Analysis

Israel's AG Hoped Sara Netanyahu Had a Doctor's Note to Avoid Indictment

Mendelblit is the first attorney general who dared to indict a prime minister's wife. But every minute he squandered on the gourmet meals case was a wasted one

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, wait for the arrival of Ethiopia's prime minister and his wife, Jerusalem, June 6, 2017.
GALI TIBBON/AFP

Three years have passed since police began investigating the esoteric case of suspected fraud by the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu.

This case could have been solved by three novice investigators, but the ones who actually followed the tracks of the illegal chef’s dinners, the waiters posing as cleaners and the masses of candles purchased with public funds, were an experienced team from the police’s national fraud squad. A mid-level prosecutor could have translated the evidence into a fairly quick decision, but for years, all the prosecution’s most senior officials were dealing with it, first and foremost Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

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Some people warned him, “Don’t go there. This isn’t a case of a magnitude that requires the attorney general’s active involvement; leave these trivialities for State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan.”

But Mendelblit insisted. His argument was that the investigation was launched with approval from his predecessor, Yehuda Weinstein, and therefore he was obligated to pick up the baton.

In recent months, it seemed as if Mendelblit were trying to end the saga without putting Sara Netanyahu on trial. The fact that the hearing was held in installments, the frequent correspondence with the battery of attorneys representing the prime minister’s wife, and the discussion about repaying the money to the state coffers all hinted at an effort to avoid a trial.

Nevertheless, Mendelblit is the first attorney general who has dared to cross the Rubicon and indict a prime minister’s wife.

Even now, there’s a slight chance that the sides will reach some kind of deal that would still prevent the case from coming to court. Sara Netanyahu probably won’t want sections of her stormy police interrogations to be read aloud in a courtroom open to the public, and senior prosecutors would probably rather not go all the way with this case of financial improprieties at the prime minister’s residences.

The elephant in the room is Sara Netanyahu’s psychological state. Granted, her attorneys have never brought this issue up for explicit discussion, but “the problem” was in the forefront of Mendelblit’s mind.

“Why don’t they bring a letter from a doctor?” he once asked some of his staff in frustration. And at a closed meeting with employees of a media organization, he also hinted at psychological problems in the official residence.

As a rule, it’s not easy to avoid criminal proceedings by claiming psychological problems. But in Sara Netanyahu’s case, this defense would be accepted gladly and lead to either the closure of the case or a lenient plea bargain.

Nevertheless, the suspect opted for a different line of defense, which became a pattern in all the investigations in which she is involved – aiming her fire at key witnesses. In the residences case, she blamed the ridiculous quantities of food ordered into the official residence at government expense on the key witness, former caretaker Meni Naftali, whom she accused of stealing the food.

Similarly, in the case of illicit gifts by businessmen to her and her husband, when she was asked how so many cases of pink champagne came her way courtesy of Arnon Milchan, she blamed the key witness in the case – Hadas Klein, Milchan’s right hand. When Klein was asked to respond to the baseless accusation that she herself dipped into the supply, she asked the investigator to deliver a message to the prime minister’s wife: “Tell her to be careful.”

“Bogged down in trivialities,” Weinstein, the former attorney general, said disgustedly about the raw material on which the residences case was built. And there’s something to that. Anyone who puts it on the same level as the various cases involving the prime minister himself, or other cases of high-level corruption, is sinning against the truth and demonstrating a faulty sense of proportion.

Mendelblit himself should have helped the public to distinguish between the residences case and the truly important ones by refraining from involvement in the former and investing his hard-pressed time and energy in a different goal: getting the prime minister’s cases to the finish line. Every minute he squandered on this case was a minute wasted on nothing.

The moment the prosecution decided that responsibility for the alleged forgery and fraud rested chiefly with Ezra Saidoff, the deputy director general for material and operational resources at the Prime Minister’s Office, the indictment against Sara Netanyahu switched from being mid-level to minor. From the public’s standpoint, the main issue was the weighty suspicion that she caused employees of the Prime Minister’s Office to cross red lines in order to cater to her caprices.

Given the marginal nature of the case, the feverish preoccupation with it among the best minds in the police and prosecution seems almost lunatic. Today, the main charge against Sara Netanyahu is that, together with Saidoff, she concocted a pretense that the prime minister’s residence didn’t employ a cook even though it did, so as to be able, fraudulently and under the radar, to order in catered chef dinners which, in total, cost hundreds of thousands of shekels over the course of two and a half years. Wow.

Incidentally, according to rules set by the Knesset Finance Committee, when the residence doesn’t employ a cook, it’s possible to order in food for the prime minister, his family and their guests almost without limit. The only ceilings are on the cost per person of the meal – up to 200 shekels ($55), and the number of people, up to 20. Thus in the absence of a cook, Sara Netanyahu could have ordered in food costing 12,000 shekels a day (covering three daily meals) without being investigated or put on trial.

The residences case is also the only remnant Mendelblit has left to the Jerusalem district prosecution, which had managed all the Netanyahu cases since day one. Major differences of opinion arose between the attorney general and the former district prosecutor, Nurit Litman.

Litman wanted to speed up the investigation into two cases which she thought had serious criminal potential. One was the illicit gifts case. The other involved suspicions that the prime minister tried to negotiate a deal with newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes under which the daily Yedioth Ahronoth would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in exchange for Netanyahu taking steps to undermine its main rival, Israel Hayom.

Mutual suspicion and even personal hostility developed between Litman and Mendelblit, and last year, when Litman was appointed deputy state prosecutor, Mendelblit and Nitzan exploited the opportunity to take the prime minister’s cases away from the Jerusalem district prosecution. They were given instead to Liat Ben Ari, head of the prosecution’s financial crimes department, who has led several major corruption cases, including the Holyland case against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Despite some disagreements between them, for now, Ben Ari is receiving praise and demonstrative appreciation from Mendelblit. It will be interesting to see whether this united front is maintained once these cases, which are inching forward, near the moment of decision on whether to indict Benjamin Netanyahu.