The Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem is a stately building located just a few minutes’ walk away from the Old City in the capital’s bustling Mamilla neighborhood, on a street named after this paper’s founding editor, Gershon Agron.
It was built in 1928 as the Palace Hotel at the instruction of none other than the antisemitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. The Palace, which boasted private bathrooms – a rarity at the time – operated for just a few years before shutting down in the mid-1930s due to competition from the new King David Hotel just up the road. It was used by the British Mandate authorities and then by the new State of Israel to house various government offices.
In 1999, the Jerusalem Development Authority published a call for proposals to renovate the building and restore it as a hotel and in 2005 the Reichmann family of Toronto acquired the development rights and signed an agreement with the Hilton hotel chain, which owns the Waldorf Astoria brand. The ornate exterior of the hotel was preserved while the interior was gutted, clad with large quantities of elegant marble, and outfitted with a dramatic entry staircase and a soaring glass roof. The current hotel opened in 2014 and has since been considered one of the finest and most expensive hotels in Israel.
The Netanyahus' lavish stay at the Waldorf Astoria
The Waldorf has been in the news in recent days due to a four-night stay by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who were forced to decamp from their nearby home on Aza Street due to the installation of security measures on site.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Israeli media pounced on the prime ministerial couple’s hotel stay, portraying it as further evidence of their lavish lifestyle.
“Netanyahu and his wife are residing in a luxury hotel on the state’s dime,” read a Ynet headline. “Netanyahu is moving into the most expensive hotel in Israel,” reported the financial news site Ice.
Writing in Haaretz, veteran political commentator Yossi Verter noted that the secure complex on the capital’s Balfour Street contains a two-bedroom apartment, used by security guards, in which former prime minister Yair Lapid and his wife, Lihi, would sometimes reside while in Jerusalem.
“It was good enough for them,” Verter wrote. “But the Lapids weren’t born to an ancient imperial dynasty and they weren’t anointed royalty. That they saw fit to crash in an apartment that was used by security guards is their own shortcoming.”
“Yet again, with or without any compunction, [the Netanyahus] are demonstrating detachment befitting tyrants, corruption, nauseating piggishness, and an insatiable desire to leech off public funds,” he wrote.
Some context is needed here.
Netanyahu is currently living in his private home on Aza Street, around the corner from the official prime ministerial residence on Balfour Street, because the latter is undergoing a comprehensive renovation that was launched more than a year ago, under the previous government, and is set to continue for another year or more.
The Balfour house – which is currently an empty shell – is a relatively modest home, built in 1938, that previously served as the foreign minister’s residence. The only area in which the prime minister can host more than a handful of people is a covered patio that resembles a kibbutz dining room and has been used for small press conferences and intimate dinners; it cannot accommodate anything larger, forcing the government to rent hotel ballrooms for official dinners and other state functions. The house is located in the heart of Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood and the prime minister’s comings and goings frequently snarl traffic on Aza Street, a major thoroughfare.
Over the years, various proposals have been floated to build a new complex that would combine the prime minister’s office and residence and would enable the head of government to host visiting dignitaries and official events – similar to the White House, 10 Downing Street, or the German Chancellery in Berlin.
In 2009, the government of Ehud Olmert approved a plan to build such a structure on a plot in the National Precinct between the Foreign Ministry and the Cinema City complex. A grandiose design by leading Israeli architect Ram Karmi was approved at the time, but it soon drew public criticism due to its high cost and the fact that it resembled the female reproductive system (yes, actually).
Upon his return to power several months later, Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the project, only to revive it in 2014. Ada Karmi-Melamede – Ram Karmi’s sister, herself an award-winning architect – presented a more restrained (and unanatomical) design and the project passed several rounds of approvals, only to grind to a halt when it became clear that a cluster of skyscrapers planned for the area would overlook the complex, making it less secure.
A new plan is now being considered. It would see the project shrunk and moved to an empty plot between the current Prime Minister’s Office and the Interior Ministry that currently serves as a parking lot. Once the plan gets the official go-ahead, it would take an estimated six to eight years to complete.
The debate over the prime minister’s living conditions is similar to that surrounding his means of transportation. Netanyahu was pilloried in 2013 for insisting that a bed be installed on the commercial plane hired to take him and his wife to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London. The episode highlighted the fact that the country’s leaders do not have a designated aircraft for official use – in the past, Israeli prime ministers would use an aging Israeli Air Force Boeing 707, but in recent years the government has had to charter a plane at tremendous cost every time the prime minister needs to travel abroad.
In 2014, the government approved a report by a public committee that determined that an official plane was necessary due to the need to provide the country’s leaders with the means to travel and communicate securely while on official business overseas. In 2019, the plane – a 20-year-old Boeing 767 previously operated by the Australian airline Qantas – took flight for the first time, painted blue-and-white and renamed “Wing of Zion.” Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid declared his intention to sell the plane, which he said represents “everything corrupt and broken in the Netanyahu government,” but refrained from doing so due to opposition from the defense establishment, and it has been sitting in a hangar and gathering dust ever since.
Upon reclaiming the premiership in late 2022, Netanyahu instructed the air force to prepare the plane for use, but it is not yet ready, and the prime minister has continued to travel on chartered airliners. President Isaac Herzog, who is also supposed to have access to the official plane once it is airworthy, generally flies commercial and recently delighted fellow travelers by taking an Amtrak train from Washington to New York.
The story here is about more than a few nights at a hotel and an airborne bed.
Other democracies take for granted that their elected leaders have dignified official residences and designated aircraft for their use. The French prime minister resides in the Hôtel Matignon, a spectacular 18th century mansion set in 3 hectares (7.5 acres) of lush gardens; Italy’s prime minister lives and works at the monumental Chigi Palace in Rome’s historic Piazza Colonna. Canada’s prime minister has a fleet of official Airbus A310s and Bombardier executive jets at his disposal; the British prime minister flies on an Airbus A330 emblazoned with a massive Union Jack or any of several other aircraft of varying sizes when traveling abroad.
In Israel, however, we have come to expect our country’s leaders to demonstrate a sort of manufactured austerity, a forced modesty that seems like a relic of the country’s early years as a poor, socialist society in which immigrants were housed in tents and food was rationed. We think back nostalgically to a time when the country’s president hosted visiting dignitaries in a structure affectionately called “the hut” because that’s what it was, and the prime minister spent time handling livestock on a dusty kibbutz in the desert.
But that is not the Israel of today. The Israel of today is something of a superpower: a hi-tech powerhouse with one of most formidable militaries and strongest economies on earth. Israel’s GDP per capita is the 13th highest in the world and the country is a world-class hub of science, innovation, culture, and the arts. Gleaming skyscrapers tower over our cities, luxury brands keep setting up shop in our storefronts, and our airport can hardly handle the influx of tourists and businesspeople.
It is beneath our leaders’ dignity – and, frankly, beneath the dignity of this country – when they are forced to host their counterparts in rented ballrooms and when they arrive for official visits abroad chartered planes covered in airline logos. And the public debates that accompany every minor upgrade to the residence, every hotel stay, and every trip abroad are petty and tiresome.
To be sure, it doesn’t help that the current prime minister and his wife have been accused of conduct that goes well beyond what is reasonable and that one of the investigations against Netanyahu centers on his receipt of luxury goods and services from wealthy friends.
But this isn’t about a particular prime minister. It is about how we wish to be perceived around the world – and, even more importantly, how we perceive ourselves.
Israel is no longer a scrappy, impoverished little country struggling to prove its long-term viability against impossible odds. It is a proud, prosperous, and powerful nation that has been around for three quarters of a century and is here to stay. That is the reality we need to internalize and it is the message that our leaders ought to convey.
Rather than pouring tens of millions of taxpayer shekels into renovating and maintaining a crumbling, inadequate residence and renting and outfitting planes that lack the necessary communications and security equipment, the government should set aside the required budgets, establish oversight mechanisms, and move forward with these critical national projects, which have already been green-lit by independent public committees.
It is long past time for our leaders to have the same functional and dignified means of representing the country and conducting official business as their counterparts around the world.