Netanyahu Corruption Probe Raises New Fraud Suspicions Against Wife Sara

The Netanyahus are suspected of giving favors to the owners of Israel's telecom giant, Bezeq, in return for better coverage

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wait for the arrival of Ethiopian Prime Minister and his wife ahead of a welcoming ceremony at the PM's office in Jerusalem.
AFP/Gali Tibbon

The evidence gathered in the Bezeq-Walla case is liable to embroil Sara Netanyahu in additional fraud charges. She already faces such charges over financial irregularities at the prime minister’s residences.

The fraud of which she is suspected in the Bezeq-Walla case relates to the employment of the Netanyahu family’s former media advisor, Nir Hefetz.

Last week, a police representative announced what had hitherto only been hinted at: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife are both suspected of taking bribes from Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris, in the form of flattering coverage by Bezeq’s internet news site, Walla. But it seems unlikely that Sara Netanyahu will actually be charged with taking bribes in this case.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Earlier this year, when some of the key figures in this case were arrested, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit agonized before finally allowing the police to question Sara Netanyahu on suspicion of taking bribes. Though she was involved in requesting the flattering coverage, and there were indications that she knew about the alleged quid pro quo relationship with Elovitch, the main suspect in this case is her husband.

After all, he is the one who, in his role as communications minister, approved a billion-shekel ($280 million) deal that Elovitch wanted. Under this deal, Elovitch’s Eurocom company sold its shares in the Yes satellite television company to Bezeq, the telecommunications company that is Eurocom’s subsidiary.

Thus the main suspicion against Sara Netanyahu revolves around the valuable services Hefetz gave the Netanyahus for free. By law, a minister may not accept gifts or other benefits from interested parties unless he receives special approval from the permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office.

>> Read more: Bibi Bombshells Explained: Your Guide to All the Netanyahu Cases ■ Netanyahus' Spending Sprees a Sign of Israel's Disintegrating Democracy | Opinion 

That committee will soon discuss the prime minister’s request for permission to let two businessmen finance his legal defense – his cousin Nathan Milikowsky and Spenser Partrich. Both men gave statements to the police in a separate case in which Netanyahu is suspected of receiving illicit gifts from other businessmen.

Netanyahu approached the committee several times to try to get his use of Hefetz’s services approved, but the committee said Hefetz couldn’t work for free or for a nominal fee. A source familiar with the committee’s discussions said it wanted Hefetz to be paid an hourly fee similar to the going rate for consultants hired by government agencies.

“The moment the committee made it clear to Netanyahu that Hefetz can’t work for free, it finished its job,” the source said.

Hefetz later turned state’s witness in the Bezeq-Walla case. And now, suspicions have arisen that Sara Netanyahu pretended to be paying him out of her own pocket when in reality, he continued working for free. If evidence is found to support these suspicions, Sara Netanyahu could be charged with fraud against the state comptroller.

Police have gathered material about the issue from the comptroller’s office.

This new suspicion is a further obstacle to Sara Netanyahu’s efforts to obtain a plea bargain in the residences case that would spare her a criminal conviction. No such deal is possible if a defendant is suspected of committing another, similar crime.

There have been several incidents in which people employed by the prime minister were reportedly asked to refund their wages to him. When Netanyahu was opposition leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett was his chief of staff, the latter was reportedly promised a nominal monthly fee of 1,000 to 2,000 shekels, but actually worked for free. Bennett told an investigator from the comptroller’s office that Netanyahu did give him one check, “but when Sara Netanyahu found out about it, he was asked to return the check,” and he did so.

Odelia Carmon, who advised Netanyahu during that period, described in a tape recording first reported by Haaretz how Sara Netanyahu reacted upon discovering that her husband had paid Carmon: “She got upset ... She said I’m taking food from her children.”

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of fraud for concealing from the state comptroller the cash-filled envelopes he received from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky. Of all the cases in which the prime minister and his wife are suspects, senior law enforcement officials consider the Bezeq-Walla case, also known as Case 4000, to be the engine driving all the rest. It has obvious similarities to Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of trying to reach a deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes under which the daily would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in exchange for government action to undermine Yedioth’s main rival, Israel Hayom.

But some legal officials, including Mendelblit, also see similarities to Case 1000, the one involving illicit gifts from businessmen. In both cases, Netanyahu had a close relationship with tycoons who heaped benefits on him. In Case 1000, businessman Arnon Milchan lavished cigars and champagne on Netanyahu and jewelry on his wife; in Case 4000, Elovitch gave the couple favorable coverage on Walla. Both tycoons are then suspected of exploiting their access to Netanyahu and his feeling that he owed them by turning to him whenever they wanted something from the government.

Milchan received only modest quid pro quos, like help getting an American visa and an attempt to help him purchase part of Channel 2 television. But Elovitch got much more – approval of the Bezeq-Yes deal. Without Netanyahu’s approval, government attorney Nitzan Wulkan said at a court hearing this week, the deal couldn’t have gone through, “and this deal was approved because of a bribe that was given.”

Elovitch, however, denies this. His lawyer, Jacques Chen, told the court that all the gatekeepers approved the deal, and the idea that Netanyahu helped Elovitch obtain a billion shekels was “ridiculous.”

Sara Netanyahu did not respond to Haaretz’s questions about Hefetz’s terms of employment.