The ice cream story that broke last week about the Prime Minister's Office budgeting NIS 10,000 for the frozen treat without a tender is just the tip of the iceberg. For many years, the heads of the Prime Minister’s Office apparently have not wanted the public to know where the money is going.
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For decades, Israeli prime ministers have lived in the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. The state was justified in providing an official residence to its prime ministers where they could live with their families and host high-ranking officials from Israel and abroad. Its current occupants are Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu and their sons, Yair and Avner. In the past, the late Shmuel Ben Artzi, Sara’s father, lived there as well.
The budget of the residence is concealed within the budget of the Prime Minister’s Office and kept as secret as if it were the budget of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
The PMO’s annual budget for 2012 was NIS 2.2 million. The amount is intended for the various units within the PMO and the ministers and deputy ministers who fall under its purview, including the Religious Services Ministry, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee and the Civil Service Commission.
Among the items in the budget, which also includes the bureaus of former prime ministers, is an item listed at NIS 0 for Netanyahu's bureau from his first term between 1996 and 1999. Yet, the budget assigned to his official residence does not appear separately.
Netanyahu has hosted coalition members and their spouses at the residence several times. He has also held meetings there with authority heads, Palestinian representatives and other figures. At one point, Sara Netanyahu brought pizza out to students who were holding a hunger strike in front of the residence. The prime minister’s official residence employs a staff of workers for management, maintenance, cooking, cleaning, gardening and other tasks.
Nobody expects the prime minister or his wife to cook the food served at official meetings, do the food shopping, change burned-out light bulbs or water the garden. However, the public does have a right to know how much these expenses amount to, yet the PMO refused to tell Haaretz how much it spent on them in 2011 and 2012.
There ought to be immediate transparency when it comes to the budget of the prime minister’s official residence (and that of the president’s official residence as well). It should list the amount allocated for food, hosting, maintenance, gardening, cleaning, renovations and furniture. The public has the right to know whether these budget items have gone up at a time when the state budget is being cut back, and when Netanyahu describes the public sector as “fat.”
A taste for Turkish food
The PMO asks the tenders committee for exemptions, as in the ice cream case leaked last week, and the committee, comprised partly of PMO representatives, grants the requests without hesitation. That was how, in 2011, the expenses of the prime minister’s residence reached NIS 2.46 million, and the expenses of Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea came to NIS 184,000. The cost of providing security for the prime minister’s home on Aza Street in Jerusalem was NIS 1.1 million.
In 2010, a sum of NIS 710,000 was allocated for cleaning the official residence, as compared with NIS 553,000 in 2009. In 2010, food expenses for the residence were listed at NIS 263,000. So far, no official data about the official residence for 2011 have been published, but Haaretz learned that NIS 70,000 was spent on food from Jerusalem restaurants that year.
In addition, a close look at the tender exemption requests shows that last month, two such requests were submitted for Iris Agay, the prime minister’s makeup artist. Although she began working for the prime minister in May 2012 and plans to continue in the position until May 2013, the tender exemption request was submitted seven months after she began working for him. The request specifies the total sum of NIS 35,000 per year – in other words, more than NIS 2,900 per month on average.
A further exemption request, totaling NIS 30,000, was submitted for the provision of refreshments for events at the PMO from Hamjoun Doner Restaurants for a nine-month period. No protocol specifying the reason for the expense or the exemption was appended to these requests.
Netanyahu, who quickly announced that the state would no longer be required to buy pistachio ice cream for him, and who talks a great deal about the need for transparency and frugality in managing the budget, ought to go one step further and instruct the PMO’s accounting department to reveal the entire budget of the prime minister’s official residence, to the last item. Thus the public will know how much of its money the PMO is spending on cake, if not ice cream.
A spokesperson for the PMO commented, “The refreshments budget is for meetings at the Prime Minister’s Office only. Past prime ministers used these services as well. It should be noted that these are general agreements; they do not mean that the sum will actually be used. The item is available for public perusal on the Internet.”