Are We Blowing Netanyahu's Excesses Out of Proportion?

World leaders have resigned over less, but still: The PM’s taste for opulence is chump change compared to Israel’s real problems.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

In the past six years since Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term as prime minister, housing prices in Israel have gone up more than 50 percent, and the cost of living has jumped by more than 30 percent. In terms of security, the population endured over 50 days of daily rocket attacks last summer; stabbings by terrorists have made a comeback; and Iran got ever closer to nuclear capability. On the diplomatic front, Israel has arguably never been more isolated.

So why are so many Israelis obsessing these days over the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu spends 75,000 shekels (roughly $19,000) a month to cover his cleaning bills, as revealed last week in State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s long-awaited report? Or over the fact that spending on food and entertaining at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem more than doubled between 2009 and 2011?

Surely, even given all the objectively negative developments listed above, Israelis have more pressing issues to talk about than the prime minister's expenses. Yet tales of the Netanyahus' lavish household spending have become folklore, sustained by the power of what can only be described as a collective national obsession.

The expenses recently revealed here are not quite comparable to those in France – a country infamous for its leaders’ outrageous spending habits (French taxpayers recently found out that they paid 500,000 euros to cover the travel and staffing expenses of President François Hollande’s ex-girlfriend in 2013) – but they’re not a completely different story either. And many Italian citizens might feel a tinge of recognition upon hearing of the Netanyahus' extravagance.

Shapira’s report, coming on the heels of "bottlegate" – in which Israel’s First Lady was suspected of pocketing thousands of shekels worth of state funds from bottles returned to supermarkets – covers Netanyahu’s expenses between 2009 and 2013, a period during which said expenses ballooned to nearly $1 million a year. The report reveals, among other things, that Netanyahu spent 8,166 shekels of taxpayer money per month to clean his private residence in Caesarea.

(It does not delve into the so-called “flying bed” scandal of 2013, in which Netanyahu allegedly paid half-a-million shekels to have a king-size bed installed on his plane when flying to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London. However, the report does elaborate on the "garden chair switcheroo" of 2014, in which the Netanyahus were accused of taking furniture that had been bought for the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem to their private Caesarea villa.)

One of the report’s biggest revelations concerns the saga of an electrician by the name of Avi Fahima, a Likud member who has served for years as the Netanyahus’ private electrician and apparently was asked to work in that capacity on Yom Kippur.

This revelation, one of a series relating to incidents where the Netanyahus apparently rolled private expenses onto the state budget, could lead to a criminal investigation against the prime minister, if Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Netanyahu’s former lawyer) should so decide. It can be added to the testimony of the former chief caretaker of the PM's official Jerusalem residence, Meni Naftali, who has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Netanyahus in recent months and was questioned at length this week by the police.

It is all rather embarrassing. Netanyahu is, after all, a multimillionaire, a politician with a net worth estimated by Forbes to be about 41 million shekels (over $10 million). And here he is, trying to chisel petty cash from the state. The Netanyahus’ hairdresser rushed to the first couple’s defense this week, going on television and calling Israeli society “cheap, shallow and poor” for its criticism of their spending habits.

In Western countries where prime ministers and presidents have fixed expense accounts and tougher regulations to cope with, the chances of a senior politician acting as though he were royalty are more limited. (Sure, Israel looks good compared to Iran’s Khamenei or Saudi Arabia's leaders, but that’s not exactly an impressive feat.)

In the United States, Barack Obama has an annual expense budget of $50,000, plus a $100,000 travel account, and while the official residential budget for the president stands at $13.2 million (including official state dinners; in reality, when you factor in security expenses, the total is closer to $1.5 billion), the president himself has to pay for his own personal expenses, including Thanksgiving dinner, his own toothpaste and dry cleaning.

At private parties, the president – not the taxpayers – pays for food, beverages and waiters. When Michelle Obama buys dresses, she has to pay for them, seeing as the role of First Lady doesn’t include a clothing allowance (Jackie Kennedy famously had to have her father-in-law finance part of her wardrobe).

Such traditions are based on a simple concept: There is no reason why taxpayers should pay for anything other than official functions. There have been some anomalies, sure, but overall U.S. leaders do not enjoy the kind of imperial splendor the Netanyahu household is famous for.

Some presidents and First Ladies have been by surprised by this, at first. Shortly after moving in to the White House, Nancy Reagan said: “Nobody told us that the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for such incidentals as dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries.”

It is said of Mary Todd Lincoln that she briefly considered selling manure to pay off her immense clothing bills.

None of these personalities, as far as we know, took a celebrity interior designer for a tour of her official residence, displaying the derelict living conditions in which she’s forced to live – damp ceilings, creaking doors, disintegrating rugs - as Sara Netanyahu did last week.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron earns so little (£142,000 before taxes, or about $219,400) that more than 20 percent of the officials in the European Union get paid more than he does (which might explain why he is claiming expenses on paper clips). During 2013-2014, Cameron claimed £129,512 in parliamentary expenses, which include staffing, office costs and travel. And while British MPs have had their own share of ridiculous expense scandals, Cameron’s car allowance doesn’t even hold up to Netanyahu’s ice-cream bills. Then again, the British premier did apparently spend more than £700,000 in taxpayer money in renovations at 10 Downing Street – including a remodeled kitchen – which makes Netanyahu’s renovation bills seem like a pittance.

In Sweden, deputy prime minister and PM hopeful Mona Sahlin had to resign in 1995 after it was revealed that she had used her official, government-issued credit card to cover private expenses totaling 50,000 kronor (about $7,600), including a chocolate bar. This came to be known as the “Toblerone affair.”

Netanyahu, of course, will not resign over the current expense scandal. Instead, Israel’s prime minister has gone on the offensive in the past two weeks, accusing Noni Mozes (publisher of Israel’s biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth) of orchestrating a “slander campaign” against him, among other things.

One should not dismiss the outrage felt by many Israelis over Netanyahu’s spending, however. The uneasiness and shame with which all these scandals have been met is deeply rooted in Israeli culture, in light of the cherished frugality demonstrated by David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, with their crummy apartments and their worn-out clothes. Israel’s old guard had no illusions of grandeur, no presumptions of aristocracy. For that, they are remembered fondly, even if sometimes only for that.

The thing is, though, Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power – either as PM or as senior member of government – for nearly two decades now. During that time, he got embroiled in countless scandals having to do with his lavish lifestyle. Israelis have been hearing about his gifts, his furniture, his ice cream, his scented candles, his rich benefactors, his million-dollar trips to China, his luxury suites and his water bills, for almost 20 years. And many Israelis love hearing about all this. Israel has no aristocracy of its own, no royal families to obsess about. A prime minister and his wife who think of themselves as royalty is as close as they can get.

But still, Netanyahu’s taste for opulence is chump change compared to Israel’s real problems, a symptom of a much larger malady, a drop in a very murky ocean. It is a symbol, yes, but eventually one has to drop the symbolism and deal with the more real, and much tougher tasks at hand.

Still, it’s much more entertaining – and easier – to talk about Netanyahu’s private pool than all those other things.

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