He did it again.
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- Netanyahu, the Ice Cream and the Chief Rabbis of Israel
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Some said he had learned. Some said he had changed. Some said he can't change but will learn to be more discreet. Not so: Yet again Benjamin Netanyahu found himself embroiled in another spending scandal last week.
Once again, his taste for luxury landed him in hot water. $25,000 worth of hot water, to be exact.
Quick recap for all latecomers: Following a petition by the Movement for Freedom of Information, the Prime Minister’s office was forced to reveal Netanyahu’s list of expenses for 2012.
On the menu: About $25,000 for flower arrangements, $1,700 for scented candles, $100,000 for food and, yes, $25,000 in water bills for Netanyahu’s private home in Caesarea. All in all, last year Israel’s taxpayers found themselves paying 3 million shekels ($940,000) for Netanyahu’s three houses - his official residence and two private homes, more than 1 million shekels above his budget.
All in all, Netanyahu’s expenses nearly doubled in four years. Given that he was just coming off a string of expenses scandals - The Great Ice Cream Outrage ($2,700 a year for his favorite pistachio ice cream), the furor that erupted after Israel found out Netanyahu paid $140,000 for a king-size bed on a flight to London, not to mention his $20,000-a-night suite at the Portman Ritz Carlton in Shanghai - the prime minister already knew he’d be in trouble. So he prepared his response in advance.
He quoted Arik Einstein speaking with Yedioth Aharonoth in 1998: “Prime Minister Netanyahu is being treated with terrible injustice. He’s being abused and I’m just appalled at the level of contempt and hatred being demonstrated towards him. How much can you suck his blood, how far can you impinge on his privacy?”
Einstein, an iconic Israeli singer, died last week. Dredging up a 15-year-old interview with the newly deceased to justify lapses in judgment wasn't Netanyahu's classiest move. But it must be getting wearisome to deflect the grumbling about his spending habits, from allegedly unpaid-for meals in Jerusalem's fine dining establishments to the "gifts scandal," at the end of his first terms as PM. There were the suspicions that Netanyahu had abused his status in his dealing with private contractor Avner Amadi. Neither case ever went anywhere much but they didn't do much for the Netanyahus' reputation.
There was the embarrassing incident in 2005: while serving as finance minister, Netanyahu was smoking a cigar when some journalists approached him in the Knesset. His image already burned by his penchant for hedonism, he tried to hide it inside his jacket – and his suit caught fire.
Then there was the travel scandal, after journalist Raviv Drucker of Channel 10 reported on the Netanyahus’ habit of flying first-class in the private jets of their multi-billionaire friends and being lavishly hosted to boot. There was the ice cream. And the bed. And the other stuff.
Yet it's easy to believe Netanyahu truly has no idea why he’s being singled out. He’s definitely not the only Israeli prime minister that tried to live his life like an episode of MTV Cribs. Ariel Sharon loved to eat well. Ehud Olmert’s extravagance was legendary: the man acquired more houses than previously thought possible. Ehud Barak used his time out of politics to make money.
All of them got caught in expense scandals - but none were criticized as savagely as Netanyahu. You didn’t see Micha Lindenstrauss, the former state comptroller and current head of Transparency International Israel, say that their exploits count as “severe hedonism”.
So why pick on Bibi?
It seems the hedonism is more than just a personal lifestyle choice. Here is the most stable prime minister in the history of Israel, probably the best politician Israel had seen, and he is constantly, yet he repeatedly stumbles on trivialities like scented candles and pistachio desserts.
Maybe Netanyahu’s problem is that the world has changed.
Israel 2013 is not the Israel of 1998. Hell, it isn't even the Israel of 2011. This kind of in-your-face extravagance in a time of austerity, economic slowdown, housing crisis and soaring cost of living, a mere week after a report by the Taub Center revealed that a third of Israel’s population is suffering from financial difficulties, is unacceptable.
What are the people supposed to think when their elected leader shows such disregard for taxpayers’ money? And this prime minister has made a career out of calling for financial responsibility, no less.
What troubles Israelis isn’t the sums Netanyahu spent. It’s not even the way he chose to spend them. It is the disregard for their troubles, their hard-earned money. It is that he had the audacity to use Arik Einstein’s memory to justify his actions instead of owning up to them. It is that they can’t afford to buy a home, or if they did, struggle with mortgage payments, but apparently they can spend $25,000 on filling up Netanyahu’s private pool without even knowing.
Maybe if he’d at least let them swim in it once in a while, they’d be OK.