Reality Check: Israel’s modern-day royal family

It’s a shame Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent the flight to London for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral asleep on the double bed that cost the taxpayer an extra half-a-million shekels.

Binyamin, Sara Netanyahu arrive in Amsterdam_311 (photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershon/GPO)
Binyamin, Sara Netanyahu arrive in Amsterdam_311
(photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershon/GPO)
It’s a shame Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent the flight to London for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral asleep on the double bed that cost the taxpayer an extra half-a-million shekels. He could have used the flight time more profitably by reading up on a how a truly great conservative leader regarded the use of taxpayers’ money for prime ministerial personal comforts.
Soon after her 1979 election victory, Thatcher received details on public spending on government accommodation, including her living quarters at No. 10 Downing Street. She was not impressed.
With Britain then in the depths of a depression, she did not see why the government should buy her a new ironing board, or spend money on bed linen.
In a blue felt-tip pen, she wrote on the accounts: “I will pay for the ironing board and other things, like sufficient linen for the one bedroom we use. The rest can go back into stock.” She also volunteered to use her own crockery, rather than have the state pay for a new set for her private residence inside Downing Street.
Now one could argue that Thatcher was of a different generation to today’s leaders, having grown up during the Second World War and an era of rationing and self-sufficiency.
But even today, the privileged Old Etonian prime minister of Britain, David Cameron, understands the importance of not abusing public funds for private purposes.
Cameron’s living standards are undeniable higher than Thatcher’s, and he has a young family to accommodate. But the annual £30,000 maintenance grant to refurbish his government-provided living quarters in Downing Street did not stretch to cover all the improvements Cameron wanted to make. So, the British prime minister simply reached into his own pocket and paid for the rest himself. In the US, President Barack Obama went even further, and didn’t even use any of the government-allotted $100,000 to overhaul the White House residence when he and his family moved in at the beginning of his first term.
The contrast with our own prime minister, who cannot even bring himself to pay for his own ice cream (remember his NIS 10,000 state-funded allowance for vanilla and pistachio treats?) could not be starker.
THE RECENTLY revealed figures for state spending on the three Netanyahu residences are truly shocking. Since Ehud Olmert left office, the bills for food and official entertainment at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, for example, have more than doubled, from NIS 214,000 in 2009 to NIS 480,000 in 2012.
Of course the state should fund the prime minister’s official entertaining, but surely it is not unreasonable to expect the Netanyahus to pay for their own food and drink when eating en famille. After all, Netanyahu does receive a monthly salary of around NIS 45,000, which most Israelis, even those with the sweetest of teeth, would find enough to feed their families.
But the real scandal is not the food and drink we’re paying for the Netanyahus to scoff. What really sets the teeth on edge is the NIS 318,000 the state paid on maintenance for the Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea last year. If it’s a private residence, then why are we, the taxpayer, funding any of its maintenance? What part of the definition of the word “private” do the Netanyahus not understand? IT’S HARD to avoid the conclusion that the Netanyahus (because it’s not just the prime minister) see themselves as Israel’s modern-day royal family, and not, as should be the case for a prime minister, as an elected public servant, there to serve the people. The example of their entourage on their recent trip to China provides a clear indication of their extravagance and pretensions.
When Olmert visited China as prime minister in 2007, his delegation comprised 18 members. When the Netanyahus visited, the size of the group almost doubled, to 31. This group included his two sons, who have no official role and thus no reason to be part of an official entourage. And to make matters worse, two unqualified members of the Prime Minister’s Office were added to the delegation for the sole purpose of accompanying the Netanyahu boys, and their mother, for the duration of the trip, even though Israeli embassy staff in Beijing could have performed exactly the same function.
Back home, the establishment buys into the Netanyahus’ pretensions of royalty.
His oldest son has a state-funded bodyguard, as if he were a blue-blooded prince, essential to the maintenance of hereditary rule. And in Jerusalem, a new major road interchange was recently named after Netanyahu’s father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, who died last year, even though this scholar of the history of Spanish Jewry was never part of the Israeli academic elite and spent his professional life teaching at American universities. In comparison, a truly influential Israeli intellectual such as Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who died in 1994, has had to wait until now to have a small road named after him.
But Netanyahu should beware: the spending of most modern monarchies is coming under increased scrutiny and questions are being asked as to whether they are really worth it.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.