Sara Netanyahu's Takeout Dinners May Not Be a Game-Changer

Heidi Levine/Pool photo via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah as they enter the Tel Aviv Magistrate Court

How in the world do you order $100,000 worth of takeout in Jerusalem?

Such was my reflexive reaction when Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israel's prime minister, was indicted last week for fraudulently charging meals worth that much to the government. I mean, you have to work at overspending on dining in this town. At one of the classier restaurants from which she ordered, the most expensive main course on the menu, an entrecote steak, costs under $45. 

But the question was silly. If anyone could be so extravagant on someone else's tab, it's the Netanyahus. Reports of their determined disregard for paying the bills, their sense of royal entitlement even when Benjamin Netanyahu was out of office, go back to the beginning of his national career. 

The indictment does raise a couple of legal questions, like how it took this long for one Netanyahu or the other to face criminal charges. 

More important is a political question, one hardly restricted to Israel: How does a politician maintain electoral support despite an ever-present stench of corruption? Does even the scent of madness make no difference? Why don't voters care?

Back in 1995, the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir ran a cover story on Benjamin and Sarah's dislike of paying the way that mere mortals do. At the time, Benjamin Netanyahu was a 45-year-old second-term member of parliament who got elected head of the opposition Likud. 

Waiters told Kol Ha'ir about how Benjamin would regularly claim at the end of meals that he had no money on him, and say he'd send someone to pay. Godot never arrived with the cash. He held meetings at the executive lounge of a top-end Jerusalem hotel, a hotel staffer said, and acted shocked when asked to pay for the space. Sarah regularly got her hair styled at another hotel and demanded a discount, saying, “I'm the wife of Bibi Netanyahu.” There were lots of stories in the article, and they were only some of the ones known around town. 

In 1996, he got elected prime minister anyway. His voters tended toward petite bourgeoisie and lower working class, and he played to their resentments as if he'd playing the instrument from the age of two. 

Three years later, after he was voted out, police investigated suspicions that he'd tried to get the government to pay his bills to a private contractor. The attorney general, a Netanyahu appointee, quashed the recommendation of the top state prosecutor to indict him.

Even very brief summaries of all the Netanyahus' police probes and ethical absurdities turn into encyclopedias. So just one more: In 2011, it came out that while serving as a member of parliament and as finance minister, between his stints as prime minister, Netanyahu and his wife had taken overseas junkets paid for by organizations and private backers.  Sarah, it was reported, would go with suitcases full of dirty laundry, to dry clean at the hotels at their sponsor's expense. 

This detail reveals two themes of the Netanyahu excesses: One is the bizarre mix of personal penny-pinching and monarchist excess. The other is that the prime minister's wife seems, well, to have some problems, and not just about money. 

In 2016, for example, two former employees at the prime minister's residence won damages from the government because of the abuse they'd taken from Sarah Netanyahu. Among other incidents, she called the house manager at 3 a.m. to scold him for buying milk in the wrong kind of container. In one of the cases, the court understatedly ruled that her testimony was “not based in fact.” 

A few weeks ago, the daily Haaretz reported, citing anonymous sources, that Sarah Netanyahu had tried to physically attack the director general of the Prime Minister's Office after he turned down her request to cover expenses at the Netanyahu's private home. Both she and the director general issued ritual denials. But he has also resigned his post.

So the indictment reads like the latest chapter in a very long-running and improbable telenovela. The court papers explain that Sarah Netanyahu was in charge of running the official residence. Regulations allowed ordering food out if there was no cook on the staff. But there was a cook. So Sarah and a staffer in the Prime Minister's Office allegedly listed the cook as a housecleaner. There's lots more, but you get the idea.

Benjamin Netanyahu isn't listed in the indictment. For purposes of a criminal conviction, I suppose, it would have been difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he knew of and was an accomplice to the fraud. On the level of public responsibility, on the other hand, the case is one more example of the couple behaving as if the state exists to serve them.

Yet to judge by polling, Netanyahu's base seems unperturbed. His own Likud party is silent. The political right has lots of grudges against elites, but not against King Bibi and Queen Sarah. Or at least not enough of a grudge to consider voting for someone else. 

At this point, the Israeli custom of self-flagellation would normally require me to say that in “properly functioning countries”—the model is usually the United States—this couldn't happen. That custom is obsolete in the era of Donald Trump, whose exploitation of office makes the Netanyahus look like amateurs, and whose base seems even less concerned. 

I'd suggest that voters are likely to stop supporting a politician who misuses his or her office when they hear and believe the charges—and when the alternative seems bearable. 

Put differently, the more polarized and emotional politics are in a country, and the more fragmented the media coverage, the less likely voters are to respond to allegations of corruption against leaders they otherwise support. 

If you're getting your news about Netanyahu from his pet newspaper, Israel Hayom, the allegations against him will either be muffled or will sound like a plot by prosecutors and left-wing media. 

And besides, you'll think, what's the alternative? Netanyahu isn't the first leader of the Israeli right to convince his followers that the left is ready to sell the country to the Arabs, but he has been exceptionally good at fanning that fear. So they will stick with him. 

Perhaps an actual conviction of Sarah Netanyahu will change some minds. Perhaps if the indictment of Sarah is followed by indictments of her husband in any of the investigations against him, the political balance will shift just enough to end their reign. 

In the meantime, I'm willing only to predict that the trial of Sarah will be the craziest chapter yet of the Netanyahu telenovela. And there's no reason to believe it will be the final chapter. 

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