Path Now Open for Police to Question Sara Netanyahu on Bottles Affair

Many PMO employees might have a lot to tell authorities on revelations that PM's wife kept cash from deposits on empty bottles returned to supermarkets, even though the deposit money was state funds.

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Haaretz Daily Cartoon - 30/01/2015
Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

In the Israeli version of spin the bottle, every authority responsible for investigating the Sara Netanyahu bottle-deposit affair is passing the buck. But the bottle now appears to be pointing at Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.

It emerged Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife had kept thousands of shekels from deposits on empty bottles that were returned, on her orders, to Jerusalem supermarkets over several years, even though the deposit money was state funds.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has announced that he is turning over the Sara brief to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein because she is “a private individual not defined as a supervised entity.” The Justice Ministry said it was waiting for the completion of the comptroller’s report on the prime minister’s residences, which also includes the story of the bottles.

After Haaretz published a story on the matter, the police’s investigations and intelligence branch decided to wait for the attorney general’s instructions before opening a probe, because the attorney general had taken responsibility for approving any action concerning Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shapira is currently in Asia and will return in several days. He might instruct his staff to complete the report on the prime minister’s residences in his absence and present it to Weinstein; this would head off claims that the comptroller is delaying the investigation. Shapira’s announcement confirms the main details as reported by Haaretz — at the center is a check from the Netanyahus to the treasury to return 4,000 shekels ($1,000), an attempt to set right arrears concerning the bottles.

The wait for the comptroller’s report has also justified the freezing of any criminal investigation into claims by Meni Naftali, a former manager of the Prime Minister’s Residence. These claims have been brought to the attention of Jerusalem prosecutors in their role defending the state and Benjamin Netanyahu in a civil suit filed by Naftali. The Jerusalem prosecutor, Liora Havilyo, asked her superiors for instructions, but the matter was frozen at top levels there and at the attorney general’s office because the issue was linked the comptroller’s investigation, legal sources said.

Last year, Naftali gave the comptroller details on numerous alleged improprieties, including the bottle deposits and suspect purchases of garden furniture. Shapira and Weinstein coordinated their probes, partly because Weinstein preferred to start by keeping the matter from becoming a criminal investigation. Naftali says he gave the comptroller a great deal of material.

Comptroller spokesman Shlomo Raz has said the bottle matter has been transferred to the attorney general, and information on the garden-furniture matter has been sent to the State Prosecutor’s Office. The state comptroller’s announcement is the first update on the Prime Minister’s Residence since June 12, when the Justice Ministry said the comptroller had informed the attorney general two days earlier. Justice Ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen said the attorney general had spoken with the comptroller on the matter. “It was agreed that the comptroller will examine any material he receives. The material will be given to the attorney general as the comptroller sees fit,” Cohen said.

With Shapira’s announcement that he is separating Sara Netanyahu’s involvement from his broader investigation and transferring the matter to Weinstein, the path is open for the police to question her. The police can also question many past and present employees of the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as bodyguards. But questioning the prime minister would require Weinstein’s approval.

Many people involved in the matter have expressed anger and surprise over the role of three senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office who dealt with matters related to the residence: PMO comptroller Yossi Itzkovitz, legal adviser Shlomit Barnea-Farago and deputy director general Ezra Seidoff.

The Netanyahus’ personal check was given to Itzkovitz, with Barnea-Farago’s knowledge. Seidoff was the person directly responsible for employees at the Prime Minister’s Residence — and at the command of Sara Netanyahu.

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