One man’s name is missing from the 19 pages of Sara Netanyahu’s indictment for fraud and breach of trust. His absence is rendered even more conspicuous due to the fact that his title is repeatedly mentioned in the location where the crime was allegedly committed, “the Prime Minister’s residence.” But Benjamin Netanyahu is not in the indictment because the police investigators apparently have no proof of him being aware that his wife was colluding with a senior employee in his office to defraud the state of over 350 thousand shekels by ordering meals catered by gourmet chefs, which were served to him in his official residence.
That premise seems reasonable. A man as busy as the prime minister is not necessarily aware of the catering arrangements. His time is precious and he is used to sitting down to meals without paying too much attention to whoever did the cooking and paid the bill. Based on what we know of Netanyahu’s earlier life, he has always had a tendency to let others pick up the bill in restaurants – not only because that’s his character, also because he’s been surrounded by a team of flunkies taking care of things for him since his early thirties. And anyway, at the age of 68, Netanyahu belongs to a generation of men who weren’t brought up to pay much thought to domestic arrangements.
But that shouldn’t let Netanyahu totally off the hook. He was certainly aware of previous problems relating to his wife’s demands and he could have been expected to try and make sure she wouldn’t reach the point she’s at now: facing a court room with the potential of a criminal conviction for defrauding the state from the Prime Minister’s Residence. But that’s legalese. Correct – he probably can’t be charged for whatever his wife and employee were up to, ostensibly behind his back. But he does carry a type of responsibility for her indictment that goes much deeper than his legal exposure.
The story behind the details in Sara Netanyahu’s indictment are sadly familiar to anyone who’s been even remotely acquainted with Israeli politics in the last two decades. It is the same story that was behind the so-called gifts investigation in 2000, when police discovered that hundreds of gifts, given to Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister, had been removed from the official residence at Sara’s orders after Netanyahu lost the election in 1999. Seven hundred gifts were repossessed by the state, while 150 others had disappeared. Despite the gifts being too valuable for the Netanyahus to receive, a police recommendation to press charges, and the fact that they were state property, the attorney general decided to let the couple off the hook. He grudgingly accepted that there was no clear proof they had been aware of breaking the law.
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The main question at Sara Netanyahu’s trial this time will be whether she knowingly committing a crime. It will be a bruising and humiliating affair when she takes the stand and is forced to explain herself in public. The attorney general was prepared to work out a plea bargain and save her from public shame, but that would have meant Sara Netanyahu accepting the blame and paying back the money.
She must face the music – there is no alternative – but it is obscene that her husband’s responsibility will not be addressed. He is as much to blame for the sense of entitlement that allowed his wife to flout the law with such blatant disregard. If not more. For years there has been an atmosphere of inevitability within the Netanyahu family and the close circle of sycophants that surround Netanyahu’s leadership that it was existentially essential for the Israeli people that he would be prime minister. Netanyahu has contributed to this atmosphere in many ways, including by repeatedly describing perfectly legitimate challenges to his premiership as “coups.”
Sara Netanyahu and the couple’s son, Yair, have both said on various occasions that Netanyahu is “sacrificing himself for Israel” – were he not prime minister, he would be making billions in the private sector. When such a feeling pervades in the family, what do a few hundred thousands of shekels worth of meals matter? They don’t even begin to compensate the Netanyahus for all the riches they have passed on for public service. What does it matter that the couple accepted a million shekels in champagne, cigars and jewelry from tycoons? It is their just due. And why shouldn’t Yair and his younger brother Avner, both young men in their twenties who should be working for their living, have state-funded cars, drivers and bodyguards, despite the Shin Bet recommendation that there is no security need for any of this (as there wasn’t for any of the children of previous prime ministers who lead their lives as ordinary citizens with no special treatment).
It is Benjamin Netanyahu who has fostered the attitude that he is a leader like none before him and is therefore entitled to special privileges. It took three years until the relatively straightforward investigation into fraud at the residence culminated in an indictment. The much more complex investigations into the prime minister’s affairs will likely take far more years until he is charged. If ever.
Forget all the rumors about Bibi staying with Sara only because “she has something on him.” That was perhaps true many years ago, but nowadays, by all accounts, they are deeply committed to each other. Like every relationship, theirs is peculiar and screwed-up in its own unique way, but they very obviously love each other. Nevertheless, Bibi has not only allowed Sara to allegedly defraud the prime minister’s office budget, which he is responsible for, he has also allowed her to become the focal point of much of the public criticism that should be his by rights. Instead of doing the honorable thing, he is now throwing his beloved wife to the wolves.