Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, kept thousands of shekels from deposits on empty bottles that were returned, on her orders, to supermarkets in Jerusalem over the course of several years even though the bottle deposits were state property.
Two years ago, the Netanyahus returned 4,000 shekels for the bottle deposits to the state, estimating that the deposits totalled 1,000 shekels per year. However, according to a former employee of the Netanyahus the amount they owed the state for the bottle deposits — which she had been collecting since her husband became prime minister in 2009 — totalled thousands of shekels more than what they returned — and that the prime minister must have been aware of that.
The affair came to the attention of law enforcement authorities only yesterday when they were contacted for comment.
The actions could constitute a criminal offense of theft or receiving an item under false pretenses and that returning the money — according to an estimate, and without certainty that it is the exact amount — detracts from the severity of the offense but does not nullify the offense, said a jurist contacted about the affair.
In reply to questions from Haaretz, Rafi Shamir of the communications department at the Prime Minister’s Office said: “In May 2013, the Netanyahus transferred 4,000 shekels to the accounting department of the Prime Minister’s Office on their own initiative. The above-mentioned amount matches the estimates by the account there, based on the consumption of bottles of drinks in the official residence since April 2009. The check was deposited in the bank account of the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Meni Naftali, the former house manager of the prime minister’s official residence, who is suing the state and the prime minister for compensation for various injustices that he claims to have suffered, recalled in footnotes to his deposition that the office workers were required to return the bottles to the supermarkets and give the redeemed deposits to Sara Netanyahu. One of Naftali’s demands was that the state “reveal and hand over to the plaintiff all the accounts of the prime minister’s official residence" at various supermarkets in the neighborhood during the period relevant to the lawsuit.
Naftali stated in his deposition that “At first, the accountant in the Prime Minister’s Office at the time, Yossi Strauss, wondered about the unreasonable expenses in the prime minister’s official residence. For example, I recall that Strauss asked me whether it seemed logical to me that the prime minister’s official residence was spending 7,000 shekels per month on flowers. When the prime minister’s wife heard that Strauss wanted to know what was going on, she became annoyed and said angrily, ‘Wait, wait — that’s Olmert’s accountant. Our guy, [Yossi] Itzkovitz [who took over the position of accountant at the PMO’s office] will be there soon.”
‘Amount owed was 24,000 shekels’
Following the publication of Haaretz’s report on Thursday morning, Naftali said that the amount the Netanyahus paid does not come close to the real amount of the redeemed bottles, which he estimated at 250 shekels “once a fortnight.” If Naftali’s figure is correct, the yearly amount of the redeemed deposits was 6,000 shekels, and over four years would have reached roughly 24,000 — 20,000 shekels more than Itzkovitz’s estimate.
Naftali, who managed the prime minister’s official residence in 2011 and 2012, added that he and his colleagues, whom he mentioned by name, were asked to gather the cans and plastic containers and take them, together with the bottles, in large bags to the recycling center in Talpiot.
Asked about the bottle deposits, Viktor Sarga, who was Sara Netanyahu’s driver and was since offered a sinecure in the National Security Council, headed by Yossi Cohen, a close friend of the Netanyahus, refused to comment this morning, saying, “I am not allowed to.”
Naftali claims that Benjamin Netanyahu was a witness to his wife’s frequent demands that the workers recycle the bottles — “including the bottles of Pellegrino water that he likes to drink” — and that he had to have been aware that the money from the redeemed deposits was being given to her and not to the state, and that the total amount was higher than the 4,000 shekels that were repaid to Itzkovitz. According to Naftali, the guards from the Shin Bet’s VIP protection unit who surrounded the Netanyahus would be able to confirm the truth of his account to the police.
“She sent bottles of wine and champagne to us by the elevator, checked to see whether we had received them and demanded that we take them to the recycling center in a different car, not in her own car, because of the smell,” Naftali said. He added that the supply of large bottles of mineral water (which are handed in for recycling but do not yield any deposit) was decreased and more use made of small bottles, which are more expensive but allow the buyer to get money back on the deposit. Naftali said that he provided details about this and other issues to officials of the State Comptroller’s Office, which is preparing a critical report on the management of the prime minister’s official residences.
A Justice Ministry spokesman, asked on Wednesday for Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s position on the bottles affair, did not respond.
Last week, Weinstein defended the slow handling of the “Bibi Tours” case, citing the need for extra caution before opening a criminal case against the prime minister. An Israel Police spokesman said that the police were unfamiliar with the topic and that it must be examined by the attorney general.