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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife begins trial for misuse of state money

The fraud trial of Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opened in Jerusalem on Sunday, turning a new page in the long saga of corruption allegations against the Netanyahus that, for now, have not derailed the political power couple.

Mrs Netanyahu, 59, is accused of misusing around $100,000 in state funds by hiding that she hired a cook while continuing to order food to the Prime Minister’s residence.

She was charged with fraud and breach of trust in June. The Jerusalem court adjourned the trial on Sunday until November 13 to give both sides the chance to reach a deal on how to proceed. The trial is expected to run for months.

The “prepared food affair,” as it’s locally known, is not directly related to the ring of other corruption cases surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including a possible indictment in the coming months in three other graft investigations. Mr Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if indicted and, so far, his right-wing Likud party has continued to back him.

In a previous case in 2016, a court ordered Mrs Netanyahu to pay some $47,000 in damages to a former housekeeper for repeated workplace abuse.

The corruption cases against the first family have garnered widespread media attention inside Israel. Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s political kingpin on track to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister, has accrued a long list of detractors during his decades as a political operative from Israel to Washington. Mrs Netanyahu has also been a high profile and dogged presence alongside her husband.

But the various corruption allegations have so far not damaged the prime minister’s core base of supporters or his centrality to the government’s extreme-right coalition, thereby, for now, cementing his rule.

Avi Diskin, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that the corruption cases could in fact ultimately help Mr Netanyahu by “strengthening re-affiliations” with him.

“The question is what interpretation will people give to the trial, whatever happens,” he said.

“People who are anti-Netanyahu say we have one more proof. And of course people who are dedicated right-wing voters and supporters of Netanyahu say it’s persecution, we’re talking nonsense. So I don’t expect something very dramatic to happen.”

The Netanyahus, meanwhile, have strongly denied the latest allegations as one more “absurd” attempt to discredit them.

“For the first time in history, an indictment was filed against the leader’s wife for macaroni and take away food from six to seven years ago,” said Ofer Golan, the Netanyahu family spokesperson, in a statement. He characterised the allegations as a hit case against the Netanyahus that “will not hold water”.

Mrs Netanyahu appeared on Sunday afternoon at the Jerusalem Magistrate court, where she smiled at her lawyers as the trial began. Prosecutors requested for the case to be tried by a panel of three judges, rather than just one per typical trials. Prosecutors have made similar requests for other political cases, like the trial of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported.

Mrs Netanyahu’s attorneys oppose the panel option. In recent days, however, two of her attorneys have resigned over differences in how to proceed: they wanted Mrs Netanyahu to reach a plea bargain, which would include admitting guilt, while her remaining attorneys have pushed for going to trial and maintaining her innocence.

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The indictment accuses Mrs Netanyahu of spending 360,000 shekels (about $100,000 USD) on catering services while at the same time employing a cook, in violation of the law, between 2010 and 2013. It also maintains that she knew this was illegal, and therefore ordered staff to hide the arrangement, including describing the cook as a member of cleaning staff on official documents. Mrs Netanyahu maintains her employees did this without her knowledge.

While the maximum penalty for break of trust and fraud is three and five years, respectively, prosecutors believe that Mrs. Netanyahu would only receive community service if convicted, according to Haaretz.

Over the years, Mrs Netanyahu has faced several other probes into possible corruption, though no other proceeded to trial.

Police, meanwhile, interviewed Mr Netanyahu for the twelfth time last week as a suspect in his own corruption cases. The police have recommended that Mr Netanyahu be indicted, though Israel’s Attorney General has not yet decided how he will proceed. In recent months, one key former advisor to the Netanyahu family has turned state witness, raising the stakes against them.

The allegations against Mr Netanyahu include trying to strike a secret deal with the publisher of Israel’s top newspaper for favourable coverage in exchange for supporting a law that would limit the main rival’s circulation. Another ongoing inquiry involves the prime minister offering a different mogul to push forward government policies favourable to his telecom business in exchange for positive coverage in his news site.

Mr Netanyahu, who has allied himself to US President Donald Trump, has long portrayed himself as the only politician able to keep Israel safe from its enemies at home and abroad. He has also taken aggressive stances against the media, denouncing attacks against him as “Fake News” through Facebook. His social media stunts play favourably with his base, and public trust in the media in Israel is among the lowest ever, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

In recent years, as Israel’s public shifted more to the right, the more liberal opposition has struggled to regain pockets of power. If Mr Netanyahu were to step down, polls show one possible replacement would be hard-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has proposed annexing much of the occupied West Bank and openly opposes Palestinian statehood.

So far, Mr Netanyahu has withstood the pressure, all while tensions along Israel’s borders with neighbours like Syria and blockaded Gaza have grown. Mr Diskin said that the legal issues might lead Mr Netanyahu to call for early elections, which could play favourably for him by rallying his base.

Israel’s most seasoned political survivor is not obliged to step down if he is formally charged, but as pressure increases on him and his wife, the survival of the Netanyahu family at the top of Israeli politics may be in question more than ever.