Israel Pulse

How Bibi's wife may be his downfall

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Article Summary
Israeli police intend to investigate Sara Netanyahu over her spending and management of the prime minister's official residence and the couple's private household.

The next sensational political story in Israel is not connected to coalition negotiations or new elections, though it could, ultimately, be a factor in speeding up elections. It is a story involving personal conduct in a sensitive, explosive familial situation that is now turning into a criminal investigation with the seeds for a big political scandal. This story has been unfolding under the media radar for several long months, and it is now beginning to leak to the outside world. An investigation is taking place of the “prime minister’s residences,” in other words, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s official Jerusalem residence and the Netanyahu private home in Caesarea. (The Netanyahus own an additional apartment in Jerusalem, but that is currently not under investigation.)

The initial details emerged from testimonies by Meni Naftali, the former caretaker of the prime minister’s residence, who is now waging a long, down-and-dirty legal struggle against the Netanyahu couple. After the testimonies, the state comptroller published a harsh report in February 2015 regarding the goings-on in these residences: irregularities in expenses, the shifting of family expenses to the state and numerous other problematic events. Many stories were disseminated in the media, some of them hair-raising. One example (among others) is that Sara Netanyahu imposed on her private driver the Sisyphean task of collecting thousands upon thousands of empty bottles used at their official residence; the first lady thus created for herself “a petty cash fund” to the tune of thousands of shekels for her own use.

At the moment, the police want to question Sara Netanyahu under caution on suspicion of violation of integrity. It is altogether possible that her husband will be subjected to a similar probe later on. If that stage arrives, then the question will be asked: Did Benjamin Netanyahu know about or was he aware of his spouse’s activities?

The one who has been trying to avert this investigation so far is Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who wraps up a seven-year term of office in January. Weinstein had been the couple’s personal lawyer the last time an investigation against them had opened, with similar allegations, immediately after Netanyahu had been dismissed from the premiership in 1999. At the time, the couple wriggled their way out of a probe by the skin on their teeth, but the then-attorney general severely castigated them. This time, things look more complicated — even though Netanyahu has succeeded in creating for himself a significant power hub in Israel’s rule-of-law authorities.

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After Netanyahu was toppled from the government the first time, he drew the appropriate lessons and conclusions. When he returned to power, he was more prepared, more sophisticated, more determined. He returned with his own media (the Israel Hayom newspaper), and since then he has invested his energies in an effort to take control of all of Israel’s powerful media strongholds and sidetrack the free press in order to dilute public criticism against him.

When Netanyahu returned to power, he apparently had the realization that he would also need to neutralize the country’s legal gatekeepers: the attorney general, the police, the state comptroller and the civil service commissioner. Netanyahu’s performance was perfect. The attorney general today is, as aforementioned, the same person who previously served as Netanyahu’s lawyer. Now it emerges that the top lawyer hired by the Netanyahu couple in the current affair is Attorney Yaakov Weinroth, the one who defended them the previous time together with Weinstein. What all this means is that the two parties, allegedly on both sides of the fence, are a legal state adviser who is also the attorney general and an attorney who collaborated in 2000 to ward off a criminal investigation of the Netanyahu family. It is no wonder that Weinroth managed to organize a special meeting with Weinstein about three weeks ago, in which a probe of Sara Netanyahu was discussed. This is an unprecedented scenario, in which a person under questioning receives a hearing with the legal adviser to the government even before the investigation has begun. While Knesset members and ministers enjoy immunity, they are never granted a hearing before the investigation, only afterward, when a recommendation for filing an indictment against them is being formed.

Recent weeks have seen Netanyahu shift into “emergency” mode. On one front, he is investing great effort to determine the identity of the next legal adviser to the government. It is altogether likely that the next attorney general will have to make fateful decisions regarding the prime minister’s fate. So far, Netanyahu is winning: an associate of his, Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, was named for the position of attorney general. This was accomplished by a public-professional committee in a problematic, controversial process that will soon need to meet High Court of Justice criterion. Netanyahu also managed to have input into the new police inspector general appointment. This appointment is also considered an especially sensitive one. The question is, will all this be enough?

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu are not your ordinary couple. Anyone acquainted with the ins and outs of Israel’s first family knows that Sara Netanyahu is a full partner to the running of the state. Almost all of the prime minister’s choice of appointments are contingent on Sara Netanyahu’s approval; the two are joined at the hip in an unshakable alliance. Sara Netanyahu enjoys her husband’s full confidence; over the years, he has implored his people to “listen to what she says,” telling them to take advantage of her talents and high IQ and do what she wants. Once she even entered the room when a professional meeting was being held between the prime minister and Mossad Chief Meir Dagan. When she sat down, the Mossad head stopped speaking, though the prime minister urged him to continue. “It’s OK, Meir,” Netanyahu said. “She knows everything, you can continue.” But Dagan refused. Afterward, Netanyahu refused to prolong Dagan’s tenure.

Sara Netanyahu may yet be questioned under caution on the suspicion of committing offenses in the ethical realm, regarding expenses incurred by the Netanyahu family, including the maintenance of the prime minister’s home. Should this investigation come to pass, it is likely to shake up Israel’s governmental system, in general, and Benjamin Netanyahu, specifically. The Netanyahus bear deep scars from the previous investigation in which they were humiliated in the eyes of the media.

Weinroth, in a meeting held with the legal adviser to the government, hinted that the investigation file against Sara Netanyahu should be closed because she is suffering from a mental problem and would not be fit to stand trial. Even this statement, already disseminated by several media outlets, was enough to send political and public circles into a frenzy. After the publication of the meeting, Weinroth denied this. Potentially, this investigation can be explosive on many different fronts; the news has already started slowly leaking into the headlines. According to this past week’s developments, we get the impression that the die has been cast and another especially sensational scandal awaits us.

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Found in: government, sara netanyahu, president’s house, knesset, israeli police, investigations, benjamin netanyahu, attorney general

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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