The trial of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, and the office’s deputy director-general Ezra Saidoff begins on Sunday afternoon at Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.
The court president, Avital Chen, will hear prosecutors’ requests for the case to be heard by a panel of three judges rather than just one as provided by law. Prosecutors have made similar requests in the past, and the trials of Ehud Olmert and Shula Zaken, as well as those of Yitzhak Mordecha and Arye Dery, were decided by three judges.
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Sara Netanyahu’s attorneys oppose having a larger panel hear the case. She will be represented by attorneys Yossi Cohen and Yaron Kostelitz (who previously represented state’s witness Nir Hefetz, formerly an adviser to the Netanyahus). Attorneys Yaakov Weinroth and Amit Hadad have resigned from the case over differences about how to proceed. Weinroth and Hadad maintained a plea bargain could be reached in the case, and Cohen has pushed for a trial including the questioning of witnesses.
The two sides have made failed efforts to achieve a deal. Two conditions set by the prosecutors for a plea bargain included admission of guilt by Netanyahu and a return of funds which the indictment says she received under fraudulent terms. Netanyahu insists she is innocent and won’t agree to these terms.
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Prosecutors have detailed in the indictment that from 2010 to 2013, Netanyahu ordered residence workers to order meals from restaurants at a cost of 360,000 shekels ($100,000 at current exchange rates), in violation of regulations forbidding the order of catering services while the residence has a cook in its employ.
The investigation of the residences case found that Netanyahu was aware of this ban and ordered employees to conceal the fact they had hired a cook “so that this wouldn’t be exposed by the office’s accountants, thereby receiving double funding at the treasury’s expense to pay for restaurant meals at the residence.” For this reason the cook was described as a member of the cleaning staff. Mrs. Netanyahu had scolded former house foreman, Meni Naftali, for mentioning her to staff in the PMO.
Saidoff is also accused of telling PMO accountants that the residence does not employ a cook and instructing one of Netanyahu’s secretaries to specify that as well. He is also accused of accepting Netanyahu’s requests to employ chefs to cook private meals, and of falsifying the dates and numbers of participants at these meals to make it appear as though no rules had been broken. Saidoff has been suspended since September 2015 but still receives full salary.
“The accused have made various claims they know aren’t true and which they themselves don’t believe to be true,” the indictment says.
“Via these claims they have accepted fraud by having the state coffers pay hundreds of thousands of shekels. Aggravated circumstances are expressed in the fact that the sums were extracted continuously and methodically, on the basis of inaccurate claims,” it adds.
The maximum penalty for breach of trust is three years, and for fraud under aggravated circumstances it is five years. Courts, however, tend to give lighter sentences. Prosecutors believe that if Mrs. Netanyahu is convicted she will be sentenced to community service. The prime minister’s spouse is also suspected of accepting a bribe, along with her husband, in Case 4000 (Bezek-Walla), and with fraudulently claiming to have paid Hefetz out of her own pocket for his services after the couple had been barred from accepting any of his services without payment.
In anticipation of Sunday’s session, Mrs. Sara Netanyahu’s attorneys said the following: “For the first time in history a leader’s spouse has been indicted over macaroni and take away food. Macaroni and takeaway food, ordered by state’s witness Meni Naftali, against the protests of Mrs. Sara Netanyahu. The indictment is based on an illegal procedure, which in essence doesn’t exist.
"The Basic Law on The Government determines that only the Knesset Finance Committee is authorized to set expense limits on the prime minister’s residence. ‘The cook procedure’ set with no authority by three officials, just five days before the prime minister took office in 2009 never received proper approval by the Finance Committee and therefore it is illegal. An indictment based on an illegal procedure cannot hold up in court.”