Sara Netanyahu fraud trial puts focus on Israel’s controversial first family

Sara Netanyahu
Sara Netanyahu
Sara Netanyahu
Sara Netanyahu

By Oren Liebermann and Ofri Eshel

In pictures, Sara Netanyahu is always the Prime Minister of Israel’s loyal wife. Standing by his side, smiling at her husband, shaking hands with world leaders, she is an ever-present companion on Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent trips abroad.

One half of Israel’s power couple, Sara Netanyahu can appear as much a part of the country’s leadership as her husband.
On the night of his last election victory in 2015, a jubilant Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I would like to thank my beloved wife Sarah. How many tribulations have you overcome by my side? You have so much strength my wife, and you grant me so much strength.”
This time, the spotlight is all on Sara Netanyahu.

Alleged misuse of taxpayers’ money

On Sunday morning, she will arrive at Jerusalem District Court for her trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust, focusing on the alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars at the couple’s official residence at Balfour Street.
From April 2009 until March 2013, Sara Netanyahu ordered approximately $100,000 in meals from some of Jerusalem’s top restaurants, according to an indictment filed in June, which painstakingly detailed each transaction by month. For example, in December 2011, prosecutors say she ordered meals to the PM’s residence totaling 24,164 shekels — more than $6,500.
Under Israeli law, if there is no cook in the PM’s residence, it is permissible to order prepared food. But prosecutors say the Netanyahu family had a cook in the house and yet still ordered the food, with Israeli taxpayers footing the bill.
In addition, Sara Netanyahu used state funds to pay waiters to serve the meals on weekends and during private events, according to prosecutors, who said the hand-picked waiters were registered as “extra manpower” or “cleaners” to hide the fact that they were being illegally employed.
She has maintained her innocence. Her lawyer called the indictment false and hallucinatory.
“It’s the first time in Israel and in the world that the wife of a leader is put on trial for food entrees,” her legal team said in a statement in response to the indictment. “There was no fraud, no breach of trust or any other felony. We’re certain in the end that justice will speak. Truth and logic will prevail.”
Workers at the PM’s residence, led by one-time housekeeper Meni Naftali, have complained of cruel treatment at the hands of Sara Netanyahu. Naftali accused her of mistreating staff in the residence, including one instance where she woke him up in the middle of the night to scold him for buying milk in a bag rather than a carton. Naftali won a workplace mistreatment case against Netanyahu in a labor court, where he was awarded more than $40,000.
Sara Netanyahu denied any mistreatment.

Fixture of political scene

Sara Ben-Artzi first met Benjamin Netanyahu in 1989. At the time, she was a flight attendant on El Al, Israel’s national airline. The two wed in 1991. It was Sara Netanyahu’s second wedding and Benjamin’s third.
It was shortly before Benjamin Netanyahu’s first time in office that she cemented her status. At the time, Netanyahu was running to be the leader of his right-wing Likud party. During the 1993 campaign, Netanyahu, then 43 years old and two years into his marriage to Sara, publicly apologized on state television to an affair with his media advisor, Ruth Bar. Without naming names, Netanyahu blamed senior party members for trying to torpedo his candidacy.
Sara Netanyahu stood by her husband and became a fixture of Israel’s political scene.
Now 59 years old, she is often referred to by just her first name, a celebrity status not dissimilar to Madonna or Cher, even if only in Israeli circles.

Years in spotlight

The Netanyahus have long been a staple of international news. Being the leader of Israel, a country that draws an outsized portion of the world’s attention, means you’re rarely out of the news for very long. But not all of the stories have related to politics, diplomacy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For years, the Netanyahu family has been dogged by accusations of wrongdoing, whether legal or ethical. (The couple’s youngest son, Avner, is the only member of the family who isn’t regularly in the news.)
During Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Israeli premier in the late-90s, police said they had enough evidence to indict him in a corruption case on charges of fraud and breach of trust. He was accused of promoting an attorney general who would pursue reduced charges against a minister in his government, but the sitting attorney general said there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges.

New investigations

Netanyahu is once again at the center of corruption investigations that have implicated many members of his inner circle. Police say they have enough evidence to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in three separate investigations, known as Case 1000, 2000, and 4000.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of having received gifts from businessmen overseas.
In Case 2000, police have investigated conversations Netanyahu had with a newspaper publisher about limiting the circulation of a rival paper in exchange for more favorable coverage.
Case 4000 is the biggest investigation facing the PM. Investigators allege he gave regulatory benefits worth some $280 million to his friend in exchange for favorable media coverage in an online news site.
Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, a former family spokesman, and the former director-general of the Ministry of Communications have all become witnesses for the state as the investigations have unfolded. They’ve agreed to provide testimony in the cases against the Israeli leader.
Netanyahu has decried the investigations as a witch hunt, maintaining his innocence and vowing to continue to serve. He often dismisses the investigations, saying: “There will be nothing because there is nothing.”
Investigators have also said Sara Netanyahu is suspected of bribery in Case 4000, an allegation she has denied.

Focus on eldest son

In recent years, the couple’s eldest son has made headlines of his own. A 2015 recording publicized by Israel’s Hadashot news in January caught Yair Netanyahu talking about prostitutes and going to strip clubs with his friends. In the recording, he can be heard saying, “Speaking of whores, what is open at this hour?”
The Prime Minister said his son was only joking and criticized the decision to release the recording, while Yair Netanyahu decried the report from an “illegal hidden recording” while he was drinking, which he said was scurrilous.
“In a night-time conversation, under the influence of alcohol, I said nasty things about women and other things that should not have been said,” Yair Netanyahu said in an apology. “These things don’t represent the person I am, the values I was educated on and what I believe.”
The 27-year-old’s social media posts have also drawn attention. Last September, he shared a meme on Facebook with overtones of anti-Semitism. The post drew criticism from Israeli officials and Jewish groups, but it was praised by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Without offering an apology or an explanation, Yair Netanyahu deleted the post.

Popularity unaffected

The headlines surrounding the Netanyahu family have barely damaged the Prime Minister’s popularity or his standing in the polls. If elections were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would probably improve the number of seats it currently holds in Israel’s Knesset.
The controversies surrounding the family have only drawn his supporters closer, with the Israeli leader blaming the media and the left for a conspiracy to unseat him.
He has framed the case against Sara Netanyahu as a part of that campaign, already dismissive of the investigation and its findings, regardless of the outcome.
For a family that is so frequently in the news, the trial is another episode in the limelight in a very public life.