There were so many “gates:” Bottlegate, Furniture Gate, the Father Homecare Affair, Electrician Gate – and the list goes on.
How on earth did those seven potential cases against Sara Netanyahu get reduced to a conviction for a crime that barely sounds like a crime – exploiting someone else’s mistaken misuse of state funds – and a meager NIS 55,000?
As with many misunderstandings about the cases against the Netanyahu family – misunderstandings both on the Right and the Left – much of the answer comes from separating the law from politics.
From a political perspective, every one of the affairs had the stench of an empress and her husband, the emperor, who are so used to being in office and for so long, that she or they start to feel entitled and start dropping barriers between their money/needs and the state’s money/needs.
“Bottlegate” was maybe the worst example of this.
It referred to allegations that Sara Netanyahu may have improperly turned in deposit bottles in exchange for NIS 4,000 cash, though the bottles were bought with state funds.
Using state funds to buy bottles and then turning them in to make a profit is about as cheap as you can get, and just comes off horribly politically.
But already back in 2015, The Jerusalem Post
had surveyed a range of experts, none of whom believed Bottlegate could possibly carry criminal charges – because Jacob Weinroth, who was part of Netanyahu’s legal team until his death in 2018, was the first to raise the defense that it can be irrelevant who bought the bottles, since both the bottle buyer and the collector who turns them in are legally entitled to receipt of funds.
Meaning Netanyahu was due the money since she “collected” the bottles.
Shmuel Saadia, a lawyer, author and expert in criminal law dealing with public officials, said that, “there is no obligation for individuals to return” the bottles in the first place, so there can be no crime related to who or how they are returned.
In the worst case scenario, he said that even if someone made “an absurd interpretation” of the law to try to ensnare Netanyahu, she could claim to have “made a good-faith mistake.”
And Bottlegate was only over NIS 4,000, which would never had led to an indictment because the amount was so small.
“Furniture Gate” refers to accusations of purchasing furniture with state funds for the prime minister’s private residence in Caesarea.
According to the allegations, the furniture was nominally purchased for the official public residence, but then Mrs. Netanyahu moved the new items to the couple’s private Caesarea residence, while replacing them at the public residence with older ones.
Eventually, all or most of the furniture was returned, and the details of what was moved when – and to what extent she knew that this was illegal as opposed to merely being tacky – made the case very blurry.
In the “Father Homecare Affair,” Netanyahu allegedly misused state funds to cover homecare for her father.
Once again, the amounts at stake were tiny, the circumstances were confusing – and who really wanted to prosecute her for taking care of her father, who died not long after the homecare he was given?
At the end of the day, the only case which Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit believed met the high standard of being able to convict her beyond a reasonable doubt was the “Prepared Food Affair.”
There, NIS 359,000 was at stake and Netanyahu had allegedly ordered other senior and junior prime minister’s office officials to falsify documents to cover-up the misuses of state funds.
There was significant documentary evidence, and Netanyahu could be portrayed as poisoning the public servants around her.
So how come the state did not go the distance and get a much larger fine and a conviction for fraud?
First, NIS 55,000 is not the only relevant number. There is also NIS 175,000 that the state can still sue her for in civil court as part of the plea deal.
In civil court, the standard of proof is much lower. That means that if the number is down to NIS 175,000, then the NIS 359,000 was inflated – and that in criminal court, the real number the state could prove would probably have been somewhere between NIS 175,000 and NIS 55,000.
What was the state’s problem in terms of evidence?
Many of the documents related to state functions where foreign visitors were hosted. While Netanyahu may have broken a regulation by using both the Prime Minister’s Office chef and ordering prepared food, if the beneficiaries were foreign dignitaries, that is hardly criminal.
And there was Meni Naftali, her house manager for part of the time period she was accused of fraud.
Naftali was a key witness for the state and this was a problem, because he was an unstable witness who had admitted that he himself abused state funds.
So Netanyahu could drop at least some of the abuse of state funds on him.
State witnesses are often problematic, because they are often involved in the crime, which is why they are able to reveal the crime’s details.
But there are state witnesses who can be relied on to keep their story straight and stay on message in court, and Naftali was not one of those.
Once the NIS 175,000 was reduced further and the defense did its best to present a narrative of Netanyahu being confused about what was hers and what was the state’s, the chances were that she would not be getting jail time. As it was, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court president Avital Chen bizarrely split the NIS 55,000 into 11 payments, showing that he had sympathy for her position.
If she was not getting jail time, what was the point of a long, expensive and hold-no-prisoners trial? Just to get a fine that would still fall far short of NIS 175,000 – when that money could be gone after in civil court?
So the prosecution’s only option was to deal.
With a defendant like Sara Netanyahu, who took four years to even admit to the lowest of crimes, the deal the state ended up getting really might be the best it could have gotten.
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