A former top aide to Benjamin Netanyahu told police that the prime minister once racked up a $24,000 dinner tab at a Moscow restaurant and sent the check to a billionaire friend dining nearby while on an official visit to the Russian capital.
Netanyahu on Saturday denied the story as “a complete lie.”
The alleged incident took place in 2010, according to a transcript published Thursday by Channel 13 of a police interrogation of former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz as part of the corruption investigations into the premier.
The transcripts have leaked repeatedly over the past year, drawing accusations from Netanyahu of an “illegal” campaign to undermine him politically on the part of investigators and prosecutors. Officials have in the past rejected the claim, saying the transcripts are part of the evidence files accessible to attorneys for various parties in the investigations.
In the transcript, Hefetz, a longtime Netanyahu confidant turned state’s witness in the corruption probes, tells police a story he himself heard from another Netanyahu aide, Gil Sheffer.
“In February 2010 there was an official trip to Moscow,” Hefetz was quoted as saying.
“The prime minister and his wife went out to a restaurant, and were accompanied by Gil Sheffer and the head of the external affairs unit of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“When Netanyahu and [wife] Sara returned, the prime minister showed me in his hotel suite a receipt, I don’t remember the amount, I think around 800 dollars.”
According to Hefetz, Netanyahu then said to him, “You see, they say I don’t pay at restaurants, but here I paid for my meal.”
Hefetz continues: “I told that story later to Gil Sheffer, and he mocked me for my naivete and told me this story that stunned me, the kind of story I’d never encountered before.”
“Sheffer told me that at the restaurant, the prime minister of Greece and his wife arrived unexpectedly and joined Netanyahu and Sara at the table. He said that as the evening progressed they went wild with orders of cigars and expensive wines. He said that some of the dishes had gold shavings, and that Sara left with a kilogram jar of very, very expensive caviar.
“He said that he [Sheffer] and a billionaire sat at a nearby table and just ordered fish, and that at the end of the meal they traded receipts with the Netanyahus. And he said that when the bill came to Netanyahu’s table, he sent it to them [Sheffer and the billionaire’s table] to get paid. He actually saw this [price tag of a] small mortgage, 24,000 dollars, and it amazed him.”
Hefetz recalled being “amazed myself — $24,000 dollars is NIS 100,000 — a meal someone else paid for.”
With four days to go until election day, both Likud and Blue and White’s responses to the report echoed their campaign messaging.
“Another insane fable, untrue and completely fabricated, whose purpose is to hurt Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud on the eve of elections,” a statement from Likud accused.
“But it won’t help,” it added. “The Likudniks know full well that we’re just two [Knesset] seats from victory, and they will come out to vote.”
Blue and White said the story was revealing.
“The annual food budget of a family with two kids in Tel Aviv is NIS 27,000. One meal from the prime minister and his wife — about NIS 100,000. No wonder the intended finance minister [Nir Barkat] doesn’t know the price of a loaf of bread, and that his party suggests that laid-off workers can wash dishes,” the party said, a reference to comments on Wednesday by Likud MK Sharren Haskel.
Netanyahu is one of Israel’s richest politicians, with Forbes reporting last year he was worth NIS 50 million ($13.8 million).
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, as well as a charge of bribery in one of them. His trial is set to begin on March 17.