Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik are not alone in their love of luxury hotels. Government ministers have for decades stayed at luxury hotels around the world, and the Israeli taxpayer has of course footed the bill.
New York and Washington are the favorite destinations. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon had a soft spot for the Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue in New York. Current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stayed at the Regency in the Big Apple two weeks ago.
From the minute they land in New York, London or Paris, it seems that many elected officials feel free to engage in wasteful spending on the public's tab. It is small change in relation to the overall state budget, but it is a major waste of money. While no one expects our leaders to sleep in a youth hostel, they do not need to stay at the most expensive establishments available. Would those same ministers spend that kind of money if it were coming out of their own pockets?
Yet those who talk to cabinet ministers about such things get complaints in response. As one minister said Wednesday, "They're attacking us all the time about trips abroad and hotel costs, but you forget that we are on state business. Trips abroad involve packed schedules over several days, and we work like horses day and night."
Compounding the problem is the fact that there are no binding rules for how much ministers can spend on hotel stays. In contrast, rules do exist for travel expenses by ministry directors general and other civil servants.
Who ought to set the rules? The cabinet secretary and justice and finance ministry officials have held discussions on that very subject recently. But the best solution would be for the cabinet to give the Finance Ministry's accountant general, Shuki Oren, the task of imposing ceilings on ministers' hotel expenses, both in Israel and abroad. These should be somewhat higher than those imposed on civil servants.
Then, the cabinet should approve the guidelines Oren develops, so that next year, we will not again witness ministerial travel expenses that are out of all proportion.
Netanyahu: In demand
Benjamin Netanyahu is in demand abroad. For years - even when he was not prime minister, and was in fact serving in no state capacity whatsoever - he was invited to lecture and make public appearances around the world. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, he made about 50 appearances over a very brief period.
Netanyahu loves luxury hotels. In his first term as prime minister, he stayed more than once at the Park Lane near New York's Central Park, as well as at the Stanhope. A few weeks ago, when he was in the city to attend the United Nations General Assembly, he and his entourage stayed at the Regency, which is also popular with other ministers and MKs.
In August 2006, in the middle of the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu embarked on a pro-Israel public relations campaign in London, where he stayed with his wife at the opulent Connaught Hotel. The cost of the couple's week-long stay was NIS 131,000, including NIS 11,000 in entertainment and theater expenses and tens of thousands of shekels for meals, laundry and Sara Netanyahu's hairdresser. At the time, Netanyahu insisted that the theater expenses were only half of what was reported and that he paid them out of his own pocket.
Olmert: A discount from a pal
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert loves to travel abroad. In June 2005, when he was minister of industry, trade and labor, he flew to New York for three days to participate in two events - one sponsored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and one sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Olmert stayed in a suite at the St. Regis at a cost of $1,400 per night.
Two months earlier, he and his wife flew to New York to attend a dinner to mark the opening of an exhibition of Aliza Olmert's art. The couple stayed at one of the poshest hotels in the city, the Peninsula, on Fifth Avenue. Haaretz reported that the arrangements were made by the hotel's owner, millionaire Michael Kadoorie, a close friend of the Olmert family. The Olmerts stayed in a luxury suite that would usually have cost $2,600 a night. But thanks to Kadoorie's involvement, they got a discount: four nights at a cost of $2,200. The bill was paid by a pro-Israel group headed by Sharon Tzur, a former Likud activist and a friend of Olmert's.
Barak: Four nights for the price of six
In June of this year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak attended the Paris Air Show with a delegation of 50 people. The state comptroller revealed that the price of the suite where Barak and his wife stayed was 2,500 euros, or about NIS 13,750, per night. The Defense Ministry rented the rooms for Barak and the rest of the delegation for six days, even though the rooms were not occupied for the entire period.
Dalia Itzik: Like a Saudi sheikh
Haaretz reported in 2006 that Dalia Itzik, then speaker of the Knesset, refused to stay at the Park Hyatt in Paris because she said her room was too small and did not provide the necessary privacy and comfort. Instead, she switched to a suite at Le Bristol, a favorite of Saudi sheikhs. According to Channel 2 television, the hotel bill for Itzik and the Knesset's director general at Le Bristol ultimately came to NIS 75,000.
Hirchson: The shopping spree
During the course of his embezzlement trial, evidence was presented to show that former finance minister Abraham Hirchson traveled abroad every few months between 1999 and 2003. He was finance minister for part of this period and chairman of the National Workers' Organization for another part. On one trip to Zurich, his hotel bill was NIS 5,000 a night. A shopping list included in his indictment said he spent NIS 8,133 at Diesel jeans alone.
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