of two years.

The premier’s office rejected this report too, saying Saturday that “the average expenditure per day for wine at the prime minister’s residence in 2013-2014 was about one wine bottle per day (each costing a few dozen shekels).”

Earlier Saturday, Netanyahu’s political rivals attacked him over the allegations.

Isaac Herzog, the co-leader of the Zionist Camp — the joint Labor-Hatnua list — called on Netanyahu to “stop hiding behind the bottles and… stop blaming others” for his alleged failures, after the PM accused the media Friday of a slander campaign aimed at undermining his leadership.

The Zionist Camp’s Tzipi Livni charged that the prime minister’s residence’s monthly wine bill was about the same as a million Israelis earn per month. “The [amount] of alcohol Netanyahu drinks per month is like the minimum wage earned by millions of Israelis,” she said at a cultural event in Rishon Lezion.

“It was made clear this week that Netanyahu spent NIS 100,000 of the public’s money over two years on alcohol. As of November, nearly a million working Israelis earned between NIS 4,300 – 4,500 a month. Do you realize how much [Netanyahu’s spending] amounts to per month? NIS 4,200, like a worker earning minimum wage,” Livni said.

Likud and the Zionist Camp are neck-and-neck in polls ahead of the March 17 elections, with Netanyahu currently better placed to form a coalition.

The head of the left-wing Meretz Party called for a formal investigation of Netanyahu for theft of public funds. Zehava Gal-on asked the Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to launch an urgent probe into the affair and, should the accusations prove to be true, dismiss Netanyahu’s candidacy for the premiership.

“Rabin went home for less than this,” Gal-on said, referring to Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation as prime minister in 1977 after it emerged that his wife Leah had failed to close a US bank account from their time when he was ambassador to the US.

Accusations of financial impropriety and extravagant spending have dogged Netanyahu for several years. He came under fire in 2013 after it emerged that he spent NIS 10,000 a year of state money on ice cream. That same year, a state report showed he was using NIS 80,000 a year of state money for water at his private residence, complete with a pool, in the ritzy town of Caesarea.

In a long Facebook post Friday, Netanyahu hit out at “false accusations against me and my wife that seek to topple the Likud and bring the left to power led by Tzipi and Bougie [Herzog].”

Netanyahu lashed out at the Israeli press in the post, saying the issue was “old” and negligible,” and accused “powerful elements” in the media of slandering his wife to undermine his leadership.

“All of this aims to detract attention from what is really important — who will lead the country,” he wrote.

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