JERUSALEM (AP) — With Israeli elections looming and the region in turmoil, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found himself once more enmeshed in a gossipy scandal on Tuesday: a new government report alleged possible financial malfeasance at his official residence, while his wife faced criticism for pettiness and possible security breaches after complaining about their kitchen in a video.
The uproar jolted an election campaign in which Netanyahu's opponents have tried to portray him as enjoying a lavish lifestyle and being out of touch with the struggles of average Israelis. Netanyahu's allies angrily dismissed the allegations as part of a campaign to deflect attention from important national security issues.
In its report released Tuesday, the state comptroller, an official watchdog, cited large sums of public money spent on food, furniture, cleaning and gardening at the couple's official residence in Jerusalem and their private home in the exclusive coastal city of Caesarea. Cleaning expenses in that home alone averaged more than $2,100 a month in taxpayer's money, according to the report, even though the couple only spent the occasional weekend there. It also said they pocketed proceeds from recycling bottles that had been purchased for entertaining official guests. It said the bottle returns, and purchases of garden furniture for their private home, may have violated the law.
The Netanyahus are no strangers to such scrutiny. The prime minister has long been saddled with an image as a cigar-smoking, cognac-drinking socialite, while his wife has come under fire for her own expensive tastes and alleged abusive behavior toward staff.
The Netanyahus accuse the Israeli media of a longstanding witch hunt against them. In a statement, Netanyahu said he respected the findings of the comptroller and pledged to implement recommendations to curb wasteful spending. At the same time he lashed out at the "ongoing media campaign" that he said is aimed at toppling him.
"There is absolutely no indication of any assault on the public's integrity and certainly no indication of any criminal transgressions," he said.
A former member of their housekeeping staff has filed a lawsuit claiming he was mistreated and verbally abused by Sara Netanyahu. In one instance, Meni Naftali alleged she called him at 3 a.m. to complain that he had bought milk in a plastic storage bag instead of a carton. In another, he claimed that she chastised him because some flowers in a vase were a day old.
Netanyahu said expenses have dropped significantly in the two years since the departure of Naftali, a man he described as "an embittered former public employee."
Over the years, reports have been released about the high cost of the Netanyahus' catering, housekeeping, furniture, clothing and makeup. In one case, the premier was chided for spending $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a flight to London. Even their costly purchases of scented candles and pistachio-flavored ice cream have been derided.
Two days before the state comptroller released its report, Netanyahu posted a 15-minute video on Facebook that appeared aimed at countering the hedonistic image ahead of March 17 elections that have focused on the economic woes of middle and lower-class voters.
In the clip, Sara Netanyahu unveils to interior designer Moshik Galamin a simple home with creaking doors and windows, frayed carpets, dusty lamps, cracked light fixtures and paint peeling off neglected walls. She bemoans how they didn't have the budget to fix upholstery before the 2013 visit of President Barack Obama and says he was forced to sit on a coffee-stained couch.
"I don't notice the details because I don't dare think about it," she says as she points to mildew in a courtyard. "When you walk out, make sure the door handle doesn't break off," she said with a giggle as he parted.
Galamin, who hosts a popular home remodeling TV show, said he funded the shoot — which opposition lawmakers say violated Israeli campaign finance laws. A former chief of the Shin Bet security service called the film a "severe security breach" and said terrorist groups would have been willing to pay a hefty sum to acquire such an inside look at the prime minister's home.
Galamin was not granted access to the upstairs living quarters, and Israel's Channel 10 TV claimed the kitchen in question is not even the one the Netanyahus use, but rather a secondary administrative kitchen. Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment on the TV report.
The video, perhaps ironically, is set to catchy background music that includes the theme song from the Netflix series "House of Cards" and Justin Timberlake's hit "Cry Me a River."
"It was like a horrific traffic accident_something that you can't bear to watch but at the same time you can't tear your eyes away," wrote Sima Kadmon, a frequent critic of the Netanyahus, sarcastically adding outrage over "the shameful quality of life the royal family has been forced to live in during its years in power."
Netanyahu's rivals pounced on the material. The centrist Yesh Atid party, which has made corruption a centerpiece of its campaign, said the report and video reflected how disconnected Netanyahu was from real problems of average Israelis, who just three years ago took to the streets en masse to protest the country's high cost of living.
"What matters are the citizens, not the carpets," it said.
Follow Aron Heller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap