JERUSALEM — Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was formally charged Thursday with fraud and breach of public trust in a long-running corruption case involving the use of outside caterers in the couple’s official residence, state prosecutors said.
According to the indictment filed in Jerusalem District Court, Sara Netanyahu and a former deputy director of the prime minister’s office, Ezra Saidoff, were charged with ordering meals to the residence worth a total of $99,000 between 2010 and 2013.
Although the prime minister is not named in this case, the charges against his wife could have far-reaching implications for his political standing and appear likely to damage his public image. During his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, and since he took office in 2009, his wife has come under scrutiny for her perceived opulent lifestyle, often portrayed by local media as a kind of Marie Antoinette.
In 2016, a former chief caretaker at the official residence successfully sued the couple for abusive treatment, winning about $43,735 in damages. During his testimony, Meni Naftali revealed intimate details about Sara Netanyahu’s lifestyle, including her taste for pink champagne and other luxuries.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, meanwhile, is considering indicting Benjamin Netanyahu in two corruption cases on suspicion of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. Last week, police questioned the prime minister as a witness in a third case involving several close associates and in a fourth case in which he is suspected of playing a direct role.
In Sara Netanyahu’s case, which Israelis refer to as the “meals-ordering affair,” the prime minister’s wife and Saidoff are alleged to have falsified documents so that food from outside companies and private chefs could be used, even though a full-time chef was employed at the residence.
According to the indictment, investigators found evidence that Sara Netanyahu asked other employees to hide the fact that outside chefs were used at the residence, indicating awareness that ordering meals from outside was a violation of the rules. Some of the testimony was provided by Naftali, who has waged a public battle calling for the attorney general to submit an indictment against the Netanyahus.
In a statement, attorneys for Sara Netanyahu called the charges “absurd and delusional” while proclaiming her innocence.
“This is the first time in Israel and around the world that a leader’s wife is prosecuted for food in the trays. There was no fraud or breach of trust or any other offense,” the statement said. “The wife of the prime minister, who is not a public servant, did not even know the procedures, and she told the truth about it when asked in a polygraph test.”
The attorneys went on to accuse Naftali of ordering the food and questioned the very basis of the regulation for managing food orders to the official residence.
“The Netanyahu family is not the one who consumed most of the food and the trays, but many other people, including the household workers,” did, the statement said. It added that the expenditures also covered hosting “official guests from Israel and around the world.”
Over the past few months, there have been attempts to reach a plea bargain, with the attorney general saying he would be open to Sara Netanyahu’s repaying the money in question. Those negotiations appeared to fall apart last week.
The meal-ordering affair has received a lot of Israeli media coverage. Outlets have published reports on attempts by Sara Netanyahu to clear her name by publicizing the results of a lie-detector test on the matter and alleged efforts by one of the family’s top aides to bribe a judge to drop the investigation.
In February, police recommended indicting the prime minister in two other corruption cases. The Netanyahus say that all the cases are politically motivated, part of efforts to drive the prime minister out of office.
In what is known as Case 1000, the police accused Benjamin Netanyahu of receiving gifts worth $280,000 from billionaires in exchange for political favors. In Case 2000, they say he tried to cut a deal with a newspaper publisher in return for favorable coverage.
Last week, Netanyahu was questioned as a witness in Case 3000, also known as the “submarines affair,” which relates to alleged corruption surrounding the purchase of naval vessels and submarines from a German shipbuilder. He has not been named as a suspect, but several of his top aides are accused of having ties to the scheme.
Netanyahu was also questioned in Case 4000, which alleges that he enacted policies that would financially benefit his friend Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications company Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site.