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Netanyahu's controversial new ‘Air Force One’

Long delayed and over budget, Israel's PM was about to receive a VIP-configured Boeing 767 to fly him around the world. Fearing criticism amid an economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the plane has now been grounded ■ Take an interactive tour

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4.8.2020

In Israel’s early years, official trips abroad by heads of state were rare. When they did take place, they were either on an Israel Air Force transport or a scheduled El Al flight. Over the years, Israel's leaders used military planes, and later chartered civilian flights. But the mounting cost and lack of encrypted communication systems on civilian airlines led to the need for a dedicated prime minister’s plane.

In 2014, a government panel authorized the purchase of a dedicated plane that would serve both the prime minister and president on overseas trips. The contract was awarded to Israel Aerospace Industries, which purchased a used Boeing 767-300ER. After three years in storage in California after being retired by its owner, Qantas, it was flown to Israel in July 2016 for conversion.

The original budget for its purchase, conversion and upgrade was 393 million shekels ($115 million), which by the time it first flew had grown by 50 percent to 580 million shekels. Operating the plane is expected to cost taxpayers 44.6 million shekels annually. Buying a dedicated plane was criticized – especially after it vastly exceeded the original budget – and its inauguration was postponed several times. Currently, it has been reported that the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the plane be grounded, fearing it would draw criticism during a major economic crisis with mounting unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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While the Boeing 767-300ER can carry up to 290 passengers, the prime minister’s plane will at most carry around half that number. Upgrades made to the new plane are classified, but some changes can be easily spotted.

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From a WWII cargo plane to civilian charters

1940s-50s
DC-3
The historic World War II plane was in service in the Israel Air Force for more than 50 years. The cargo plane was used as a bomber in the 1948 War of Independence, with the bombs thrown by hand. It finally retired from service in 2001.
Photo: ELDAN DAVID/GPO
Photo: ELDAN DAVID/GPO
1960s-70s
Boeing 377 Stratocruiser ‘Masada’
The first official prime minister’s plane. Operated by the Israel Air Force, the plane was adapted for Levi Eshkol’s trip to Africa in 1966. It was converted to VIP configuration, repainted and given the name Masada. It flew Eshkol to Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Congo, Liberia, Senegal and the Ivory Coast on a 25,000-kilometer round trip. Before it saw service in the IAF, the “Strato” had flown for Pan American as Princess of the Pacific.
Photo: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO
Photo: Daniel Rosenbaum/STRPHOT
1970s-2000s
Boeing 707 ‘Re’em’

From the mid-1970s onward, heads of state flew in Boeing 707 airliners converted by Israel Aerospace Industries to VIP configuration. These planes were used Boeings purchased from commercial airlines or foreign heads of state. Most of them remained in service only a few years, as they were either too old or the IAF had other operational needs of them.

The most famous of these aircraft, called Re’em (Oryx), was No. 118 – originally an Air France plane. It flew Menachem Begin on his historic 1979 visit to Egypt, as well as to the United States the preceding year for the Camp David talks, which resulted in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The last of these Boeings, No. 272, served Benjamin Netanyahu in his first term, and also Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. The plane was later converted to an aerial tanker for IAF fighter jets, a role it still fulfills today.
Photo: MOSHE MILNER/GPO
Photo: NATHAN ALPERT/GPO
2000s-present day
Civilian charters
For the past 18 years, Israeli prime ministers have exclusively used chartered aircraft of Israeli airlines, usually an El Al Boeing 737 or 757 for short-range flights to Europe, and a Boeing 767 or 777 for flights to more distant destinations. In some cases, Netanyahu has faced criticism when a larger plane was chartered for short flights so a bed could be installed.
Photo: YAACOV SA'AR/GPO
Photo: YA'ACOV SA'AR/GPO
Photo: GPO

Assuming it eventually becomes operational, Wing of Zion will make its maiden flight with a prime minister on board over 20 years after the plane first flew and after 13 years of intensive airline service in Australia. Most aircraft of this type are normally being flown to their final resting place before being broken up for scrap in desert boneyards. 

After the complete overhaul, and since it will not be making more than a dozen flights a year, there’s no reason why the plane couldn’t go on flying Israeli heads of state for another 20 years before finally retiring.

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Top photo by Alon Ron
Second photo by Nir Keidar
Design by Maya Colodner
Programmed by Asi Oren
Illustrations by Nadav Gazit
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