Sara Netanyahu/Yossi Cohen
© Debbie Hill/AFP
Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and her lawyer Yossi Cohen wait for the judge to arrive at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on June 16, 2019.
PM's wife admits to lesser offense in plea deal that dropped original fraud charge over her illegal ordering of catered meals to the PM's Residence; will pay $15,000 to state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife, Sara, was convicted Sunday of taking unfair advantage of a mistake, after earlier confessing to the offense as part of a plea deal signed last week in a case involving allegations of illegally procured catering services at the Prime Minister's Residence.

"Indeed, the defendant misused public funds," judge Avital Chen said in announcing the verdict, while admitting the case for the prosecution had not been smooth. He noted Netanyahu's lack of previous convictions and the fact that she had "taken responsibility and saved a lot of precious judicial time."

After the verdict was announced, Netanyahu told the judge: "I have suffered enough."

The agreement saw Netanyahu escape a conviction of aggravated fraud, but confess to the lesser charge. She will pay NIS 55,000 ($15,210) - NIS 10,000 as a fine, and the rest as restitution.

A year ago, Sara Netanyahu and Ezra Saidoff, a former caretaker at the Prime Minister's Residence, were charged with fraud and breach of trust for spending $100,000 of state funds on catered meals while there was a full-time chef on staff. That amount was slashed by half in the amended indictment filed last Wednesday, to some $50,000, although Netanyahu will only return some $12,500 of it to the state.

The judge agreed to Netanyahu's request to pay the money in 11 separate payments of NIS 5,000 each, the first of which will take place July 15.

The state could file a civil lawsuit to get Netanyahu to return the remaining sum, the Walla news site reported.

The residence is not permitted to order prepared food if a chef is present. The two allegedly misrepresented the chef's presence between September 2010 and March 2013, in order to claim state funds to order meals.

Netanyahu took advantage of the mistake of the Prime Minister's Residence accountants, who thought there hadn't been a chef on staff, the judge wrote in his verdict.

"The verdict means that a person with access to public funds, no matter how high-ranking they are, cannot use them as if they were theirs," said prosecution attorney Jenny Avni in response.

Fellow prosecutor Erez Padan hailed the conviction as a "good result. So is the fact that a conviction has been achieved without a single witness going on the stand, with the defendant taking responsibility."

Attorney Yossi Cohen, who represents Netanyahu, earlier Sunday launched a tirade against "ugly leaks" he said were aimed at hurting her husband and toppling the government.

"This is one of the most severe and hurtful punishments that a person I know has received," Cohen said in court. "This is the result of four years of ugly, tendentious, libelous leaks that spilled my client's blood. They forgot she is also a mother, a wife.

"I stood here astonished at the lengths our society is willing to go to hurt a person," he continued. "And of course nobody wanted to hurt Mrs. Netanyahu. The goal was to hurt her husband, topple the government."

A plea deal with Saidoff is expected to be finalized later this week. He is expected to admit - like Netanyahu - to the lesser offense of taking unfair advantage of a mistake. Saidoff has reportedly agreed to pay NIS 10,000 ($2,765) and will be given a suspended sentence.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had been eager from the start to avoid a trial, drawing up a plea bargain proposal for Netanyahu even before announcing charges. That deal never saw the light of day.

Sara Netanyahu's trial is separate from her husband's legal woes, which revolve around suspicions that the prime minister accepted illicit gifts, took bribes, and tried to arrange favors for media barons in exchange for positive press coverage.

Sara Netanyahu was a suspect in one of those cases, but prosecutors did not recommend she face charges.

The Netanyahus have denied any wrongdoing, and say they are the victims of a political witch hunt driven by a hostile leftist media and the courts.