Grapevine: The ice cream has melted

Israeli media is enthusiastic to generate sensationalist stories depicting PM's extravagances.

By
May 16, 2013 21:31
Netanyahu

Netanyahu 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

For as long as anyone can remember, the political career of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has generated sensationalist stories in the Israeli media about his love for the high life; his not having money with him when dining in expensive restaurants, with someone else having to foot the bill or the restaurateur still waiting to be paid; and the cost of maintaining his residence(s).

It was difficult for the media to pinpoint the details of taxpayers’ expenditures in relation to the extravagances of the Netanyahu family, because the Prime Minister’s Office refused to reveal the details – even though there is supposed to be transparency in such matters. The media ultimately had a field day when it learned that the prime minister had a passion for ice cream, for which he had spent something in the range of NIS 10,000 – not his own money, of course. This revelation led to speculation about how much more frivolous spending Netanyahu had indulged in at the expense of the taxpayer.

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When his office refused to play ball, the Movement for Freedom of Information and Calcalist, the financial supplement of Yediot Aharonot, went to court with a petition to have the information released – and won the day.

Thus, there were other sensational revelations about the Netanyahus’ cost of hair and make-up, and the prime minister’s in-flight sleeping arrangements, which on each flight came to more than three times the total annual earnings of anyone working at minimum wage. This was subsequently followed by the publication of a detailed list of expenses incurred by the household.

Nasty stories have also been published about the high-life of Netanyahu’s predecessors in office Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, but what they cost the taxpayer pales in comparison to the hefty sums incurred by Netanyahu. It is wellknown that Leah Rabin had very expensive tastes, and she was no less reviled by the media than Sara Netanyahu, but it appears that in adjusting for inflation, Rabin, during his second period in office, spent less than any of the prime ministers who came after him, Calcalist reported on Thursday.

In sharp contrast to the Prime Minister’s Office, President Shimon Peres’s Office was not at all reticent about disclosing expenditures, even though such expenditures were almost NIS 20 million in excess of the president’s budgetary allocation for 2012. The original budget was NIS 43.5m., but by the end of the year, total expenses came to NIS 62m. – partly because of the urgent repairs that had to be carried out on the infrastructure of the President’s Residence, when rotting pipes almost caused the building to collapse and did in fact ruin a substantial section.

No one will deny that Peres is the most active of Israel’s nine presidents to date, and travels abroad with far greater frequency than any of his predecessors.



Because he has to take several senior staff and security people with him, the cost of such flights becomes inflated, and last year came to NIS 8.4m.

What the Calcalist report does not mention is the exorbitant cost of flowers.

There are huge floral decorations in abundance at the President’s Residence, and they are changed two or three times a week – especially if there is a state dinner, when the flowers gracing the tables and displayed in giant urns in the reception hall are in the national colors of the visiting head of state. Today, when artificial flowers look so real, there could be a savings of hundreds of thousands of shekels – maybe even millions – if all state institutions made a huge initial purchase of artificial flowers that could be rearranged to suit the occasion.

The president’s budget also includes a NIS 1 million allocation for the wives and widows of former Presidents.

Thus, last year, the bill for Aura Herzog’s cellphone was NIS 6,000, plus NIS 223,000 for her staff. Reuma Weizman’s bill for her cellphone came to NIS 5,000 and staff expenses were NIS 210,000. The allocation for wives and widows incorporates electricity, gardening and other expenses, including offices to maintain contact with the public. The report claims that although neither Herzog nor Weizman maintain such offices, Herzog received NIS 162,000 and Weizman NIS 122,000.

Another area of waste not mentioned in the report is the fact that so many public figures take their spouses with them when traveling abroad on official business. Some, but very few, pay the spouse’s expenses out of their own pocket. Most foreign dignitaries who come to Israel come sans spouse.

■ PRESIDENT PERES not only engages in frequent travel abroad but also travels extensively throughout the country, and did so last Monday, on the day prior to Shavuot – in what marked a change of holiday tradition.

Instead of kibbutz and moshav representatives bringing their first fruits to Jerusalem, the president wanted to visit those who so often have been bombarded with rockets from Gaza.

As always, he could not refrain from making a few political statements in the course of his travels. The problem with Syria is not its border, but Syria itself, said Peres. If Syria fails to revive and instead crumbles, it will be a great tragedy for the Syrian people – and not only for them, he continued, adding that this is another reason for Israel to remain on constant alert with regard to the Syrian border.

Peres made these remarks after visiting the Otzem military preparatory school that was established by Rafi Peretz, the IDF’s chief chaplain.

Peres did not see any immediate danger of Syria trying to cross the border and attack Israel, but even so, he warned, Israel must remain forever watchful in case the situation deteriorates even further. The rift in Syrian unity is a serious matter that is problematic not only for Israel but for the whole region, Peres said.

Nonetheless, Israel must act cautiously so as not to inflame an already incendiary situation. This is difficult but possible, said the president, who commended the IDF for acting professionally and correctly under the circumstances.

Earlier in the day, Peres visited Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, where he participated in the traditional kibbutz festival of the bringing of the first fruits. A huge surprise awaited the former kibbutznik, when in the course of the ceremony, an actor portraying the president’s mentor David Ben-Gurion made Peres an honorary member of the kibbutz. The president was moved to tears, and said he so wished that the real Ben-Gurion was able to look at the Negev and see the realization of his dream.

■ GIVEN THE huge revival that Yiddish is undergoing not only in Israel but in many parts of the Jewish world, it is hardly surprising that actor and theater director Shmuel Atzmon- Wircer, the founder of Yiddishpiel, will be among this year’s recipients of honorary doctorates to be awarded by Bar Ilan University this coming Tuesday, May 22.

Atzmon-Wircer likes to show a decree issued by Ben-Gurion soon after the establishment of the state, announcing that performances in Yiddish were tantamount to a criminal offense. Although the ban was defied by performers such as Dzigan and Schumacher, Pesach Bursztyn, Lia Koenig and Atzmon-Wircer’s late partners Shmuel Rudensky and Shmulik Segal, it took a long time for Yiddish to become legitimate in Israel.

There are now several institutions in the country in which Yiddish is taught as a living language, with Yiddish literature as part of the curriculum. But on a wider scale, the language has best been preserved and disseminated on the stage, and Atzmon-Wircer has been in the forefront of this endeavor.

A couple of years back, Atzmon- Wircer handed over the reins of leadership at Yiddishpiel to Sassi Keshet, but did not go into retirement. These days he leads a theater seminar at Bar-Ilan’s Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies, as the Dina Halpern Fellow for Yiddish Performing Arts. Bar- Ilan decided to award him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his vision and leadership, and his enrichment of Israel’s cultural heritage.

Also among the honorees is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which has also been instrumental in the enrichment of Israeli culture, and has not confined itself to the concert hall, thereby providing an exemplary model for generations of musicians and music devotees. Performing throughout the world, it also serves as Israel’s cultural and goodwill ambassador, carrying a message of peace and harmony. The IPO performed for the allied forces during World War II; played “Hatikva” at the proclamation of the State of Israel; played on Mount Scopus following the Six Day War; and played at concerts of reconciliation conducted by the iconic Zubin Mehta in Bethlehem near the Good Fence, and in Warsaw and Berlin.

However, Mehta will not be conducting the orchestra when it plays at the Bar-Ilan ceremony next week. The conductor at the IPO’s special concert in tribute to its fellow honorees will be Yoel Levi. This will be the first time that Bar-Ilan will award an honorary doctorate to an entire orchestra. In 2006, the university paid similar tribute to The Gesher Theater. The IPO has received several prizes and awards over the years, not the least of which was the Israel Prize in 1958.

■ INNOVATIVE ISRAEL Museum director James Snyder was this year’s recipient of the Guardian of Zion award. Though appreciative of the honor accorded him, he declined personal credit and said he was accepting it on behalf of the supporters and staff of the museum, without whom he would not be able to achieve anything.

Instead of taking the prize money for himself, Snyder decided to give it to the museum as an endowment, for the establishment of an international lectureship in memory of his parents.

The annual Guardian of Zion award is bestowed by Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, which was established in 1995 by American Jewish community leaders and philanthropists Ingeborg and Ira Rennert.

In 1997, the center inaugurated the award, with author, philosopher, human rights activist, promoter of peace and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel as the first recipient. Wiesel has attended every Guardian of Zion ceremony since then, flying in specially from the US.

He was seated opposite Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, at the VIP table at the King David Hotel on Monday night, when Snyder received his award from a radiant Ingeborg Rennert – who happens to be a close friend of Snyder’s as well as an admirer of the manner in which he has transformed the Israel Museum.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who last year awarded honorary Jerusalem citizenship to Snyder with the unanimous approval of the city council, is also a personal friend, and candidly admitted that he frequently consults with him about how to upgrade cultural life in the capital. “James is one of the people I learned from most in executing and articulating a vision,” said Barkat, adding that while most people know Snyder as “sweet and lovey-dovey, he can also bite like a bulldog to get things done on time and on budget.”

Barkat is also cognizant of the many contributions the Rennerts have made to Jerusalem’s cultural image, and in appreciation of what they have done, are doing and will continue to do in the future, presented them with the key to the city – in which they already own a home where they like to spend Jewish holidays. Barkat said he did not know other friends of Jerusalem like the Rennerts.

“We see you as partners and visionaries.

You always give, give, give and never take,” he said, explaining that under the circumstances, he thought it would be “prudent, honorable and fair” to give them the key to the city.

■ THE FOLLOWING day, Barkat made what was probably one of the shortest speeches of his career at the opening of the capital’s remodeled Old Train Station, when he wished the crowd a happy holiday and encouraged them to keep enjoying themselves.

The station has now been turned into a leisure and pleasure spot with restaurants, coffee bars, farmers’ markets, handicrafts and fashion stalls, workshops and a mini museum of the history of the Jerusalem Railway. A delightful time-travel video production under the auspices of Israel Railways informs viewers that before the advent of the train 121 years ago, it took 12 hours by horse and carriage to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Today, it can be done in less than an hour by bus; the train actually takes a lot longer. This should change when the express route is finally completed.

The only problem with this new/old Jerusalem attraction, with its marvelous potential, is that all of its signs, including those in the mini museum, are in Hebrew.

The train station – in its own right, and because of its location within easy walking distance of the Liberty Bell Garden, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Begin Heritage Center, Mishekenot Sha’ananim, and the Jerusalem Press Club – will surely attract tourists, who should have access to signs and general information in languages other than Hebrew.

The opening on the eve of Shavuot was an exciting happening, with people from all strata of society mingling in the crowd. It would also not hurt, however, to have a sign at the entrance indicating which eateries are kosher and which are not. With the huge crowd and not a little chaos on Tuesday, where to eat became a confusing problem for those who follow Jewish dietary laws.

■ THERE ARE historic Torah scrolls saved from the Holocaust, restored to their former glory and distributed to congregations that either need them, or whose synagogues have been dedicated to the memory of the victims.

There are other historic scrolls that date for centuries and have been preserved.

But it is doubtful if any existing Torah scroll can boast the prestige of the El Al Torah.

The El Al Torah was initiated some three years ago by El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy, who was motivated by the fact that the Torah belongs to Jews everywhere, and that though El Al is privatized, it continues to be Israel’s national carrier, traveling to many destinations around the world. He therefore thought it would be appropriate to have an El Al Torah scroll signed by leading Israeli figures, including the president, the prime minister, chief rabbis, other dignitaries, the airline’s frequent fliers, and prominent Jewish personalities throughout the globe.

Shkedy participated in numerous ceremonies in different countries and in historic places where, with the help of a qualified Torah scribe, dignitaries added a letter to the sacred scroll. The project was completed in time for the Torah’s pre-Shavuot dedication last Monday in a ceremony attended by hundreds of people, including many dignitaries and El Al staff.

It was important to Shkedy that the scroll be dedicated on the eve of Shavuot, as the festival marks the giving of the Torah in ancient times to the Children of Israel. In recognition of all those who contributed to the scroll, Shkedy calls it the “Scroll of Unity of the Jewish People,” and sees it as a means of strengthening ties between Israel and the Diaspora.

Among the participants in the dedication ceremony was Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who was one of the people who contributed a letter. The scroll will be kept on the El Al campus at Ben-Gurion Airport, and will accompany Israel’s leaders, including heads of security services, on their flights abroad.

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