The Sara Netanyahu trial could be the final chapter of a long saga

This final chapter is about only the “prepared food affair,” in which she allegedly fraudulently used state funds to obtain NIS 359,000 worth of prepared food from September 2010 until March 2013.

Sara Netanyahu stands trial over prepared food affair for the first time, October 7, 2018 (Reuters)
With Sara Netanyahu’s blockbuster trial finally opening on Sunday, we open the final climactic chapter of a story that goes back to “Bottlegate” in a State Comptroller’s Report in 2015 or even further back.
This final chapter is about only the “prepared food affair,” in which she allegedly fraudulently used state funds to obtain NIS 359,000 worth of prepared food from September 2010 until March 2013.
Mostly, it appears there is overwhelming evidence that there was a fraudulent use of state funds and that there was a scheme to pretend that the Prime Minister’s Residence did not employ a cook, though it did.
The real question in the trial is whether Sara knew and directed her underlings to perpetrate the fraud and cover it up, as the state alleges, or whether they acted on their own.
But that is only one narrow case that made it to trial out of as many as seven separate probes of Sara for law-breaking at the beginning of the story (including “Bottlegate,” which was eventually closed).
Many of the probes, including the case that is going to trial, relate to a volcanic multisided conflict between her and the Prime Minister’s Residence house manager during the 2011-2012 period, Meni Naftali.
Naftali already beat Sara and the state in labor court and through all of the appeals to the Supreme Court, winning back close to NIS 200,000 in overtime and for abusive employer treatment.
The labor court in the case slammed Sara’s abusiveness toward Naftali and other workers as well as her credibility.
That does not mean he and the state will win this higher-stakes criminal case, in which Sara’s criminal intent on some other issues must be proven and to a much higher standard than in labor court.
The crux of the expected trial against Netanyahu will be whether she can create enough doubt about whether she knew about the orders.
Many famous people have pleaded ignorance of everything that was being done by their underlings in plain sight – and lost in court. This is especially true of strong micromanaging personalities, which fits Sara, at least according to civil labor courts proceedings.
Netanyahu has tried in the media to pin the blame on Naftali, and the former house manager has pointed the finger at Sara by admitting that he was involved in the scam (though he obtained an immunity deal for his confession). But in court, he is only a shield for part of the orders.
In court, she will need to blame at least two other house managers, her personal staff and the Prime Minister’s Office deputy director-general Ezra Seidoff.
This will be a tall order.
We have heard little from the other house managers, and it will be interesting to see how the story plays out in court regarding their eras running the show. But Seidoff may be even more crucial.
Overall, many in the police felt that Mandelblit let Sara off easy by indicting her for only one out of seven potential cases. Of the seven affairs, Seidoff was indicted in four of them.
Yes, Naftali’s testimony against Netanyahu may be part of the key to the decision to indict Sara in the “prepared food affair.” But Naftali has his own credibility problems.
In reality, it is Seidoff taking a hit for the team that saved Netanyahu from the other three key affairs in which he is indicted.
For example, in 15 instances invoices to chefs who were brought in from outside were allegedly falsified in order to circumvent limits on how much could be paid toward outside chefs.
Seidoff allegedly directed the chefs, the house managers and Netanyahu’s secretaries to falsify the invoices in these 15 instances.
Charges against Netanyahu for these 15 instances were previously closed by Mandelblit, as there was insufficient evidence to prove that she knew about Seidoff’s and the others’ actions.
Until now, he has sworn not to cut a deal and turn against her.
But Shula Zaken swore the same for Ehud Olmert before the Holyland trial went downhill and Zaken was looking at years in jail. Top Benjamin Netanyahu aides Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz swore allegiance to the prime minister until they cut their deals to avoid certain jail time.
If Seidoff starts losing big – and the evidence against him is thick – he may flip. If he flips against Sara, her situation will get much worse, and fast. Some advice to her lawyers, post-Zaken: Say only nice things about Seidoff on TV.
We also know that although Hefetz is primarily important as a witness against the prime minister, late in the game he added some evidence against Sara. It will be interesting to see how much he is used – an audition of sorts for his likely showdown with the prime minister later.
An under-covered piece of the trial is what role the “father homecare affair” will play. In that case, it had been alleged that Sara misused state funds for homecare for her sick father in the period before he died.
Mandelblit closed that affair, finding that a combination of the amount of money at stake being too small and Sara’s emotional toil during that period made it a bad path to go down. But he did not clear her of the allegations.
Having closed it as an independent case out of sympathy and to avoid wasting prosecutorial time, he also said he would raise it in the “prepared food affair” trial as an example of dishonesty by Sara to prove a pattern of corruption.
Even if Sara loses the case, lawyer Yossi Cohen revealed his strategy to The Jerusalem Post, saying that he would seek to eviscerate the damages against her down to around NIS 30,000-NIS 40,000 until the whole case would seem tiny and overblown. He will try to blame much of the misused funds allegations solely on Naftali, or will show examples where prepared food was necessary because the official chef was on vacation or the prime minister needed to host a huge delegation of foreign dignitaries. In that case, Sara might lose, but the prosecution’s victory could be with a whimper.
A related question is how strong the prosecution team will be. Olmert faced the cream of the crop, but that was in the higher district court with bribery charges in play. In contrast, Sara’s case is in a lower magistrate’s court, and less famous prosecutors who deal with lighter fraud charges may run the case, as occurred with Avigdor Liberman in 2013. If so, Mandelblit had better hope that the prosecutors have more backbone than those less-senior prosecutors had, as they were often steamrolled by Netanyahu lawyer Jacob Weinroth – who also represented Liberman.
Another dynamic of the case is whether Sara herself will cut a plea deal mid-trial. Her legal team of Weinroth and Cohen has appeared split over cutting a deal, with Weinroth wanting to avoid a trial and Cohen more confident.
Sara herself appears to have wanted a fight. At most, she was convinced of signing a deal that would require returning only a small amount of the NIS 359,000, while accepting generic public responsibility but refusing to accept criminal responsibility.
Despite multiple rounds of planted false stories in the media that a deal was in the works, the Post, based on sources who knew better, correctly reported throughout that Mandelblit would not budge on a deal for anything less than a full return of the funds and acceptance of criminal responsibility.
So why might Sara change her mind, after refusing the same deal before and dealing with the negative media coverage of a massive public trial? First, Mandelblit does not want to give Sara jail time. If she cuts a deal, she would for sure avoid that and avoid the display of public defeat in court. Also, once the writing is more on the wall, and overoptimistic predictions from some of her lawyers do not seem to be materializing in court, she may finally get cold feet.
One surprise of the Sara Netanyahu case is that it did no favors for Mandelblit. Those who insisted he would never indict her and that he would sell out to Netanyahu altered their position to say that indicting her did not matter, and all that mattered was whether he quickly indicts the prime minister
Those supporting the prime minister cried foul that he indicted her and gave him no credit for closing six out of the seven cases.
And anyway, all they really care about is whether he indicts the prime minister. Unlike Yitzhak Rabin, who resigned once his wife was accused of a far lesser crime, the Netanyahu dynasty has mostly ignored the politics of the prime minister’s wife being tried for a crime.
In fact, the ultimate legacy of the Sara Netanyahu trial may be as a warm-up to the even bigger legal event down the road against her husband.