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The Caesarification of Benjamin Netanyahu

It is precisely on the issue of modesty that these ‘faithful’ character witnesses came unstuck, for the Netanyahu family’s lack of modesty is not just about money.

Naama Nagar
9 June 2013

“Take care not to be caesarified” ( Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.30. Trans. Martin Hammond) 

About a year ago, Times magazine featured a front-cover interview with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu titled, ‘King Bibi’. Netanyahu modestly responded, “Israel is a democracy, not a monarchy”. This comment has been gathering irony, for in an age of austerity, PM Netanyahu’s own conduct is showing all the signs of kleptocracy. Recent reports revealing the magnitude of the PM household’s spending suggest that he is  oblivious to the economic circumstances of average citizens. Against the background of growing social unrest, his personal indulgences have touched a raw nerve.

Earlier this year, for example, the Israeli PM flew to the UK to attend Thatcher’s funeral, accompanied by his wife Sara. The cost of this visit: 1.5 million NIS (around £270,000) for a delegation of 75 staff members. Israeli commentators had already described it as unnecessary for Netanyahu to attend the funeral himself; this private event did not officially warrant the presence of a head-of-state. According to Netanyahu, he desired to show his respect in person due to his ‘appreciation’ and ‘love’ for the late British PM. There were other reasons to justify the trip, for during his stay in the UK he held several meetings, including with British PM Cameron. What angers Israelis most, however, is that Netanyahu had a double bed installed on the plane for him and his wife - an operation that cost 500,000 NIS (£90,000) and involved him demanding urgent work on Israel’s Independence Day (a holiday) - all for a 5-hour direct flight. The exposure of this expensive request caused a national stir, which still refuses to settle weeks after the matter came to light. Netanyahu’s feeble attempts to justify himself  - he claims to have had no idea of the true cost of constructing a bedroom inside a Boeing 767 [1] – only worsen the aggravation. 

This is the last of an avalanche of reports finally published, not only on the budget of the office of the PM but also about public spending on his private houses. The Netanyahu family occupies three homes - two private villas and the formal state residence - all of which are either fully or partly funded by the state. The budget of the PM official residence in Jerusalem increased by 73% during Netanyahu’s time in office. In 2011, it reached a sum of nearly 2.5 million NIS (about £450000) which were spent on maintenance, food, clothing and miscellaneous expenses. Just a few blocks down the street from the PM official residence, Netanyahu keeps a private house. Security services for this house, at the heart of Jerusalem, cost Israeli taxpayers more than 1million NIS (nearly £180,000) each year. Additionally, the family have a second private house, which they frequent on weekends and holidays. It is located - how fitting - in Caesaria, a secluded town of upper-class elites and nouveau-riche. A sum of nearly £57,000 p/annum is spent on maintenance and security of this residence alone. 

As in the affair of the flying bed, what shocked Israelis most about the PM’s home expenses was not merely the large sums taken out of their pockets, but the lavish enjoyment involved. One budget item in particular caused the loudest outcry: annual expenditure on ice-cream. An order for a total of 10,000 NIS (nearly £1,800) was contracted to the PM’s favourite supplier of vanilla and pistachio delights, with no tender. No sooner was the ice-cream deal made public than the PM rushed to revoke the supplier’s contract; once again, claiming no prior knowledge of this expense, which he called ‘unacceptable’. 

Most media in Israel discuss these stories extensively, except, of course, for the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom which is funded by American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson. The Opposition ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ of course. Given the pressure, the State Comptroller had no choice but to take action and he has announced he would examine the matter. He has failed to open a formal inquiry, and there is little faith his investigation will yield any meaningful conclusions, for he was personally appointed by the PM following an intimate acquaintance with the Netanyahu couple. 

Netanyahu prefers to dodge such accusations. Despite a legal obligation to do so, it took an appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice (by the Movement for Freedom of Information) for the PM office to disclose the information (and not all of it, even now). Netanyahu’s official Facebook page is full of current updates on his busy schedule but lacks any mention of this recent critique. Instead of facing the Israeli media in person, he sent two of his close associates, attorneys Yossi Cohen and David Shimron, to the frontline. The two spoke on national TV channels and tried to justify the expenses and provide testimonials of Netanyahu’s ‘modest’ lifestyle.

But it is precisely on the issue of modesty that these ‘faithful’ character witnesses came unstuck, for the Netanyahu family’s lack of modesty is not just about money. While particular budget items can be explained, perhaps even justified, a general air of indifference blows from the vicinity of the PM. In February, for instance, a new Knesset was sworn in. For that special event, Sara Netanyahu wore a dress of black lace, which revealed more than it concealed. The eccentric outfit became an immediate topic for censure and ridicule. It was considered highly unsuitable for the occasion, unflattering and unfitting for Mrs. Netanyahu’s position (or age), disrespectful of religious and ultra-orthodox parliamentarians and all together a manifestation of little taste, self-awareness and propriety. One Haaretz title read “a Transparency which Radiates Imperviousness”. 

What Netanyahu is particularly impervious to, are the economic hardships experienced by many Israelis at this time, and his government’s budget bill for 2013-14, which is currently debated in parliament. The dreaded austerity bill - the reason the PM dismissed the previous parliament and called for early elections - deals a heavy blow on most public purses and is expected to further impair the situation of the poor and the middle classes. In response, the last couple of months saw a gradual resurgence of the Social Protest movement which first mobilized in the summer months of 2011.

If his numerous make-up artists and media advisors are anything to go by, the PM seems to be more concerned for his public image than for the public’s welfare [2]. Netanyahu is keeping away from the public eye until his budget bill is passed. Instead the politically inexperienced finance minister, Yair Lapid, has been placed in the full glare of the limelight. This might serve to diminish the level of threat this recent political meteor poses. Nevertheless, it is precisely in distancing himself - from the media, from the public - that the PM confirms the suspicions prompted by his   Caesar-like manners.

Already now protesters demonstrate regularly not only in public squares but also in front of the PM’s official Jerusalem residence and his private house in Cesarea (as well as the houses of Finance Minister Lapid and business tycoon Tshuva, who stands to benefit from the controversial planned privatizing of Israel’s natural gas resources). PM Netanyahu’s reaction to the social mobilization? His ministry just extended a contract for a special media advisor on socio-economic affairs. The cost: 80,000 NIS (£14,300) for a period of four months, without tender.

Notes

[1] Netanyahu’s excuse is easily refuted. On two previous occasions Netanyahu ordered similar facilities to be installed on board flights—on his trip to Paris in May 2010 (for the official admittance of Israel into the OECD) and on a visit to Berlin in April 2011. In both cases Israeli media reported on the cost of these operations (at the time, however, these reports garnered little public attention). 

[2] Netanyahu fires and hires PR personnel frequently, and always surrounds himself with several different professionals. On his trip to China the delegation included four media advisors. 

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