Members of coalition parties who sit on the Knesset Finance Committee were all urged to attend its meeting on Monday – and for good reason.
With the exception of MK Nurit Koren, most Likud lawmakers had hoped to avoid the session. Only at the very last moment, just before the vote, did MKs Miki Zohar and David Bitan show up and save the day.
The reason for the strict coalition roll call had nothing to do with a discussion of any significant issue like education, health or welfare, but rather to ensure that the allocation of 60 million shekels ($16.3 million) would be approved for an upgrade of the prime minister’s new airplane.
The 60 million is really just part of the 580-million-shekel total that Drorit Steinmetz, director of the budget and projects department in the Prime Minister's Office, has quoted for the purchase and planned improvement of the new aircraft. So far some 330 million shekels have been paid for the jet.
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The original plan had called for the Knesset committee to green light a 89-million-shekel allocation on Monday, but the pace of the improvements on the plane has been slower than anticipated. Next year another 40 million shekels are slated to be spent on them, with the rest to be paid over the next five years. The work is being done by Israeli Aircraft Industries.
One reason for the delay in the project, according to MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union), is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are unhappy with the size of the planned living-room section of the plane, which he dubbed "a flying golden calf." Rosenthal told TheMarker on Monday that the funds are covering improvements in four areas: electronics, security, control system – and "what I call perks."
“I can only say that some of the cost is due to a desire to change the interior of the aircraft so that the prime minister and Mrs. Netanyahu will be happy," the MK said. "The room in question is supposed to be 14 square meters, not enough for Mrs. Netanyahu, so there was a need to change the plans."
Finance committee member MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) predicted that “the day will come when we will sell this aircraft and then give the funds back to Israel’s citizens.”
Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir called the whole project “a mockery, money spent on improving the lives of the emperor,” before she was ushered out of the panel's debate.
The Prime Minister's Office said in response that everything being said by the MKs "is one big lie. As opposed to what is being claimed, the prime minister and his wife are not involved in plans" for the aircraft.
One can understand the furor in the Knesset. A sum of 580 million shekels is a significant budgetary supplement – large enough to have a huge impact on the work of any government ministry. Moreover, many people believe this money is being spent needlessly.
For its part, the Finance Ministry has said from the outset that from an economic standpoint, it would be better to continue flying Netanyahu abroad as per the current arrangement: leasing a plane adapted to his needs from El Al, the national carrier. But in 2014, the Goldberg Commission, a public body, recommended the purchase of a private plane for the prime minister. It based its reasons on security advantages cited by the Shin Bet security service related to the fact that this would be an aircraft that only he would use, and which would also be equipped with proper communications systems to allow him to oversee affairs of state even from the air.