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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Israel PM's wife goes on trial in delivery meals case

Prosecutors accuse Sara Netanyahu of misusing state funds to pay for catered meals costing $100,000

Sara Netanyahu sits with the Israeli delegation before Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. EPA
Sara Netanyahu sits with the Israeli delegation before Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. EPA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife Sara Netanyahu goes on trial on Sunday for allegedly using state funds to fraudulently pay for hundreds of meals, part of a list of legal troubles facing the family.

The start of the trial will be the latest chapter in a saga intensely scrutinised in Israel - but dismissed by the Netanyahus as another "absurd" attempt to discredit them.

The veteran premier himself faces possible charges in separate corruption investigations, leading to speculation that he will eventually be forced to step down.

Ms Netanyahu was charged with fraud and breach of trust in June.

Prosecutors accuse her of misusing state funds to pay for catered meals costing $100,000 by falsely declaring there were no cooks available at the premier's official residence.

From 2010 to 2013, she, her family and guests received "fraudulently from the state hundreds of prepared meals", the indictment read.

According to the charge sheet, the meals were ordered from a variety of well-known Jerusalem businesses, including an Italian restaurant, a Middle Eastern grill joint and a sushi establishment.

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The trial, which could run for months, is to open in the Jerusalem magistrates court at 1:30 PM overseen by a panel of three judges due to the "public sensitivity" of the case.

It was originally scheduled to start in July but was postponed for reasons that were not made public.

Ms Netanyahu, aged 59 and a high-profile presence at her husband's side throughout his long tenure, has denied any wrongdoing.

But the case has again turned the spotlight on the Netanyahu family and past allegations of misbehaviour.

She has previously been accused of pocketing cash from deposit refunds for empty bottles returned from the official residence.

She has also faced accusations of mistreating staff and, in 2016, a court awarded some $47,000 in damages to a former housekeeper who accused the couple of repeated workplace abuse.

All the allegations have been closely covered in the Israeli media. The Netanyahus have hit back, calling them grossly unfair smear attempts.

Ms Netanyahu has in the past said that her "blood has been spilled publicly."

One particularly high-profile example occurred in 2017, when both the premier and his wife appeared in court in their libel case against a journalist's claim that Ms Netanyahu kicked her husband out of the car during a row.

Prime Minister Netanyahu testified that the story was a "ridiculous" fabrication.

The court later awarded the Netanyahus $32,500.

But there are potentially more serious allegations facing Benjamin Netanyahu.

The right-wing prime minister has held the job for a total of more than 12 years, first from 1996-99 and again beginning in 2009.

He could next year surpass the record set by Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion, who spent more than 13 years in office.

But Mr Netanyahu faces a possible indictment in the months ahead. On Friday, police quizzed him for a 12th time as a suspect in various cases.

Allegations against him include allegedly seeking a secret deal with the publisher of Israel's top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot to ensure positive coverage in return for pushing forward a law that would have limited the circulation of a rival.

Another case involves suspicions that the prime minister and his family received luxury gifts from wealthy individuals in exchange for financial or personal favours.

There is also an ongoing inquiry into the prime minister's ties with local telecoms giant Bezeq and its largest shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, according to Israeli media.

In that case, Mr Netanyahu is alleged to have sought favourable coverage from another Elovitch company, the Walla news site, in exchange for government policies that could have benefited the mogul's interests to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Elovitch was arrested in February along with six other people, including Nir Hefetz, a former media advisor to the Netanyahu family who has turned state witness.

Police have recommended Mr Netanyahu be indicted in two cases, though the attorney general has yet to decide whether to do so.

Despite the ongoing investigations, Prime Minister Netanyahu has remained strong in polls and he is not obliged to step down if formally charged.