Israel’s peripatetic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a record number of trips abroad during the 1,320 days of his government, Israel’s 34th, from May 14, 2015, when his cabinet was approved to Monday, December 24, 2018, when Netanyahu announced he was calling new elections.
The countries he visited, in order: Italy, UK, Russia, US, Germany, US, France, Switzerland, Cyprus, Germany, Russia, Russia again, Italy, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Netherlands, US, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, UK, US, Singapore, Australia, Russia, China, Liberia, Greece, France, France again, Hungary, Russia, Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Mexico, US, US again, UK, Kenya, France, Belgium, India, Switzerland, Russia, Germany, US, Cyprus, Russia, Germany, France, UK, Jordan, Russia, Lithuania, US, Oman, Bulgaria, France, Brazil, Chad.
Some of the countries were visited during a single trip. It is tiring just to list all those state visits. Top of the list was the US (8 times), tied with Russia (8 times). The most exotic visit was the last one, to tiny Chad, a small Muslim nation in north central Africa.
Let’s applaud Netanyahu for pleading Israel’s cause diligently abroad, far more than any previous prime minister. And let’s also agree that it makes sense for this peripatetic leader to have his own airplane, as he travels more than the Harlem Globetrotters.
Since Netanyahu was also acting Foreign Minister, let us applaud his energy, travelling tirelessly to advance Israel’s interests.
And let us admit that these days, political leaders, even those of small poor countries, no longer fly in steerage. Let us also admit that Netanyahu’s voracious taste for luxury and splendor, paid for by others, pales compared to other world leaders, like Saudi princes.
But – a platinum plane? Costing a billion shekels?
The story of Israel’s controversial version of Air Force One begins in April 2013, when Netanyahu flew to London to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. A regular bed was installed in the El Al plane for him, so he could catch a good night’s sleep on the five-hour flight to the UK.
The outrageous cost of the bed was reported by the Times of Israel to be $127,000, or nearly half a million shekels. Not long after, the 2011 Rothschild protests over social inequality were revived.
That episode contributed to a decision to buy Israel’s leader his own plane.
Fast forward to the supercharged election campaign of 2019. Israel’s watchdog State Comptroller, Yosef Shapira, announced on Sunday, February 10 that he was investigating the purchase of the official state aircraft, a project hundreds of millions of shekels over budget and years behind schedule.
Shapira noted that Israel’s Air Force One (dubbed that, after the plane used by American presidents) was originally budgeted at 175 million shekels, or $48 million, but is now estimated to cost 580 million shekels ($160 million). The final price tag could be as high as a billion shekels ($280 million).
In the current toxic, supercharged election campaign, when political strategists employ negative vitriolic messages almost exclusively, I would have expected the story of Netanyahu’s platinum plane to become viral. But it has sunk without a trace. Part of the reason is, strangely, military censorship; the censor initially banned reports, even of the type of plane, for security reasons. But even foreign online reports not subject to censorship have been sparse. I don’t know why. Perhaps the cost overruns are due simply to incompetence, rather than a lust for luxury? Incompetence rarely gets big headlines. It’s too commonplace.
Why will Israel’s Air Force One cost five times its original budgeted amount? It is a classic case of how governments waste money by trying to save it.
Well-run businesses first budget projects carefully, realistically, and then make sure the project manager finishes the project on or under budget. But governments? They regularly overspend. They do this by a devious, transparent bluff.
Start with a ridiculously low sum. Get cabinet and Finance Ministry approval. Then, as the project unfolds, revise the budget upward continuously.
Sometimes this is due to incompetence. Usually, it is a conscious strategy as well. If the cabinet will not approve a platinum Rolls Royce billion shekel plane, maybe they will approve a Fiat cardboard 175 million shekel plane. Then, explain, one salami slice at a time, why the costs have to rise, double, triple.
Israel, it was initially understood, could not afford to buy a brand new plane. A Boeing 787 Dreamliner can cost over $200 million. Only a modest used plane could be afforded. How about a 20-year-old Boeing 767? There were over a thousand of these planes produced, since the first one in 1982, and many were on the market after decades of service.
The problem is old planes need a huge amount of maintenance and upgrades – basically, building a new plane from scratch. You cannot entrust the life of a prime minister to a piece of junk. And wow, are those upgrades expensive! Almost as costly as buying a new plane. So – first, foot-in-the-door, buy a “cheap” plane, and then, it’s too late – the cabinet approved the plane, it has to approve the cost increases. Many of the cost increases come from highly secret technology designed to protect the plane from terrorists and to install vital communications equipment. Who could oppose such technology? The Prime Minister has to be in touch with his cabinet and with the world even while in the air.
Today’s political leaders have discarded the moral principle of living modestly. They choose to live at the standards of the billionaire tycoons they cultivate. Netanyahu ridicules those who berate his champagne and cigars, items relatively new to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Residence.
Israel’s Air Force One – to be operated not by the Israeli Air Force, as in the US, but by civilian contractors – will also fly Israel’s President on state visits. President Reuven Rivlin has announced that if he is ordered to do so, he will make use of the plane. But in the past Rivlin has flown thriftily on commercial airlines, even at times flying economy and on low-cost airlines.
Reading about Netanyahu’s pricey plane, I recalled a story about former prime minister Menachem Begin and his wife, Aliza.
In the 2016 book, Behind the Scenes: The Untold Story of Israeli Diplomacy, published by Pardes Publishing House, the story is told of Begin’s first visit to Washington in 1977, with his wife Aliza, not long after his initial surprise election win. Aliza asked a young diplomat named Gideon Meir to please buy her a few cosmetic items and to buy two white shirts for her husband. Meir, of course, was happy to do so.
Meir gave the cosmetics and shirts to Aliza, along with the receipt for the cosmetics – assuming Aliza would pay for her cosmetics and the embassy would pay for prime minister Begin’s shirts. Aliza Begin reprimanded him, demanded the receipt for the shirts, opened her purse and paid for everything, including the shirts.
“The taxpayer will not pay for my husband’s shirts!” she asserted. Clearly, she was in step with her husband’s own high standards. Compare this with Netanyahu’s legendary penury, billing the state for nearly everything, which has gotten him and his wife Sarah into a ton of legal hot water.
There is a famous David Rubinger photograph of prime minister Begin, traveling to the US on a long 12-hour fight, dozing while propped up with pillows in an ordinary airline seat.
I am center-left. I never voted for Begin or the Likud. But I long for the exemplary, legendary values of modesty and simplicity Israel’s leaders, like Begin and David Ben-Gurion, once lived by. They did not need or want platinum airplanes. But I guess those days are gone forever.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com
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