Sara Netanyahu sitting next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu .
(photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP)
The police investigation of Sara Netanyahu over suspected misuse of state funds in the management of the Netanyahus’ official and private residences has been the constant preoccupation of the country’s media for understandable reasons. But while the conduct of the prime minister’s wife is a legitimate public concern, the legal ramifications of such behavior are rightly the concern of the proper authorities, and should not be the subject of a trial by leaks conducted by the media.
Sara Netanyahu has been tried, found guilty, and lost an appeal in lawsuits pursued by former employees. These verdicts have not put an end to the issue, and she was submitted to an unprecedented 12-hour interrogation under caution by police last week, the second time she was questioned in the case. The Israel Police anti-corruption unit Lahav 433 said the findings of the investigation were forwarded to the Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office, where a decision whether to indict will be made.
The Netanyahu family’s lawyer, Yossi Cohen, filed a police complaint against the alleged leak of false transcripts from the marathon questioning that were published by Channels 2 and 10. The complaint accused the stations of “forging protocols and other false leaks” and said their actions “constitute obstruction of justice and tampering with witnesses.”
Whatever the truth of the complaint, the gleeful publicizing of the proceedings of a confidential police investigation is by definition obstruction of justice. It is a challenging task to ignore someone who is so constantly in the public view, sharing her husband’s limelight on his many trips abroad and reputedly filling the role of his most senior adviser. Prime ministers’ wives have been targets of investigation before, but Leah Rabin, for example, did not attract the same level of hostility when her illegal US bank account led to her husband’s resignation in 1977.
Last week’s questioning of Sara Netanyahu took place some six months after the police recommended indicting her, after the emergence of new evidence led Attorney- General Avichai Mandelblit to order the police to carry out further investigation. She is appealing two civil verdicts against her conduct toward former employees, which Jerusalem Labor Court Judge Dita Prugnin slammed as “insufferable, humiliating and rising to the level of abusive.”
In one ruling, the judge ordered her to pay NIS 97,500 in damages to Guy Eliyahu, who claimed he had been verbally abused, underpaid and overworked. He testified in September 2015 that on one occasion, he had been called back to the official residence after he went home past midnight, “just... to heat up a bowl of soup for Mrs. Netanyahu.”
At least part of the exaggerated coverage of Sara Netanyahu is related to the perception by the public of her as the country’s most powerful woman, according to Forbes Israel.
“She, indeed, doesn’t decide on taking action against Iran, cutting the interest rate or reforming the real-estate market,” Forbes Israel said. “Her influence is evident primarily in the appointments made by the prime minister.”
The magazine quoted sources as saying that Sara Netanyahu was involved not only in appointments within the Prime Minister’s Office, but also in other top positions serving the state. “She is involved at every level,” one source said. “Even low-level clerks.”
Leaving Sara Netanyahu alone might be impossible. As novelist Naomi Ragen wrote in The Jerusalem Post
in 2015: “She is usually pictured as a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West, Marie Antoinette and Imelda Marcos,” adding that a reader wrote, “She is the most hated woman in Israel.”
The prime minister accused the media on his Facebook page of exploiting his wife’s troubles in taking its campaign against him to a new, personal level.
“The media attack against my wife, Sara, is yet another low point for some leading members of the Israeli media who will use any means to hurt me and my political path,” Netanyahu charged. “Those who wish to attack my policies in a proper manner are welcome. Leave my family alone.”
A case that might result in the indictment of a prime minister’s wife should not be tried in the media. It is time for all sides to show restraint and let the police and the attorney-general do their jobs.