Laundered titles and a flying white elephant - opinion

Many have suggested that the plane ought to be sold, but that is impossible because of the secret technologies built into the plane.

 THE PRIME MINISTER’S plane, a Boeing 767, lands at Ben-Gurion Airport after its first test flight, in November 2019. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
THE PRIME MINISTER’S plane, a Boeing 767, lands at Ben-Gurion Airport after its first test flight, in November 2019.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Everyone faces issues in the news that make them angry. In my case, two recent issues were a media investigation about special arrangements in the health funds designed to favor members of the ultra-Orthodox community in appointments with medical experts, and a 98-page chapter in the latest report of State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman that dealt with the Israel Air Force One, named Wing of Zion.

Let me emphasize at the start that I have nothing in principle against a special aircraft designed to fly the prime minister and the president of the state when they travel abroad, and nothing against special arrangements for the impoverished haredi community (and other impoverished communities, for that matter), in the receipt of basic welfare services. It is all a matter of how decisions are taken, and how to avoid corruption and nontransparent favoritism.

The story about the favoritism for the ultra-Orthodox was uncovered by Channel 12, in its early evening program Tochnit Hisachon. The program revealed that, for some time now, the health funds have had representatives of the haredi community with the laundered titles of meta’amei kishrei kehila (coordinators of community relations). Their job is to arrange appointments with expert doctors for the following day – appointments which, for someone like me, who has paid her full health fund dues for at least 60 years, are available in several weeks’ time at best, and after many months, going through normal channels.

For several years now I have frequently used private medical services at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, for which I must pay several hundred shekels for each visit (the rest is paid by the health fund) in order to see an expert in a week’s or two weeks’ time. On rare occasions, when the matter is urgent, I go to see an expert completely privately at the cost of NIS 800 or more. If I were a haredit, I could get all these appointments for free, and immediately.

When Channel 12 asked some of the haredi machers with fancy titles what is the justification for this arrangement, their answer was that the haredim have large families and need help.

 ‘AMONG THE some 1.2 million haredim in Israel, there is a large silent majority of 610,000 who are ideologically in between.’ Pictured: Funeral of Rabbi Avraham Erlanger, head of Jerusalem’s Kol Torah Yeshiva, in October. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) ‘AMONG THE some 1.2 million haredim in Israel, there is a large silent majority of 610,000 who are ideologically in between.’ Pictured: Funeral of Rabbi Avraham Erlanger, head of Jerusalem’s Kol Torah Yeshiva, in October. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Yes, they certainly have unique problems, but it is certainly not my fault that they have large families, which they are unable to support or care for properly without all sorts of special arrangements, which means that the services I receive are further worsened (and it is a known fact that the waiting lists for appointments with specialists are constantly lengthening).

What is worst about these arrangements, which originated in the years when Yaacov Litzman from the United Torah Judaism faction was either health minister or deputy health minister, is that formally the Health Ministry knew nothing about them, though the minister not only knew about them but was most likely their initiator.

After the program on Channel 12 was broadcast, the ministry’s deputy director for supervision of the health funds, CPA Lior Barak, wrote to the director-general of Clalit Health Services (one of the health funds providing the discriminatory service to haredim) that the discriminatory practice is unacceptable, and must be stopped immediately.

The problem is that if it hadn’t been for Channel 12’s important investigation, nobody would have done anything about the irregular practice, which was not sanctioned by any sort of regulatory body. Who knows what other irregular practices were left behind by former haredi ministers Arye Deri and Litzman? And I repeat: the problem is not the assistance to impoverished communities. The problem is the backhanded and discriminatory way this was done.

THE PROBLEM with Wing of Zion is of a totally different nature. Plans for the aircraft began in 2010, a year after Benjamin Netanyahu returned to serve as prime minister.

According to the state comptroller, from the very start, too many factors were involved in the decision-making process, and many of the decisions taken were controversial, such as the decision to upgrade a 20-year-old Boeing 767 300er (in 2019 El Al started selling its fleet of planes of the same model), and the decision that the plane would be state property, but would be flown by military air force pilots who will have to specially train to fly it.

According to Englman, the messy decision-making process both increased the project’s cost, without sufficient regulation, and caused a 34-35 month delay in completing the project. He was especially critical of the lack of any systematic administrative teamwork in the Prime Minister’s Office, but, as has been his practice since being appointed to the job, he did not mention any names.

While in 2011 the Finance Ministry declared that NIS 152 million was the project’s economic viability cost, the final sum spent on the plane was NIS 590m., including NIS 140m. for changes in the plane’s interior design and other unexpected expenses, including adding a shower in the prime minister’s quarters at a cost of NIS 4.2m., and other superfluous luxuries.

Incidentally, while Air Force One in the United States has seating arrangements for another 70 persons besides the president and his wife (on the rare occasions when she joins her husband for state visits), Wing of Zion was built for up to 120 passengers, which is double the maximal number of passengers on the prime minister’s flights in recent years.

In addition, according to the state comptroller, while the average cost of the prime minister’s travels in recent years in chartered planes was NIS 2.5m. per trip, the average cost of using the new plane is calculated at NIS 5.2m.

Of course, the new plane is much more protected against possible military attacks than an ordinary civilian plane, and it is also protected against cyberattacks, but the question remains whether all this is really necessary, and if so, at what cost.

Today the plane is simply standing idle at the Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev. At least for the time being, both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid refuse to use it, since it represents in their eyes unwarranted, wasteful and even corrupt expenditure. Former president Reuven Rivlin stated when he was still in office that he would prefer flying with commercial flights “where I can mingle with the people.” I assume that the current president, Isaac Herzog, holds a similar position to that of Bennett and Lapid.

At any rate, the final fate of the white elephant is not clear at the moment. Many have suggested that the plane ought to be sold, but that is impossible because of the secret technologies built into the plane by the Israel Aerospace Industries, which upgraded the Boeing 767 300er.

I guess that if Netanyahu will be reelected in the next general elections, or if the current government will lose its majority in the current Knesset and Netanyahu will manage to form a government, the problem will be solved. Netanyahu certainly has no qualms with the regards to Wing of Zion. After all, it was he who was one of the initiators of the nightmare.