These are the trappings that come with being prime minister - analysis

Bennett erred in not moving his family to the official residence in Jerusalem at the beginning of his term. Why? Because symbols are important; they confer legitimacy.

 THE POLITICAL rivalry between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz is an important aspect of these developments. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THE POLITICAL rivalry between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz is an important aspect of these developments.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Israel, as it approaches its 74th birthday, is still very much a work in progress.

Seventy-four years after independence, it is still trying to work out the proper balance between the legislature and the judiciary, between synagogue and state, and where in fact its eastern border should run.

Those are all very heavy and weighty issues, with far-reaching consequences, and one could argue that it is understandable why the debate over those issues has gone on for so long.

But where should the prime minister live? How much should he spend each month on food? And should he have an airplane at his service – à la Air Force One? Those are questions about the trappings of the prime ministerial job that should have been resolved by now.

Israel, at 74, is a serious state. It is a regional military and economic powerhouse, with US News & World Report ranking it the 10th most influential nation in the world last year, and the eleventh most powerful. As such, its prime minister should have a residence befitting his office where he can live, and an airplane at his disposal upon which he can travel to spread that influence and project that power.

THE CLOSED-OFF entrance to Balfour Street in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE CLOSED-OFF entrance to Balfour Street in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Regarding the plane, one for the use of the prime minister and the president has been bought and refitted at a cost of some $240 million, but it is not being used because of concern it will look like an exorbitant luxury.

It seems downright silly that Israel in 2022 is still debating whether the prime minister should have such a plane – he should. That and how much it is seemly for him to pay for food each month. Give the man a handsome salary and then let him pay for his own groceries and food bill, just like the president of the United States.

The prime minister’s compensation – from his salary, to what expenses he can charge the state, to the number of household staff he can have at his disposal – needs to be formally regulated so that the country can avoid the types of spectacles it has witnessed over the last few days regarding which prime minister costs the state more: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett or his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whose monthly upkeep is more? Who spends more on flowers? Who eats more take-away? These are unseemly arguments that add to the dignity of neither man, and which the country could spare itself by just saying that the prime minister gets paid so many shekels a month, has another fixed amount for expenses and can expect a certain yearly sum for upkeep of the home he lived in before becoming prime minister.

Like any other citizen, he will then have to live within that budgetary framework.

According to a Knesset report issued in 2020, when Netanyahu was premier, the prime minister’s gross monthly salary was NIS 56,345 ($15,106) – which was 20% less than the average salary for a prime minister in 18 of the 25 OECD parliamentary democracies surveyed.

 

THE ISSUE of how much the country is spending on the Bennetts burst into the headlines a few weeks ago when Channel 13 aired a report on how much the state is spending on security at Bennett’s private home in Ra’anana, where he has opted to live.

The issue flared anew on Friday when Channel 13 aired another report, this time highlighting how much the state pays per month for the family residence in Ra’anana, including NIS 11,500 on take-away food and NIS 15,000 on groceries for a family of six.  

It is clear that the Netanyahu camp benefits from these stories since the former prime minister’s 12-year tenure was marred by accusations that he was living like Marie Antoinette on the state’s dime. How many times over the years did the national conversation center for days on end over the Netanyahus’ penchant for boutique pistachio ice cream, scented candles and fresh flowers?  How much time was spent talking about how Sara Netanyahu ordered catered meals even though she had a cook on staff?

Now, as it emerges that the state is spending some NIS 50 million for security around Bennett’s private home in Ra’anana, rather than have him move to the official Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, and spending over NIS 26,000 a month on food for the family, Netanyahu’s backers can point to Bennett and say to all of Netanyahu’s critics, “Now what do you have to say?”  

Bennett, in a Facebook post on Tuesday, said he is only living in his Ra’anana home because the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) wants to do renovations on the official prime ministerial residence on the corner of Balfour Street in Jerusalem. This is a bit at odds with the reason given for wanting to remain in Ra’anana at the beginning of his term when the public was told that he did not want to uproot his four school-aged children from their schools and friends.

At that time, the idea was for him to live in Ra’anana during the week, and in Jerusalem on Shabbat.

That plan never materialized, and he has resided permanently in Ra’anana, at a heavy security expense to the state, and at the cost of being a nonstop nuisance to his badly inconvenienced neighbors who now must live on a Shin Bet sanitized street. 

BENNETT'S REPLY to those highlighting how much he is costing the state is simple:  I’m costing nearly a third of what Netanyahu did. Literally.

The Prime Minister’s Office released an itemized list of what Bennett’s cleaning, electric, gardening, water, food, and other bills are per month, compared to Netanyahu’s. And, according to these figures, Bennett’s monthly upkeep – sans transportation, security, medical expenses, housing costs – is NIS 87,700 a month, compared to NIS 280,800 a month for the Netanyahus.

Be that as it may, Bennett erred in not moving his family to the official residence in Jerusalem at the beginning of his term. Now he says the Shin Bet asked him not to while they upgraded the residence. He should have pushed back, and said, “take a month, and then I’m moving in.”

Why? Because symbols are important; they confer legitimacy.

One of Bennett’s problems since taking office has had to do with legitimacy. As the leader of a small party commanding the allegiance of only six MKs (now only five), many asked by what right he was serving as prime minister.

By continuing to live in his private home, he gave ammunition to those yelling that he was a fluke, not the “real” prime minister, not the legitimate leader of the country.

The prime minister needs to live in the prime minister’s residence. That is where Bennett should have moved the minute Netanyahu moved out, (and remember all the clamoring for him to move out as soon as possible).

This would have done two things: it would have cut down considerably on the cost to the state of turning the Bennett family home in Ra’anana into a temporary fortress, thereby reducing the type of criticism he is currently facing. And it also would have made him appear more prime ministerial, something important when trying to assert authority at a time when the legitimacy of that authority is constantly being questioned.