Does the acquisition of a jet for Israel's prime minister make fiscal sense?
Does the acquisition of a jet for Israel's prime minister make fiscal sense? Photo by Kobi Gideon, GPO
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Israel's government decided on Sunday night to set up a committee that will consider the first-ever Israeli purchase of a presidential and prime ministerial plane along with the construction of a new official office and residence for the prime minister. Prior to the decision, officials at the treasury and Prime Minister's Office had reached the conclusion that operating a state-owned VIP jet would be cheaper than leasing an airliner every time the prime minister flies abroad (President Peres usually makes do with a first-class seat on a commercial flight). However, their calculation is inherently flawed; it was based on the allocation of 100 million shekels ($29 million) – a tidy sum, of course, but one that is rather paltry when it comes to the airliner market.

The prime minister's entourage usually includes his spouse, a large team of aides and advisors, bodyguards and normally a travelling pack of journalists – amounting to dozens of passengers. Even the largest business jets on the market (such as the Gulfstream G550) seat less than twenty. In addition to the seating, the prime minister's plane will have to include an office and a bedroom, which means that nothing smaller than a medium-sized airliner will suffice. Moreover, since Israeli prime ministers often travel to the United States, the new Israel Air Force One will have to be equipped with long-range capabilities, which whittles down the options.

Another consideration that will further limit the range of potential aircraft is the fact that there is very little experience in servicing European Airbus planes in Israel, and as El Al has been flying a Boeing-only fleet for over four decades, it's hard to see the national executive plane coming from any other manufacturer.

The only problem is that Boeing's smallest and cheapest airliner, the 737-700, begins at around $75 million, nearly three times the government's allocation for a new plane. After deducting the cost of the communication systems that would keep the prime minister in constant contact with his office and the security forces, and the electronic counter-measures against missiles, there won't be much more than $25 million left. That leaves very few choices: either a Boeing 757 (similar to the American Air Force Two used by the vice president) or a Boeing 767 (used by the presidents of Azerbaijan and Belarus), neither of which will have been built in the 21st century.

There are of course dozens of such planes on the global used airliner market, but it won't be easy finding one that doesn't need some drastic maintenance and won't have to be replaced in 10 years. Recently El Al retired from its fleet a couple of Boeing 767 planes which have been in service for over 20 years; maybe the government should snap one of them up. As with every used transport, it's always better to know their weak spots.

The current situation whereby Israel's leaders fly in leased airliners has existed for only about twelve years. Before that prime ministers flew in converted IAF Boeing 707 planes which were normally used for transport and electronic warfare and could easily be reconfigured to serve VIPs. But this was no longer possible as the 707 planes got older. Furthermore, as the IAF concentrated its resources on preparing for long-range bombing missions, all the reliable airframes were converted to aerial tankers unsuitable for VIPs. Ironically, the prime minister's plane was also sacrificed as part of the preparations to bomb Iran one day.

Assuming a plane will eventually be purchased, the government will have to address another question: Who will operate it? The plane will probably carry the symbols of the IAF, but air force commanders, like other branches of the IDF currently tightening their belts and focusing on their core missions, won't welcome this new distraction. As it has done already with a few of its squadrons, the maintenance will almost certainly be contracted out to a civilian company, and the pilots, like those of the new firefighting squadron (another mission the IAF was extremely reluctant to accept) will be civilians, probably El Al pilots on reserve service.

While the fact that the leader of the world's only superpower, the president of the United States, uses two upgraded Boeing 747s as his Air Force One, each costing over $300 million, is taken more or less for granted, it's surprising how many leaders of other countries, with much more limited resources, fly magnificent private mega-jets as well. These leaders include King Abdullah II of Jordan, who has a large Airbus 340 and a slightly smaller Airbus 319, King Mohammed of Morocco, who flies his wide-bodied Boeing 777 and 767, and even the president of Yemen, who has a VIP Jumbo Jet.

The prime minister of Israel may lead the country with the most powerful air force in the Middle East. But in a region where presidents, kings and princes own flying palaces – such as Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal's mega Airbus 380, which is reported to have cost $500 billion ($300 million on the plane and $200 million for the interior design) – Benjamin Netanyahu's private jet will be able to compete only with the old Boeing 707 used by Iranian President Hassan Rohani, a plane that was purchased 40 years ago for the Shah.