JERUSALEM — A relaxed and smiling Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared before a Jerusalem judge Sunday for the first hearing in a long-anticipated trial that is likely to shed light on what critics often describe as the couple’s opulent lifestyle.
Sara Netanyahu is accused of ordering meals from private chefs and catering companies, racking up a bill of about $100,000 in public funds between 2010 and 2013, even though a full-time chef was employed at the residence. Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director of the prime minister’s office, also has been charged in the alleged fraud.
The prime minister is not directly named in the case, but a public trial of his wife could have far-reaching implications for his political standing and could harm his image at a time when he is said to be considering an early election. There will also be echoes from his first term as prime minister, 1996 to 1999, when his wife was under constant scrutiny for her behavior.
Even during his current term in office, Sara Netanyahu has faced damning testimony from former employees describing extreme temper tantrums and an unhealthy obsession with cleanliness. She is often portrayed by the media as a kind of Marie Antoinette.
Less than three years ago, a former chief caretaker at the Netanyahus’ official residence successfully sued the couple for abusive treatment, winning about $43,735 in damages. During his testimony, Meni Naftali revealed intimate details about her, including a taste for pink champagne and other luxuries. Another trial, stemming from allegations of abuse by a former cleaner, is slated to begin later this month in Jerusalem’s labor court.
Seeking to play down the charges against her, Sara Netanyahu’s legal team released a statement Sunday saying this was the “first time in history that an indictment has been filed against the wife of a world leader for ordering trays of food.”
The statement highlighted previous claims that it was Naftali, the former caretaker, who had ordered the outside catering, against Netanyahu’s wishes. It also said that the food was used for official purposes and reiterated that it was up to parliament to “determine the expenditure procedures at the prime minister’s residence.”
In the hopes of avoiding a public trial, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit did offer Netanyahu a plea deal if she agreed to repay all the money in question and admit wrongdoing. She reportedly rejected the offer, prompting two of her attorneys to quit and leading to a full-on trial.
Though Sunday’s hearing was only to determine whether her case should be heard by a single judge or by a panel of judges, Netanyahu was required to attend. She did not speak during the hearing, which was not televised, as is the regulation in Israel. Journalists were, however, allowed inside.
The judge set an additional hearing for Nov. 13.
According to the indictment filed in June by police, Netanyahu and Saidoff falsified documents so that food from outside companies and private chefs could be used.
Investigators also said they found evidence that she had asked other employees to hide the use of outside chefs and was aware that ordering meals from outside was a violation of the rules.
As Sara Netanyahu faces the possibility of a drawn-out and potentially embarrassing trial, her husband has his own legal woes. In February, police recommended that he, too, be indicted, in two corruption cases. The first, dubbed Case 1000, involves allegations that he was involved in giving political favors in exchange for gifts worth about $280,000; the second, Case 2000, alleges that he cut a deal with a newspaper publisher in exchange for favorable coverage.
Benjamin Netanyahu was questioned for the 12th time Friday by police investigators. His office played down the investigation, saying, “Now, after the 12th round of questioning, it has been made absolutely clear that not only is there no meat in the prime minister's investigations, there isn’t even a bone.”
Analysts questioned whether Sara Netanyahu’s trial would affect her husband’s grip on power.
“There is no doubt that it is going to be embarrassing, but the real question is how this will impact Netanyahu politically,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz journalist and author of the recently published book “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“The political atmosphere is very polarized, and although this may be embarrassing, it could, in fact, bolster him among his right-wing supporters, those who say this trial is persecution by the legal system, the police and the left-wing media,” Pfeffer said.