The joke usually goes like this: A family walks into a talent agency and tries to sell their family act. The agent asks what they do. The family demonstrates, performing the most depraved, tasteless act the human mind can think of. When they're finished, the talent agent, still in shock, says "That's quite an act. What do you call it?" The father replies: "The Aristocrats!"
It's an old joke. Maybe it's social commentary on the oft-ignored crudeness of high society.
Israelis got a taste last week of aristocracy and its divorce from the standards of ordinary people, as yet another expense scandal enveloped Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.
Israel is a young country, devoid of aristocratic legacies and public-funded royal dynasties, but if anyone could be called "Israeli aristocrats," it would be this First Couple. And they do they play the part.
This latest scorcher began with the Channel 10 revelation that the Netanyahus had ordered a king-size bed installed on their plane to London to attend Margaret Thatcher's funeral in April. It's a short, five-hour flight. Installing the bed cost half a million shekels – around $140,000.
Symbolic, perhaps, but symbolism carries heavy weight in these austere times. Job losses and tax hikes are driving ordinary working Israelis to lose sleep at night. The cost of living has soared and Israeli households are drowning. Meanwhile, the Netanyahus jet around the world, albeit on official state visits, drowning in opulence before the cameras for all of Israel to see.
At about the same time, Netanyahu's bureau was forced by the Movement for Freedom of Information to disclose the expenses of the Prime Minister's Residence. It turns out that Netanyahu's expenses almost doubled in four years to nearly $1 million a year. In 2012, the Netanyahus spent nearly NIS 360,000 on food, up 117% from 2009.
They spent NIS 108,000 on furniture, NIS 64,000 on clothes and - wait for it - NIS 1.2 million on cleaning the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem.
That's NIS 100,000 a month just for cleaning. (The average wage in February, for all Israeli workers, was NIS 9,048 a month.) All paid for by the taxpayer, of course, who can expect fewer services and more taxes under Finance Minister Yair Lapid's austerity budget.
Given the size of the national budget, perhaps all these expenses are symbolic. But sometimes symbols count.
We all scream about Netanyahu's ice cream
This, of course, was not Netanyahu's first expense scandal. It isn't even his third. Just this month he had to defend the size of his entourage during his trip to China, an entourage that included his wife and sons, his personal chauffeur – who did no driving in China, but still got to fly on the taxpayer's account, officially being in charge of "carrying luggage" – and 27 more people, or 31 people in total. That's 16 more than the entourage Ehud Olmert took when he visited China in 2007.
Netanyahu, who slept in a $20,000-a-night suite at the Portman Ritz Carlton in Shanghai (this leg of the trip was reportedly paid by the Chinese government), said he'd paid for his sons out of his own pocket, but the trip still cost Israeli taxpayers $1 million. It was during that China visit that Lapid unveiled his draft budget including tax hikes, welfare cuts and other austerity measures likely to tilt many Israelis into poverty.
Three months before that was the great Ice Cream Outrage. Netanyahu had arranged a budget of $2,700 a year for his favorite ice cream. Symbolic, yes, but symbolism is important when hundreds of thousands of Israelis are out in the streets screaming for social justice.
Then there was also the issue of Sara's personal, on-demand hairdresser, and personal make-up artist, and the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer shekels that go into cleaning, furnishing and securing Netanyahu's two private homes – again, on the taxpayer's dime. And the issue of who paid for the security detail for Netanyahu's eldest son, Yair, when he was on a private trip to the United States in 2010. And the clothes – oy, the clothes.
And there was, of course, the travel scandal of 2011, when Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker exposed the Netanyahus' habit of flying first-class or in private jets all over the world, staying at luxury hotels, eating at the most expensive restaurants and even taking acting lessons, all on the dime of rich friends, philanthropists and other benefactors. No charges were filed but Netanyahu's image as a hedonist became irreversible.
There were other stories, scandals, exposes as well. There were two at the end of Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, in 1999: one about gifts he'd received as premier from world leaders and allegedly kept illegally. Another suspected that Netanyahu abused his status in dealings with a private contractor named Avner Amadi. Both cases closed without indictments, but his image was forever tainted.
Even though he was since elected again and yet again, even his supporters have a hard time swallowing his fondness for opulence, particularly after he did very well upon briefly leaving politics and going into private business in 1999.
Thus over the years, the image of the Netanyahus as detached, hedonistic pleasure seekers evolved. Netanyahu's affection for cigars burned his public image so badly that one day, in 2005, when journalists approached him in the Knesset (as finance minister), he hid a burning cigar inside his suit jacket – which caught fire.
For her part, speaking with Channel 2 news in April 2011, Sara Netanyahu – carrying her own complicated history with the Israeli electorate – responded to accusations that she and her husband were isolated and decadent with fierce denial and a statement that "it was all for the good of the country." She then said she "doesn't have the strength to go through all this evil" and claimed reports of the couple's bloated expenses were a part of an organized smear.
Israelis seem to love to hate Sara – the supposed "power behind the throne," with her dubious fashion sense. She, for her part, doesn't seem worried about becoming Madame Deficit.
The Netanyahus, both Sara and Benjamin, have always had a hard time dealing with the Israeli press, and often with the Israeli public. Over time they grew more isolated, more detached, more entrenched in their ways. In 2002, in a taped conversation with a Likud member, Sara claimed, "As a leader Bibi is much too big for Israel. He is a leader fit for international standards. Why does he have to try so hard? We'll just move abroad, let this country burn. Without Bibi it wouldn’t last." Uh huh.
Two days after the latest expense scandal broke, the OECD reported that Israel has the highest poverty rate among the developed nations.
Israel's poverty rate is now 21%, compared with 13.8% in 1995.
During most of this time, the person in charge of Israel's economy, an economy where now one in three children is poor, has been Netanyahu.
Aristocracy is a form of government that requires contrast. It requires a small, rich elite ruling over vastly inferior classes. That, in a nutshell, is how many Israelis feel when they hear that Israel is the poorest country in the developed world and meanwhile the prime minister's household budget rose 80%. The richer the Netanyahus seem to be, the poorer they feel.
Netanyahu's expenses are, to tell the truth, small fry in the grand scheme of things, chump change compared to the billions in tax benefits for big corporations and the hundreds of billions that might be lost if Israel allows its natural gas to be exported.
But it's the symbolism that counts, sometimes. It's symbolism that led to the French revolution. Uncertainty is rife, household budgets are shrinking, and Israelis read the reports on the lavish lives of the Netanyahus with a sick feeling that someone is playing a joke on them. What joke? The Aristocrats.
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