Sara Netanyahu stands trial over prepared food affair for the first time

In an exceptional move, the State Attorney's Office requested that the case be heard by a panel of three judges due to its complexity and sensitivity.

Sara Netanyahu stands trial over prepared food affair for the first time, October 7, 2018 (Reuters)
The trial of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, in the “Prepared Food Affair” started on Sunday with fireworks before Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court President Avital Chen over whether additional judges needed to be added to the case.
In June, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against the prime minister’s wife for fraud with aggravated circumstances and breach of public trust in an explosive development which shook the country.
In the Prepared Food Affair, the attorney-general has alleged that from September 2010 until March 2013, Sara Netanyahu acted in coordination with then-Prime Minister’s Office deputy director-general Ezra Seidoff to present the false misrepresentation that the Prime Minister’s Residence did not employ a chef, even though there was one on staff during that time.
Prosecution lawyers Erez Padan and Jenny Avni pressed for a three-judge panel, saying that the fate of the prime minister’s wife and issues of misuse of public funds have serious significance for the broader public.
They said that the court has wide discretion to add judges to a case, and asked rhetorically: “If not in this case, then when?”
Sara’s lawyer, Yossi Cohen, slammed the prosecution’s position saying: “This case over food never should have been filed, and now they are trying to over-complicate it.”
Cohen said that one judge was more than enough, just as it had been enough for the Holyland trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
The prosecution retorted that there were three magistrate’s court judges in the trial of Avigdor Liberman, which was for a similar level of severity in terms of the alleged crimes.
It was unclear exactly when Chen will decide the issue, but her ruling is expected in the coming days.
The sides also fought about whether the prosecution owed documents to the defense, with Cohen claiming that the prosecution was trying to cover-up instances in which police made clear comments showing they were biased against the Netanyahu family.
Avni responded that some of the disagreements simply related to how files were organized, and that on other issues there might be legal disputes on which the court might need to rule, over protecting internal prosecution documents.
The next hearing was set for November 13, where Judge Chen will try one last time to try to broker a deal – meaning that the first hearing of witnesses will probably have to wait until the winter.
It is unclear how much Sara’s public trial will damage the prime minister politically in an atmosphere in which The Jerusalem Post has reported that he is also likely to be indicted in early 2019.
Originally, the trial was set for July, but it was delayed by health problems of one of Netanyahu’s lawyers, Jacob Weinroth, who recently quit when Sara refused to cut a plea deal that he advised her to accept.
Netanyahu’s defense lawyers approached Mandelblit a number of times offering a plea deal in which she would return some of the funds and take public responsibility, as long as she would not be slapped with a criminal record.
Ultimately, despite media reports that a deal might be near, the Post’s sources proved correct that no deal was reached, leading to an indictment.
The indictment itself was also delayed a few months to allow Nir Hefetz, a former close adviser to the Netanyahu family, to provide additional evidence against Sara. Although Hefetz is primarily a state’s witness against the prime minister in Case 4000 the “Bezeq-Walla Affair,” he also provided material against Sara.
A pre-indictment hearing in January where Sara Netanyahu’s lawyers asked Mandelblit to reverse the preliminary decision he made in September 2017 to indict her, also had failed to sway him, though Mandelblit issued a statement at the time that he “had an open mind.”
In the Prepared Food Affair, according to the allegations, Sara and Seidoff, made misrepresentations to circumvent and exploit regulations that stated: “In a case where a cook is not employed in the official residence, it is permitted to order prepared food as needed.” The two hoped to obtain state funding both for the chef at the residence and for prepared food orders. In this way, the two allegedly fraudulently obtained from the state NIS 359,000 for hundreds of prepared food orders.
Furthermore, in 15 instances, invoices to chefs who were brought in from outside were falsified in order to circumvent limits on how much could be paid toward outside chefs. Seidoff directed the chefs, the house managers and Netanyahu’s secretaries to falsify the invoices in these instances.
Charges against Netanyahu for these 15 instances were previously closed by Mandelblit as there was insufficient evidence to prove that she knew about the actions of Seidoff and the others.
The prosecution also indicted Seidoff for the same offenses, while adding the offense of falsifying documents, with a total fraud amount of NIS 393,000.
Seidoff’s lawyer, Yehoshua Resnick, bemoaned to the court on Sunday that his client had been swept up in efforts to go after the Netanyahu family and was not being treated as a normal defendant.
Several other cases against Netanyahu were closed in September 2017, but one of them will also impact the indictment.
The Sara Netanyahu cases jumped into the headlines in February 2015 as part of a State Comptroller report, resulting in “Bottlegate” and other now-closed cases becoming household names. It became a full criminal investigation starting in July 2015.