A place to call home

It's time for the President and the Prime Minister to be properly accommodated.

katsav 88 (photo credit: )
katsav 88
(photo credit: )
When the idea of a permanent residence for the presidents of Israel was initially mooted following the death in 1952 of Israel's first president Haim Weizmann - who had lived in his own private, large and elegant home in Rehovot, the plan was to merge the residence into the complex housing the government offices. By the time all the bureaucratic red tape tied around the design and the construction costs had been cut, Israel's third president Zalman Shazar had been installed in office. Shazar was not prepared to live in an ivory tower and insisted that he wanted to live among his people, but not quite as modestly as his predecessor Yitzhak Ben Zvi had lived in Rehavia. He went up-market to Talbiyeh. The final choice was not really his - and to be fair, by the standards of those days, the ten-dunam plot was a site large enough for a palace. Some 200 architects submitted designs to a panel of adjudicators that included architects and public figures, but unfortunately no housewives or theatrical personalities who might have been able to pinpoint what was absent in the winning design submitted by prominent Jerusalem-born architect Aba Elhanani. While Elhanani's design for Beit Hanassi (The President's Residence) incorporated the concept of the hut which had symbolized Ben Zvi's modest life style, it also harmonized with other buildings in the elegant Talbiyeh street. What was missing was a vision of the future. For instance, the long walk from the gateway to the reception hall is without shelter from rain or sun. Seating in the main reception hall, in which numerous conferences are hosted, is extremely limited and pillars obscure the view. Apparently it never occurred to Elhanani that a State dinner could be held anywhere but in the King David Hotel. Nearly all state dinners and luncheons hosted by a series of presidents are held at Beit Hanassi, but unfortunately there is no kitchen in which to prepare them. Catering services are brought in from outside and set up under the most primitive conditions. The smaller reception room at Beit Hanassi has undergone a minor improvement and two permanent padded benches were installed along opposite walls, enabling more people to sit down when the President has small meetings or a media conference. Generally speaking, conditions for media conferences are appalling. There is not enough room for all the TV camera crews and stills photographers who push radio and print media reporters out of the way, making it difficult for them to see or hear. The situation is even worse in the President's office where he has one-on-one meetings or receives groups of less than ten people. The office is very small; the sofa and chairs for the guests are arranged around a large rectangular coffee table and security guards do not allow reporters to stand behind the president's chair or his desk. Needless to say it's a tight situation. How different from Paris where the President visited last year and where the media have every need and comfort at their disposal - not just at the Elysees Palace but in all government ministries. For people in wheelchairs, the access to the President's office is solely via a passage leading from the cloak room because there is no elevator. The passage is very narrow and can only just accommodate a wheelchair. The staircase that is used by people who are not confined to wheelchairs is not solid, but of the slat variety which is potentially dangerous in the event that anyone slips. While it may have been a noble thought for Shazar to want to sit among his people, the possible discomforts of neighbors and passers-by were not taken into account. Parking facilities inside Beit Hanassi are minimal and usually reserved for official cars transporting dignitaries and VIPs. Otherwise cars are parked in the surrounding streets, often in spaces that are generally taken up by the residents of those streets, who when returning home from work or elsewhere have to start cruising around in search of alternate parking. And when the Prime Minister or high-level dignitaries visit Beit Hanassi, the entire area is closed to motorized traffic. Too bad if someone has an urgent appointment. Yet as small and lacking in elementary facilities as Beit Hanassi is, the Prime Minister's official residence, only a five-minute walk away, is even worse. What for three decades has served as the prime minister's residence was never intended as such. It was originally a large, private home that for a certain period served as the residence of the foreign minister, but after Golda Meir's term was taken over by Yitzhak Rabin, because the Ben Maimon Street house in which Golda Meir had resided had fallen into such disrepair that it was unsuitable. Willed to the state, it could not be sold to a property developer and stood idle for years, until it was eventually designated as the repository for the Levi Eshkol archives. Meanwhile the residence that was taken over by Yitzhak Rabin has lost its charm with the escalation of security precautions, and is today an ugly fortress. In addition, rows of electronically-operated security barriers have been set up in Balfour Road and Smolenskin Street. And a relatively recent addition has been a series of accordion grilles designed to keep pedestrians out when the security forces decide that the area around the prime minister's house should be kept free. The inconvenience that this causes to tax paying residents in Balfour and Smolenskin seems to be of secondary importance. And if parking outside Beit Hanassi is a problem, it is much more so in the area surrounding the prime minister's residence. It's an unsatisfactory situation all round. Construction of alternate accommodation for the prime minister has been underway in the government compound housing his office, but that is not an ideal solution either. A better solution would be to take over the large tract of land that formerly housed the Foreign Ministry. When the present government buildings were still under construction, city planners designated the area that was to be vacated by the Foreign Ministry as a hotel development site. Currently it's just a mass of rubble. Even if it has been sold to a private contractor, there might still be time to change the plans and to utilize the site for presidential and prime ministerial residences, taking into account current and possible future needs. In addition, there could be a luxury hotel complex to accommodate high ranking visiting dignitaries. The site, which on one side borders the Crowne Plaza hotel, is equally close to all government offices. It is also much more convenient to travel from this site to Yad Vashem, Yad Sarah, the Israel Museum and Hadassah Hospital, one or all of which are generally on the itineraries of visiting VIPs. As for getting to the airport, it's much easier to exit the city. The whole complex could become a showcase for Israeli creativity with the best possible architecture and landscape gardening and featuring paintings and sculptures by Israeli artists in the interior d cor. There could even be a small shopping center with Made in Israel designer clothes and accessories. Multi-level underground car parks would solve the parking problems. Such a project, during its planning, construction and operational stages would also provide many jobs in a city in which unemployment is high. At the very least, it's something to think about.