Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife appeared at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Sunday for the opening of her trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust, sitting in the courtroom for the first time as a criminal defendant.
Sara Netanyahu, along with Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Residence, faces charges of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly overspending roughly NIS 360,000 ($100,000) on private meals at the prime minister’s official residence, even when there was a full-time chef on staff.
The Netanyahus have denied any wrongdoing, and say they are the victims of a political witch hunt driven by a hostile media.
Sitting behind her defense team for the 45-minute long pre-trial arguments, Sara Netanyahu appeared anxious and at times visibly distressed as the prosecution read from her indictment alleging she had abused her position to purposefully defraud the state.
Opening the proceedings, intended to set the parameters of the witness testimony stage of the trial, Yossi Cohen, Sara Netanyahu’s lead defense lawyer, requested a delay of the full trial hearings due to what he called “disorder” in the materials given to the defense by the state prosecution.
“There were materials that were missing from the files that were given to us. There were files that were meant to be appended to the main indictment. We didn’t receive them and we have not been able to prepare properly,” Cohen told Judge Avital Chen.
Prosecution attorney Jenny Avni contended that all the necessary files were handed to the defense, hinting that the request was a delay tactic — the trial was originally scheduled to start in July but was postponed until after the court’s summer break due to a clash with another case Cohen was working on — but nonetheless accepted Judge Chen’s suggestion for the two sides to meet in an attempt to see if the issue could be solved out of the courtroom.
Chen therefore set a further pre-trial hearing, behind closed doors and without the attendance of Netanyahu or Saidoff, for November 13, where he said an agreement on the materials would be reached ahead of witness testimony.
There, Chen will also likely rule on the prosecution’s request for an expanded panel of three judges to preside over the trial, a step often taken in high-profile trials when there is more than one defendant.
Cohen, along with veteran Israeli defense lawyer Yehoshua Resnik representing Saidoff, argued that the prosecution was attempting to sensationalize a “minor case.”
“They are trying to make this minor case of couscous and ready meals into an elaborate courtroom drama when it simply isn’t,” Cohen said.
Prosecutors accuse Netanyahu and Saidoff of misusing state funds to pay for the catered meals by falsely declaring there were no cooks available at the premier’s official residence.
Under state regulations, cooks at the Prime Minister’s Residence are supposed to supply prime ministers and their immediate families with daily meals. Where cooks are not employed, the prime minister’s family is permitted to order catered meals, up to a cost of NIS 200 per person plus tax. The state is also authorized to foot the bill for private guests of the prime minister and his or her spouse so long as it is not for a social or family event involving more than 20 people.
From 2010 to 2013, Sara Netanyahu, her family and guests received “fraudulently from the state hundreds of prepared meals,” the indictment read.
According to the charge sheet, the meals were ordered from a variety of well-known Jerusalem businesses, including an Italian restaurant, a Middle Eastern grill joint and a sushi establishment.
The charges against Saidoff are more serious, as he is also accused of illicitly hiring chefs and servers for private meals at the Netanyahu home and falsifying invoices for such activities in order to get them approved.
Responding to Cohen’s claim that the prosecution were trying to sensationalize the case, prosecutor Erez Padan said that the “public sensitivity” of the case, as well as its high profile defendants, required an expanded panel.
“We are talking about crimes, according to the indictment, that were committed under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Residence, by the wife of the prime minister using her position to commit such crimes,” Padan charged.
To this, Cohen interjected, asking the judge not to permit “press baiting” in the courtroom. Padan was told to go on.
Sara Netanyahu has long faced allegations of extravagant living and abusive behavior. In 2016, a court ruled she abused an employee and awarded the man $42,000 in damages. Other former employees have accused her of mistreatment, charges the Netanyahus have vehemently denied, and of excessive spending and charging the state for her private, expensive tastes.
The start of the trial is the latest chapter in a saga intensely scrutinized in Israel. The veteran premier himself faces possible charges in separate corruption investigations, leading to speculation that he will eventually be forced to step down. He has denied the suspicions against him.
In addition to the fraud case, Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu have been questioned as part of the Bezeq telecommunications giant graft probe. The case involves suspicions Prime Minister Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.
On Friday police quizzed him for a 12th time as a suspect in the case.
Police have also recommended the prime minister himself stand trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other cases. The attorney general has yet to decide whether to press charges against the prime minister.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israel-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000). In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Despite the ongoing investigations, Netanyahu has remained strong in polls and he is not obliged to step down if formally charged.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.