Reducing MKs' foreign freeloading

Ministers should get government approval and funding for their trips - and Israel Bonds should be dumped.

Olmert AIPAC 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert AIPAC 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
When Ehud Olmert takes the stand later this month to counter Moshe Talansky's damning testimony, the issue is not one of the hotel suites and flight upgrades Talansky provided, but of Olmert accepting envelopes stuffed with cash and using the money in Talansky's Israeli bank account to cover his election debts. While it is hard to see how the prime minister is going to overturn the devastating impression left by Talansky's testimony, let's put the envelopes aside until after Olmert's court appearance and consider the rights and wrongs of Israeli politicians flying first class and staying at expensive hotels at somebody else's expense, because Olmert is not alone in his enjoyment of the perks of office. Indeed, appreciating the better things in life is not a recent trend among Israeli politicians. Teddy Kollek, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, may have lived in a modest apartment, but his fondness for good cigars and fine food was well known. A major overseas donor to many of Kollek's projects once told me about the time he invited Kollek to lunch at the restaurant at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, which more or less functioned as Kollek's second office. After they had ordered the food, the manager came over asked the mayor which wine he would like with his food. Without hesitation, Kollek chose an extremely expensive French vintage. The donor, who was paying for the meal, was shocked at the extravagance, but was too polite to mention it. When the bill came, he was shocked this time to find that no charge had been made for the wine. After Kollek had left, the donor pointed out the missing item on the bill to the restaurant manager. Not at all, replied the manager. The wine, he explained, belonged to Kollek, who regularly received a crate of top quality wine from overseas friends, but because Kollek had nowhere to store it, the restaurant's wine cellar also served as the mayor's. One wonders what today's state comptroller would make of such a cozy arrangement. Binyamin Netanyahu is another politician who knows how to travel in style. His trip to London, with his wife Sara, at the height of the Second Lebanon War came in for intense scrutiny after it transpired that his six days in the British capital cost a staggering 15,000 pounds. But galling as it may be for the average Israeli, for whom a holiday in London or New York can mean going into the red at the bank, this amount of money is small change for the wealthy Jews who want to host leading Israeli politicians at their functions. THERE IS a compelling argument to be made in favor of top Israeli leaders attending major Diaspora functions. It helps the fundraisers make money for the chosen charity and it allows the Israeli government to get its message across both to the Jewish leadership in the Diaspora and, if the visit is properly planned, to leading media outlets abroad. And yet, because of the ostentatiousness of the hospitality in certain cases and the perfunctory amount of work performed by the some of the visiting Israeli dignitaries, these visits often do leave a sour taste. So what can be done? Firstly, government ministers should be too busy running their ministries to accept invitations to travel overseas just for a speaking engagement. If they are that keen to attend a particular function, then a justifiable working trip should be arranged around that engagement, as happens when the prime minister travels to the United States to address the AIPAC annual convention. Secondly, and no less importantly, no government minister or official should travel at the expense of an organization or private individual. If the government approves the trip, then it must pay for it, to the very last shekel. The case is different for members of the opposition and backbench MKs. Thanks to the generous amount of holiday MKs have granted themselves, they have plenty of time on their hands. Here, the rules of common sense should apply. Knesset members must remember that they need to receive permission from the Knesset Ethics Committee before accepting an overseas trip funded by a third party. And Netanyahu in particular should also take note of the Ethic Committee's 2002 ruling that prohibits MKs' spouses, if they have no official role to play, from joining them on trips abroad when invited by an outside party. But if one is serious about reducing MKs' foreign freeloading, an examination of the necessity for the continued existence of the Israel Bonds is called for. The scandal here is not, as a recent newspaper investigation reported, that the Israel Bonds is treated by some MKs (again, Netanyahu's name crops up here) as a means of providing a speaking engagement to coincide with a family holiday abroad and thus help cover the vacation expenses, but the fact that the Israel Bonds is a very inefficient and expensive means of raising money for the state of Israel. When Israel Bonds was founded in the early years of the state, it was a way of raising much-needed cash for the fledgling country. But today Israel can raise the money it needs far more cheaply on the open capital markets than through the Israel Bonds, to which the government pays an annual $40 million, on top of the higher-than-the market interest rate it pays back on the bonds. However, the chances of our MKs deciding to abolish an institution that provides them with plenty of foreign travel for very little work are probably the same as our prime minister coming up with a convincing explanation as to why he received envelopes stuffed with cash from Moshe Talansky. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.