For years, a succession of heads of state have complained about the lack of space and state of neglect in the presidential complex, and while a few repairs were carried out and a temporary extension constructed on one of the patios during the tenure of Moshe Katsav (2000-2007), not enough has been done to improve the so-called Israeli equivalent of 10 Downing Street, the Elysee Palace and the White House.
For that matter, not enough thought was given to future needs, so, for example, there is no proper kitchen attached to Beit Hanassi’s reception halls. There are two reception halls with a tiny kitchenette attached to the smaller hall. There is a kitchen in the president’s private quarters, but it desperately requires modernization.
Faulty plumbing, antiquated electrical wiring, leaking air conditioning systems, mold on the walls and ceilings, peeling paint and the lack of proper facilities for media coverage are just some of the items requiring immediate attention – but there is no money, so President Shimon Peres turned to the Rothschild Foundation for help and managed to get a promise of a $500,000 grant.
However, he is unable to accept it until it is approved by the cabinet. The relevant bodies in the Finance Ministry have already given it the nod. The matter is supposed to come for discussion when the cabinet convenes on Thursday.
If the cabinet approves, said a source at Beit Hanassi, work will begin almost immediately. One of the major changes will be the removal of the columns that act as dividers between the entranceway and the reception hall. Peres never liked the columns, and his dislike of them was intensified by the fact that they block of the views of people participating in the many events at Beit Hanassi in which the seating is theater style.
Israel’s population has almost tripled since Beit Hanassi was inaugurated in 1971 by the state’s third president, Zalman Shazar (1963-1973).
The original idea for a permanent residence for the head of state was to incorporate it in a complex of government ministries, but Shazar, who was very much a man of the people, wanted to live in a residential area and not in splendid isolation, and was sufficiently persuasive to get his way.
A competition for the architectural design was launched in 1964 and limited to Israeli architects. Of some 200 entries, the design submitted by Jerusalemite Aba Elhanani was selected.
Neither the adjudicators nor Elhanani gave sufficient thought to the possibility that some future president, such as Yitzhak Navon, the nation’s fifth president (1978-1983), might have young children; nor that there should be provision for wheelchair access or as mentioned above that there should be a large and properly equipped kitchen to cater for state luncheons and dinners.
Nor for that matter were there proper provisions for outdoor events in the grounds of Beit Hanassi. The latter changed under Katsav, but again without sufficient thought. At Independence Day festivities, for instance, dancers cannot be adequately seen by the audience because there is not a proper stage. Only people in the first three or four rows can see the dancers’ legs.
Katsav also introduced a synagogue which is used by local residents.
Last year, Peres was able to secure government approval for a $3 million overhaul of the grounds by the Jewish National Fund, in time for the visit by Pope Benedict XVI, but the building itself is in such a state of disrepair that it requires urgent attention.
The $500,000 from the Rothschild Foundation is not enough to provide for what must be done in the first stage of repairs, and Peres has requested an equivalent increase in the budget for this purpose.
So as not to interfere with regular events at Beit Hanassi, repairs will be carried out gradually, during the intermediate days of Pessah, when there are no state visits by foreign leaders and when the president is abroad.
This is not the first time that the Rothschild Foundation or individual members of the Rothschild family have come to the rescue when Israel is in need.
Long before the establishment of the state, Baron Edmond de Rothschild
was buying land in Eretz Israel, and without his help, places such as
Rishon Lezion would not exist. James Rothschild financed the
construction of the Knesset and Dorothy de Rothschild donated the
building that houses the Supreme Court.
In fact, a letter that she wrote to Peres when he was prime minister,
stating her intention to donate the Supreme Court building to the
state, is displayed on the wall outside the chamber of the Supreme