Jerusalem — First there was Bottlegate, the time Sara Netanyahu was accused of pocketing more than $1,000 in taxpayer money after redeeming thousands of empty bottles used in the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Then there was IceCreamgate, when Israel’s State Comptroller discovered the Netanyahu household was spending $2,500 a month on ice cream (pistachio was the flavor of choice); and Watergate: revelations that the Netanyahus had spent $20,000 on water at their private home in the coastal town of Caesarea.
But it was TakeOutGate that ultimately got Sara Netanyahu into real trouble.
Last week, the first lady was indicted for fraud. Her alleged crime: spending $100,000 on takeout food, despite having an in-house chef. If convicted during the trial, which is scheduled to begin July 19, she could face up to five years in prison.
Netanyahu’s lawyers say she was unaware of the law and that intent is everything. She has refused to admit guilt or repay the money, two preconditions for a plea bargain.
It remains to be seen whether her husband, the prime minister, will be indicted for more serious offenses.
Although the first lady’s alleged crime is small potatoes compared to those committed by former President Moshe Katsav (rape) and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (various corruption charges), her critics say they’ve had enough of her family’s sense of entitlement and delusions of grandeur.
On Monday, the day before the Netanyahus were scheduled to host Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, Haaretz columnist Allison Kaplan Sommer Twitter-quipped, “When Prince William is greeted by Bibi and Sara, we’ll see a royal who tries to relate to the common people meeting commoners who think they are king and queen.”
Although Israeli comedy shows have long ridiculed the Netanyahus’ dreams of grandeur, portraying them in faux royal crowns and robes, the first couple believe they deserve some perks, Sommer told The Jewish Week in an interview.
“They both feel he’s given decades of his life to the service of the state, so they feel they’ve earned this entitlement. They think: ‘What we need to live comfortably is a small price for the public to pay for what we do.’”
Sara Netanyahu’s supporters tend to agree, Sommer said, and that’s where comparisons between the Netanyahus and the Trumps come into play.
“They’re very comparable in that regardless of the revelations related to their lives, those who think Netanyahu or Trump crossed a line are still critical, and those who support their politics, even if they may not like them, believe it’s a small price to pay to have a leader leading their country in a certain direction.”
As for Sara and Melania, “there’s the perception that Melania isn’t relishing her role” as first lady. “She signed up to be a billionaire’s wife, not a political life,” Sommer said. Sara, meanwhile “enjoys her lifestyle. Bibi’s career was well on its way when they married.”
Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” says that despite having vastly different skill-sets, the Israeli prime minister and the American president are both politically manipulative.
“Trump doesn’t read, doesn’t have a deep knowledge of history and geopolitics. He’s a showman. Bibi is deeply and widely read, intellectual and educated. He has written books. It’s hard to compare them on this level.”
But both leaders “manage to stir up resentment and bitterness and stoke all this anger among voters. They both connect with working-class voters, even though they are privileged. They’re among the elite and yet stir up resentment against the elite,” Pfeffer said.
Far from being a liability, Sara Netanyahu’s legal woes actually “add to the narrative of Netanyahu against the hostile media and establishment,” Pfeffer continued. According to Netanyahu’s supporters on Facebook and Twitter, indicting Sara is a bitter attempt by liberals to bring down Israel’s right-wing government.
“Bibi is using the criticism to rally his base against the media and to divert justified criticism away from him,” Pfeffer said. “He is the elected official.”
Whether Netanyahu was aware his wife allegedly broke the law isn’t clear, the author said.
“I can believe he wasn’t aware. He’s a very busy person and not the kind of man who takes a lot of interest in domestic arrangements, where his meals are from or whether they’re legal.”
But in Pfeffer’s opinion he should have known.
By not involving himself in the technicalities of how his official and private residences are funded, he has essentially “thrown Sarah under the bus,” Pfeffer said.
Haaretz reporter Chemi Shalev agrees.
“From a political point of view [Netanyahu] is responsible because he, not she was elected. And to say he’s unaware” of anything that goes on in his residence “is patently unbelievable.”
Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, called the attorney general who investigated and indicted Sara “an honest” man who was not politically motivated.
“I don’t think the attorney general has political motivations but the whole climate around the indictment is very political,” he said.
Sandler believes that many of the people who leaked insider information to the attorney general want to force Netanyahu out of office.
“Those who are unhappy with the results of the democratic process may be trying the legal process. Netanyahu has been in power since 2009 and it doesn’t look like he’ll lose the next election. He’s still leading the polls.”
As to whether Sarah is innocent or guilty, the indictment is clear, he suggested. “She may have done things she shouldn’t have done. The courts will have to decide,” Sandler said.
Although the indictment reveals that the Israeli justice system is working, it also reveals “big differences” between the expectations and codes of conduct in Israel and the U.S., Shalev said.
“I don’t think anything [Sara] has been indicted for would be prosecutable in the White House,” said Shalev, who served as Haaretz’s U.S.-based reporter for several years. “This is very small change by White House standards,” where reports of conflicts of interests related to Trump businesses and illicit ties hit the newspapers almost every day.
Comparing their excesses (including allegedly bringing several suitcases of dirty clothing so it can be dry cleaned abroad) with the Trumps’ excesses may be feeding the Netanyahus’ persecution complex, Shalev said.
The indictment revealed that Sara ordered her staff to take the laundry abroad not because the state would pay for it — the state would have paid for it in Israel, too — but because she reportedly prefers the smell of overseas dry cleaning.
Shalev believes that most Israelis consider Sara’s spending more of an embarrassment than a serious crime.
“I know a lot of people on the left are happy and see this as a sort of revenge” on the prime minister. “But overall most people would like it to just go away.
“I personally feel sorry for her and for him,” Shalev said, “and for all of us.”