Curing Junket Junkies

One must bear in mind that Akim, Israel's largest organization assisting the mentally handicapped, and Friends of the IDF are both publicly funded.

The Olmertours affair raises suspicions of criminal behavior. but also has a moral aspect: Why do our leaders need to fly first class? Why do they stay at fancy hotels? Should a prime minister or president not flying in an Israel Air Force plane be in first class? Why couldn't they settle for business class? Why should a voter earning minimum wage or the average salary read about our elected officials' exuberant spending of public money? One must bear in mind that Akim, Israel's largest organization assisting the mentally handicapped, and Friends of the IDF are both publicly funded.

For some voters, even economy class is a luxury. They have only read about business and first class in the papers and are not even aware of the differences between them. According to El Al's Web site, the differences are immeasurable. While both have fast check-in counters and a separate team of flight attendants, only first class serves quality wines. Business class may have comfortable seats, but first-class seats recline with the push of a button, and each seat has a partition.

A senior public official summed it up nicely: Business-class seats recline part of the way, but first-class seats go back all the way. Another difference? Business-class tickets to New York cost $4,000 while first class costs $6,000. Perhaps some of our delicate public officials might lose some sleep due to the difference in the angle that their seats recline, but voters may sleep better knowing that their representatives are in the cheaper business class.

In addition, average Israelis may think that the Hilton or Sheraton chains have quality hotels, but our leaders are used to a different level of comfort. Human rights advocate Irit Rosenblum told Haaretz on Sunday that the presidential suite at the St. Regis Hotel in New York has three bedrooms, a kitchen, a library and four bathrooms. All the suites in the hotel are larger than 300 square meters - about three times the size of the average apartment owned by the average voter. The hotel has an aristocratic atmosphere, complete with crystal chandeliers and marble baths.

How could we ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was minister of industry, trade and labor when he chose to stay at the St. Regis, to forgo all those bathrooms and chandeliers? Of course, Olmert is not alone. Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, decided to base his pro-Israel media campaign during the Second Lebanon War at the posh Connaught Hotel in London.

No one is asking ministers to return to the humility exemplified by former president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who lived in a wooden cabin, or by former prime minister David Ben-Gurion's retreat at Sde Boker. But we would do well if they showed some basic modesty and stopped trying to compete with the lifestyle of the businessmen with whom they rub shoulders.

It's clear our ministers have no self-restraint, which is why the Knesset must introduce legal limits on them. Public officials should be prohibited from flying first class. The ban should include officials on their way to give lectures or raise funds, and prevent them from paying more to get an upgrade. In addition, a cap of $500 a night should be placed on hotel rooms - even if accommodation is covered by the hosts. Ministers and MKs must be required to publish the full expense of their trips on the Knesset Web site. Anyone exceeding those limits will be fined.

If approved, the law will force public officials to make do with a good five-star hotel, and those who cannot survive the rigors of business class are welcome to try their luck in the private sector.