The problem with the case of the prime minister’s residences began with the indictment. The claim at the heart of the case is that Sara Netanyahu ordered catered meals to the prime minister’s residence, which is against the rules when a cook is employed in the house. According to the rules, if no cook had been employed, Netanyahu could have freely ordered meals delivered from restaurants. In fact, this was an indictment about hiding a cook.
The prime minister’s wife saw this as a minor matter, and she was right. The indictment itself is minor. But the cook is a small piece of a puzzle that the prosecution chose not to put together.
The public anger over the plea bargain stems from the background to the indictment, which was actually not included in it. Israelis have been exposed for years to numerous reports about Netanyahu’s obsessive preoccupation with rolling over to the state her personal expenses and those of her family, the height of which was in the state comptroller’s report in 2015.
But the indictment erased any memory of a methodical pattern. The claims of falsifying meals and moving furnishings from the Netanyahus’ private residence in Caesarea to their official residence in Jerusalem never reached the court.
The prosecution placed responsibility in those instances on Ezra Saidoff, the former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, who knuckled under to Netanyahu’s pressure, and determined that he alone was to blame. The claim that Sara Netanyahu instructed her employees to misrepresent facts – that is, to lie – was swallowed up in the indictment. That being the prosecution’s starting point, the court just went with the flow.
What should disturb people even more is the judges themselves. The president of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, Judge Avital Chen, part of whose role it is to examine evidence and witnesses and issue a ruling, insisted on a compromise at any price. He pushed, urged and pushed some more. Mediation and compromise were the key words.
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The court’s vice president, Judge Mordechai Kaduri, who was appointed as judge-mediator, was even more enthusiastic than Chen. He persistently urged the parties to be flexible, time after time. The two judges repeatedly uttered fine words about the “public interest” in not holding a trial, but those two words masked the judges’ own strong desire not to hold a public hearing and to save Netanyahu the embarrassment and humiliation of a trial.
This desire was seen on Sunday when Chen turned to the accused and asked her whether she had read the indictment. Immediately after that he asked her if she confirmed the plea bargain and she answered in one word: “Yes.” Those present in the courtroom could hear neither the questions nor the responses because they were asked and answered in a whisper. That is how the most critical moment – in which Netanyahu had been asked to admit in her own voice that she had committed a criminal offense – went by in a hush. Judge Chen preferred not to confront Netanyahu with the facts and quickly moved on.
When Netanyahu’s attorney, Yossi Cohen, went on and on in a speech that was irrelevant to the case, Chen gave him the stage. Cohen attacked the police and the resources that had been allocated to the investigation. The judge waited for him to finish and finally thanked the two sides for “fair and good-spirited conduct.” Sara Netanyahu detected the merciful tone and answered, “I’ve suffered enough.” Chen responded: “I’m sure.” Ordinary convicts can only dream of such empathy from the judge deciding their fate.
Chen and Kaduri’s conduct reveals a bigger problem. Only last week it was Jerusalem Labor Court Judge Eyal Avrahami who gave Netanyahu preferential treatment. This happened during the hearing on a suit brought by a former residence employee, Shira Raban, who described in detail the insulting work conditions that she had allegedly suffered. Attorney Cohen interrogated Raban aggressively, flinging irrelevant questions at her accompanied by baseless conspiracy theories.
Again and again Raban was asked why she had been interviewed on news programs, given that she is an ultra-Orthodox woman. She was asked whether she had psychological problems and where she had learned the word “abuse.” Judge Avrahami watched the barrage of insulting questions and veiled threats and did not intervene. When Raban was unable to answer them because Cohen cut her off, and she asked the judge that she be allowed to answer, Avrahami was silent. In contrast, when Cohen asked for Avrahami’s assistance in obtaining answers from Raban, the judge asked the questions instead.
Thus, within only one week, the true face of the judicial system was revealed when it came to judging the strongest woman in the country. Three judges set aside their professional obligation to a supposedly higher principle: to handle the honor of the prime minister’s wife with care. While the entire public looks to the attorney general, who is preparing to hold a hearing for the prime minister, we should remember that the judges are the ones who rule in the end. If this is the attitude that Sara Netanyahu receives, what will happen with her husband?