Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to his wife Sara’s defense Friday, saying the indictment filed against her a day earlier for misusing state funds was “a new height of absurdity.”
The prime minister’s wife is charged along with Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, with fraud along with breach of trust.
The two are accused of fraudulently charging some NIS 359,000 ($100,000) in gourmet meals to the state’s expense between 2010 and 2013, violating laws that ban the ordering of prepared food when a chef is already employed at the official residence.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu falsely claimed there was no cook at the time in the Jerusalem home in order to justify purchasing meals from restaurants.
In a Facebook post, the premier wrote that for the first time in history a leader’s wife is indicted over food and precooked meals. “Forget the fact that everyone ate from that food — house employees, official guests, even heads of state,” the statement said. “The most absurd thing about this indictment is based on an illegal procedure.”
He went on to repeat the claim made by his wife’s lawyers Thursday that the regulations governing expenditure in the residence had no legal standing because they had not been approved by the government.
The lawyers claimed that the Knesset Finance Committee, which is the only body authorized to determine which of the prime minister’s expenses are covered by the state, never approved the regulations that underpin the indictment. On the contrary, they said, the committee had ruled that all the expenses of the prime minister and his family should be paid for by the state, similar to the policy in the president’s official residence.
“Five days before I entered office in 2009, three unauthorized clerks set a special procedure,” the prime minster wrote Friday. “But they didn’t get the legally required authorization from the Knesset Finance Committee.
“So this is an illegal procedure,” he said. “An indictment based on an illegal procedure will not hold water.”
Sara Netanyahu’s attorneys said: “There was no fraud and no breach of trust or accepting bribes or any crime at all. The prime minister’s wife, who is not a public servant, does not know the regulations, and passed a polygraph test when she was asked about this.”
“Not only is the indictment based on false claims,” they said, “it is based entirely on invalid and illegal regulations that apply specifically to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to him alone.”
There were and still are differences of opinion between the lawyers defending Sara Netanyahu, Hebrew media reported Thursday. Some feel the best approach is to go to court and crush the witnesses, by showing they are unreliable and untrustworthy. Another team of lawyers working for the Netanyahu family wanted to try to avoid a trial, and work out a plea deal with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan.
Hebrew news reports late Thursday suggested the state might still be receptive to the idea of a plea bargain, despite having filed the charges.
Mandelblit and Nitzan had notified the prime minister’s wife of their intention to file charges several months ago.
Negotiations for her to return a portion of the diverted money and confess to the charges in exchange for avoiding prosecution broke down when the prime minister’s wife reportedly refused to pay the sums requested by prosecutors, telling her lawyers she’d rather go to jail than reimburse the state. Her lawyers have denied such reports.
The charges against Saidoff are more severe, as he is also accused of illicitly hiring chefs and servers for private meals at the Netanyahu home. The PMO staffer also allegedly falsified invoices for such activities in order to get them approved.
Thursday’s charges came after Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu family aide turned state’s witness, provided testimony to prosecutors regarding Sara Netanyahu’s alleged misappropriation of public funds for personal use.
The decision to launch the investigation into Sara Netanyahu came in light of the state prosecutor’s recommendation, after allegations were raised in a 2015 report by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira that detailed lavish spending at the official residence in Jerusalem, as well as at the Netanyahus’ Caesarea home.