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Wife of Israeli prime minister goes on trial for fraud

Sara Netanyahu appears in court over alleged misuse of state funds, just days after her husband was questioned over bribery allegations
If convicted, Sara Netanyahu could face up to five years in prison (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, has appeared in court for the first hearing in the fraud trial against her, in which she is alleged to have misused state funds in ordering catered meals.

According to the indictment filed in June, Sara Netanyahu, along with a government employee, fraudulently obtained from the state more than $100,000 for hundreds of meals supplied by restaurants, bypassing regulations that prohibit the practice if a cook is employed at home.

Netanyahu, who looked tense as she walked into Sunday's hearing, denies any wrongdoing.

She was charged in June with fraud and breach of trust and aggravated fraudulent receipt of goods. If convicted, Netanyahu could face up to five years in prison.

She made no comment to reporters and sat on a bench behind her lawyers. Israeli media reports said the session would deal with procedural matters, the Reuters news agency reported.

Netanyahu's lawyers contend the indictment does not hold up because the regulations for ordering meals were legally invalid and a household employee had requisitioned the food despite Netanyahu's protestations.

"If we even get to the stage of presenting evidence, I do believe your honour may laugh," one of her attorneys, Yossi Cohen, told the court. She was not asked to enter a plea.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who himself is embroiled in a series of corruption investigations, has called the allegations against his wife absurd and unfounded.

On Friday, the prime minister was questioned by police investigating two cases in which he is accused of corruption, Israeli media reported.

This is the 12th time that Netanyahu, who is at the centre of five corruption cases, has been questioned by police over the allegations.

Libel suit

Sara Netanyahu, 59, has inspired a multitude of headlines in the past over what family spokesmen call an undeserved reputation for imperiousness.

In 2017, the Netanyahus won a libel suit against an Israeli journalist who said Sara once kicked her husband out of their car during an argument.

In 2016, a Jerusalem labour court ruled that she had insulted and raged at household staff in the prime minister's official residence.

It seemed unlikely Sara's present legal woes would cause significant political damage to her husband, now in his fourth term as Israel's leader and riding high in opinion polls despite the allegations against him.

Accusations he has made against the Israeli media of orchestrating a politically motivated witch-hunt against him and his wife appear to have struck a chord with his right-wing voter base, which has rallied in support of the 68-year-old leader.

The next national elections in Israel are scheduled for November 2019, but some political analysts predict a snap election will be held sooner.