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: Israel's government watchdog released a report into alleged financial malfeasance at the prime minister's residence, while his wife faced criticism for pettiness and possible security breaches after complaining in a video about the shabbiness of the kitchen at their official Jerusalem residence.

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 more serious issues over Israel's security challenges.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool)

In its report, the state comptroller, an official watchdog agency, cited large sums of public money spent on food, furniture and gardening at the couple's official residence and their private home in the exclusive coastal city of Caesarea. It also said the couple pocketed proceeds from recycling bottles that had been purchased for entertaining guests.

 

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 respects 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" aimed at toppling him from power.

"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 their catering, housekeeping, cleaning, furniture, clothing and makeup, as well spending $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin in a plane. Even their costly purchases of scented candles and pistachio-flavored ice cream have been derided.

The 15-minute video appeared aimed at countering an image that has permeated of a lavish lifestyle - a damaging prospect ahead of March 17 elections that have focused on the economic woes of middle and lower-class voters. The video was posted on Facebook Sunday, two days before the state comptroller's harsh report was released.

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 he was forced to sit on a coffee-stained couch.

Galamin, who hosts a popular home remodeling TV show, said he funded the shoot - which opposition lawmakers say violates Israeli campaign finance laws. A former chief of the Shin Bet security service called the film a "severe security breach" and that terrorist groups would have been willing to pay a hefty sum to acquire such an inside look at the prime minister's home.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the video 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."

 

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