Experts agree: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. One needs to make it both satisfying and nutritious in order to have enough energy for the hours ahead. This bit of wisdom must have guided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 25, 2011, when he sat down to breakfast in the Israeli seaside town of Caesarea, with Robert Gates, who was then the U.S. defense secretary.
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The meal apparently cost the state treasury almost 20,000 shekels (about $5,200), which begs a question or two. Did this really happen? Why? Who benefited from that outrageously expensive meal? All these mysteries, in an affair that might be dubbed “Gatesgate,” are yet to be solved.
Gates abhors Netanyahu, and that abhorrence is nothing new: It has lasted for a quarter of a century. In the memoirs he published after retiring, Gates recalled that when he served as deputy national security advisor under President George Bush, Sr., he was disgusted by the smooth tongue of Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister, and even toyed with the idea of keeping him from entering the White House.
He also had reservations about Netanyahu’s policy toward Iran and the Palestinians, both in form and in substance, during Barack Obama’s administration. So, while Gates saw himself as a friend of Israel, he felt alienated from Netanyahu at the same time – and indeed, the two feelings are not mutually exclusive.
Gates flew to Russia in March 2011, several weeks after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. He then went on to Cairo, and from there to Tel Aviv. On Friday, March 25, he breakfasted with Netanyahu in Caesarea. He had a full day ahead – meetings with the Palestinian Authority's Salam Fayyad in Ramallah and with King Abdullah in Amman, and then a flight back home to Washington.
Netanyahu did well to begin Gates’ day with a full breakfast – or, at least, coffee, fruit, baked items and cheeses, whatever they cost. The estimated number of guests at the meal was about 20. These included Gates; his assistant for international security affairs Alexander Vershbow; U.S. Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham; various assistants, secretaries and entourage members; Netanyahu; his military secretary Yohanan Locker; Gadi Shamni, the military attaché in Washington; and others. Roughly 10 from each side.
Staff at the Dan Caesarea Hotel were asked how much a meal would cost – not for a wedding or a circumcision celebration – in a room rented for an hour or two, in the morning. The answer: 150 shekels per person.
Now that is no small sum for many of Israel’s citizens, but this was a work meeting between the prime minister and the defense secretary of the world’s biggest superpower. That is no time for stinginess. (Netanyahu was apparently not stingy with the country’s money elsewhere, either: His former household staffer, Meni Naftali, recalled recently that he was once asked to buy 11,000 shekels’ worth of meat for the prime minister's Independence Day barbecue. When the Netanyahus hosted other ministers or billionaires and their spouses, the cost of one evening was reportedly 7,000 shekels.)
According to the Dan Caesarea Hotel, breakfast for 20 people is supposed to cost 3,000 shekels. By contrast, the staff at the Jerusalem restaurant Lara said on Sunday that their price was 200 shekels per guest – a total of 4,000 shekels at most. Lara was chosen for this calculation because it is owned by Lior Haftzadi, whose Safra catering firm provided the breakfast to Netanyahu and Gates. But the meal did not cost 3,000 or even 4,000 shekels. The tab came to 19,282 shekels.
According to the government’s acquisitions department, about six weeks later, on May 8, Safra received a tender exemption after the fact. “Since the official residence does not employ a cook, several suppliers were contacted to provide the service. Safra submitted the lowest and the best bid: 19,282 shekels.”
We can depend on the Prime Minister’s Office to determine that this was the best bid, and we can be glad that it was the least expensive. If other suppliers had tried to squeeze money out of the state – hoping, for example, to get 30,000 or 40,000 shekels for a single breakfast – it would be a relief to know that they encountered the tight fist of officials determined to save the public money.
Two questions were posed to Prime Minister’s Office officials on Sunday evening, on the assumption that even if that office had been charged the maximum and exaggerated price of 200 shekels per person – there would have been no need for the total to exceed 4,000 shekels. Where did the other 15,000 shekels go, the PMO was asked, and was an agreement made with Safra in exchange so that it would provide catering services to Netanyahu’s home on other occasions?
In response, the PMO said that its tenders committee “approved the contact with Safra as part of a framework agreement, with the intention of holding the meal in Jerusalem. Since it was decided to change the location to Caesarea, the breakfast was held at the Dan Caesarea Hotel at a cost of 85 shekels per person, plus value-added tax, for a total of 1,700 shekels, not including tax, and was not paid for as part of the framework agreement with Safra.”
That response contradicts the data on the tender-exemption document – the exorbitant sum, and the fact that it related to a meal that was actually only approved a month and a half later.