Israeli PM's wife charged with fraud, breach of trust

AP

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FILE - In this Wednesday, June 6, 2018 file photo, Israel's Prime Minister's wife Sara Netanyahu arrives for the meeting with French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire at Bercy Economy Ministry, in Paris, France. Israeli prosecutors have charged Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife, with a series of crimes including fraud and breach of trust. The Justice Ministry said in a statement on Thursday, June 21, 2018, that Sara Netanyahu stands accused of misusing public funds by fraudulently ordering hundreds of meals to the prime minister's official residence worth over $100,000 while falsely stating there were no cooks on staff. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) The wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was charged Thursday with misusing some $100,000 in public funds to order lavish meals from celebrity chefs, dealing an embarrassing blow to the country's first family and drawing fresh attention to a series of separate corruption investigations plaguing the prime minister.

Although the indictment against Sara Netanyahu did not directly affect the prime minister, it ended a period of political victories that had bolstered the Israeli leader and distracted attention from his legal woes. Her lawyers denounced the charges as "baseless and delusional."

Sara Netanyahu has long faced allegations of abusive behavior and living extravagantly. In 2016, a court ruled she abused an employee and awarded the man $42,000 in damages. Other former employees have accused her of mistreatment, charges the Netanyahus have vehemently denied.

In Thursday's indictment, the Justice Ministry said Sara Netanyahu was charged with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly overspending roughly $100,000 on private meals at the prime minister's official residence, even when there was a full-time chef on staff. A former deputy director of the official residence was also charged.

Sara Netanyahu acted "to circumvent the rules and conditions" governing the official residence "in order to fraudulently obtain state funding for various expenses for the accused and her family that were not supposed to be financed in this manner," the indictment said.

It was not immediately clear when her trial would begin. If convicted, she could face a maximum sentence of five years behind bars for the most serious charge, though that appeared unlikely.

In a statement posted on the prime minister's Facebook page, her lawyers called the indictment "baseless and delusional." It said she was not even aware of the regulations, that the food had been ordered by an assistant and served primarily to staff and visiting dignitaries.

"This is the first time in Israel and in the world that the wife of a leader is brought to justice over food trays," it said. "There was no fraud or breach of trust here or deceptively receiving things or any other crime."

The indictment threatened to reinforce the unflattering reputation the Netanyahus have gained over the years of enjoying an expensive lifestyle and being out of touch with most Israelis. Netanyahu also faces several police investigations into alleged corruption, including accepting expensive gifts from billionaire friends. The Netanyahus have denied any wrongdoing, and say they are the victims of a political witch hunt and hostile media.

Netanyahu has managed to deflect attention from his legal problems through a string of political and diplomatic victories in recent months. In May, Netanyahu announced that the Mossad spy agency had stolen tens of thousands of sensitive nuclear documents from archenemy Iran. The following week, the U.S. withdrew from the international nuclear deal with Iran, a move that was warmly welcomed by Netanyahu. Israel has also carried out a number of successful airstrikes on Iranian targets in neighboring Syria, and it has celebrated the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem over strong Palestinian and international objections.

But Thursday's indictment provided a fresh reminder that Netanyahu has not put his legal troubles behind him.

Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, said the indictment was a "devastating blow" to the prime minister. He described Sara as "the power behind the throne."

"He consults with her on key issues, both personal, political and even diplomatic and security issues and now she's under indictment and that's very serious," Hoffman said. "He himself has three criminal investigations hanging over his head and that will make it harder for Netanyahu to govern."

Israeli police questioned Netanyahu, his wife and son last week in connection to a corruption case involving the country's telecom giant, Bezeq.

Netanyahu is suspected of promoting regulations that provided hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits for the company in return for more favorable coverage of the Netanyahu family on Bezeq's influential news site, Walla.

Israeli police have already recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

Netanyahu is suspected of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends, and promising to promote legislation to help a major Israeli newspaper against its free rival in exchange for favorable coverage.

Israel's attorney general is now reviewing the police recommendations and is expected to decide whether to indict Netanyahu in the coming months.

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