Stop wasting money on flights, let the 'Wing of Zion' fly - editorial

“It is practical. There is no reason in the world not to use it, except for political declarations.”

 Israel Aerospace Industries workers’ union chairman Yair Katz is seen ceremonially removing the "experimental" sticker on the Wings of Zion, Israel's answer to Air Force One. (photo credit: Courtesy Yair Katz)
Israel Aerospace Industries workers’ union chairman Yair Katz is seen ceremonially removing the "experimental" sticker on the Wings of Zion, Israel's answer to Air Force One.
(photo credit: Courtesy Yair Katz)

In recent weeks, Israel’s leaders have returned to traversing the globe. President Isaac Herzog was in Turkey and Greece and will soon visit France. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went to Russia, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in Romania. This frenetic pace of activity would be aided by having an official aircraft for Israel’s leaders to use. That aircraft exists, but it is just sitting on the tarmac, grounded by this government out of spite against the previous administration.

The plane, dubbed “Wing of Zion,” was supposed to be an aircraft similar to Air Force One, the kind used by leaders of important countries. It was commissioned and built by previous governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bennett has refused to use the aircraft. “It has not yet been decided whether and in what format to operate the aircraft,” Bennett’s spokesperson said in December.

Ostensibly, some members of the government think the plane should be flying. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said last year that there was “no reason that it should stay... in storage at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), and there is no reason to pay for commercial flights.”

The plane is a Boeing 767 converted by IAI for use by Israel’s leadership. Netanyahu clearly envisioned it for himself, and it has long been viewed as one of the many aspects of the Likud leader’s royal-like pretensions, a kind of megalomania that infected his administration in its last years. The cost was high, around NIS 750 million for the aircraft, which is a quarter-century old. For many who opposed Netanyahu, the plane is a symbol of corruption. Lapid is the strongest voice against using the plane.

But the plane itself is not corrupt. It was acquired and converted in a proper manner by Israel’s best workers at IAI, whose union chairman, Yair Katz, has expressed pride in the aircraft. By refusing to use it, the government in many ways is insulting Israel’s workers and experts who built it. The plane is a symbol of Israel’s success, even if the decision to procure it took place in the context of Netanyahu’s behavior.

 Head of opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Head of opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The cost has also already been lost. Selling it won’t really help. In addition, the aircraft has already been outfitted with unique Israeli systems. It is designed with elements that befit a world leader: an office and kitchen and a war room in case it needs to be used during an emergency.

It is understandable that during the corona crisis, when people were not traveling, a perception of a prime minister or president jetting around in a new plane might have felt problematic. But that is no longer the case, and Israel, a powerful country, should not be ashamed to use a plane that helps project its power.

In fact, the pace of visits in the last year has been more than in the previous five years under Netanyahu. That is because a lot of countries want to host Israel’s leadership, and the prime minister has not prevented Herzog, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and others from traveling.

In addition, even as a State Comptroller report released last week blasted the cost of the plane, it also noted how “the plane for heads of state is a clear improvement over the previous situation... in the level of security, including defense of the plane and information security, communications, controls, the conditions inside the plane, service in it and its availability.”

Israel is no longer the country of the 1950s, with kibbutzniks and moshavniks traveling modestly because of their scene of austerity. This is 2022. It is reasonable that a country that is a world leader in hi-tech and artificial intelligence would have a normal, decent plane for its leadership. The idea that Israel needs to mothball everything linked to Netanyahu is short-sighted and rooted in the past. We can’t have a policy based on spite. Israel needs to be forward-looking.

“It is modest, not luxurious or sparkling,” union leader Katz has said. “It is practical. There is no reason in the world not to use it, except for political declarations.”

The plane was completed last August. It is ready. Israel should be using the plane and have our prime minister and president stop wasting money on charter flights. Let them arrive with the prestige our country is worth.