Did Netanyahu adversary play role in overspending state funds?

In response to the allegations, Meni Naftali accused the Netanyahus of incitement.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara (C)  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara (C)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While rumors abound that Sara Netanyahu will be indicted for the misuse of state funds at the Prime Minister’s Residence, new claims have come to light that her former house manager, now her husband’s political adversary, may have had a hand in the exorbitant disputed expenses.
Meni Naftali has won most battles with the Netanyahu family to date, including an NIS 170,000 labor court judgment in 2016 claiming unpaid overtime and mistreatment.
In recent months, he has become known as one of the leaders of the weekly protests in Petah Tikva near the home of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit. While these protests are aimed at pressuring Mandelblit to charge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for some they are being framed as a fight for democracy.
However, a review of data revealed in the February 2015 State Comptroller’s Report could implicate Naftali in shared – and possibly even primary – responsibility for overspending state funds.
The Comptroller’s Report was written amid allegations that state funds were being misused at the Prime Minister’s Residence. In general, the state is only supposed to cover costs for the prime minister’s family that are related to the prime minister’s state-related work, but not costs related to private matters.
Data from the 2015 report show that hosting and food-related expenses were, before and after Naftali’s time as house manager, half of what they were during his time on the job.
In 2009, 2010 and 2013, hosting and food-related expenses were NIS 211,000, NIS 266,000 and NIS 226,000, respectively. During 2011 and 2012, when Naftali served as house manager, these expenses skyrocketed to NIS 490,000 and NIS 458,000, respectively.
Food and Guests Expenses chart with Naftali’s tenure as house manager (2011-2012) marked in red. Food and Guests Expenses chart with Naftali’s tenure as house manager (2011-2012) marked in red.
Likewise, in grocery spending; while the years 2010 and 2013 saw it total NIS 196,149 and NIS 182,000, respectively, expenses during Naftali’s term soared to 367,219 and 321,156, respectively.
Similarly, in 2010, NIS 70,851 was spent on takeaway food, but in 2011 it jumped to NIS 92,781 and then climbed again to NIS 158,844 in 2012. By 2013, after Naftali had left the post, the expenditure dropped to NIS 64,000.
Grocery Expenses chart with Naftali's tenure as house manager (2011-2012) marked in red.  Grocery Expenses chart with Naftali's tenure as house manager (2011-2012) marked in red.
In his report, the comptroller does not address the impact Naftali or any of the residence’s other employees might have had on the significant increase in spending. Rather, though he credits the Netanyahus for cutting expenses in 2013, he criticizes them as responsible for the out-of-control spending in 2011 and 2012.
“One should be able to expect from an elected public servant... to show greater public sensitivity and to be careful and conduct himself throughout his term according to proper fundamental principles for public conduct,” the report said at the time.
While this might be true, it cannot be the full picture. The report, for example, neglects to explain why expenses at the Prime Minister’s Residence were still low in 2009-2010, before there was any media attention. Netanyahu was assumed office on March 31, 2009.
Some pundits have suggested that Sara Netanyahu was more modest and careful at the beginning of her husband’s premiership and then started spending more by 2011. Another possibility could be that Naftali was responsible for the high expenses in 2011-2012 and that is why the spending was low before and after.
“No one can disagree that during the time Meni Naftali was house manager the expenses were almost double – this is a fact,” said Yossi Cohen, Sara Netanyahu’s lawyer.
This is, however, only part of the data story. Other data do not point to Naftali. For example, gardening expenses were higher on average in 2009 and 2010 at NIS 133,000 and NIS 159,000, respectively, than during Naftali’s years in 2011-2012 when they were NIS 100,000 and NIS 149,000, respectively.
Operations, cleaning and upkeep, some of the largest expenses, also provide a mixed picture with upkeep being highest at NIS 367,000 in 2010 and operations in 2013 at NIS 786,000 being higher than NIS 627,000 in 2012.
In response to the allegations, Naftali accused the Netanyahus of incitement and trying anything they could to push misleading media stories to change the subject from criminal investigations confronting both the prime minister and his wife.
He said former deputy director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office Ezra Seidoff “testified in the [labor] court that ‘Naftali cannot do anything without my signature.’” This meant, he said, that he could not be responsible for the high expenses because he was just operating based on orders, or at least with approval from Seidoff, if not Sara herself.
Cohen, however, pointed a finger directly at Naftali, while listing three claims: “Naftali’s conduct was to order items that were not needed; Naftali ordered some items for himself and for his work friends; Naftali threw some meals out in the trash.”
The attorney provided The Jerusalem Post with court filings in which he cited multiple media reports alleging that, on a regular basis, Naftali took five to seven crates of what looked like cleaning supplies from the Prime Minister’s Residence for his personal use. Cohen also said that one of Naftali’s neighbors filed a police complaint about the issue and was questioned by police.
Furthermore, Cohen said Naftali had admitted in court proceedings that he sometimes over-ordered prepared food and that Sara had even admonished him for it.
The Post also has confirmed that Naftali is being treated as a state’s witness with immunity for crimes he might have committed in the criminal investigations involving Sara Netanyahu.
It is unclear whether his testimony relates directly to the issue of spending at the residence or if it focuses only on helping the prosecution prove allegations that she committed fraud and misused state funds.
Responding to allegations about Naftali’s influence on the expenses at the Prime Minister’s Residence, the Comptroller’s Office appeared to discredit the notion.
“During the entire review [of the issue], no one raised the claim regarding Meni Naftali as being responsible for the problematic expenses... Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the prime minister himself,” the comptroller’s spokesman said.
Rather, the comptroller said the Prime Minister’s Office “claimed that during 2012-2013 there was actually a reduction in expenses and specifically emphasized the fact that the reduction had already started in 2012,” and only raised the issue of Naftali’s responsibility in response to the report.
Nevertheless, the bottom line from the data and Naftali’s immunity deal is that he initiated contact with the police to receive protection for his personal actions – which he was concerned would be found to be criminal – in exchange for testifying against Sara.
Whether this proves the specific allegations against him or explains the high spending, remains to be seen. What is sure is that it raises some significant questions.