Homes Fit for a Prime Minister: From Ben Gurion's Shack to Netanyahu's Compound

Times have changed in Israel. Austerity in the desert is out, ostentation in the heart of Tel Aviv is in.

Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad

In my dreams, I'm sipping tea with Sara Netanyahu in the courtyard of the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem. The garden is supposed to be beautiful. I imagine it being impeccably maintained.

I even tried to take a friendly approach. I contacted the Prime Minister's Office, I explained, I phoned, I sent emails, but to my great disappointment I never received a reply. They didn't even do me the favor of refusing me an invitation. They simply didn't answer.

I was a little hurt, but the moment passed. I travelled to Jerusalem to see the house from the outside, at least.While disappointing, this experience started me on a journey to seek out past Israeli prime ministers’ homes.

Along the way I found few hosts and many security guards. I did, though, manage a glimpse behind the highest political office in Israel, and into the different ways its occupants have handled their power and wealth. These days the premiership and modest living and the premiership in Israel today sound like polar opposites, but it wasn't always that way.

Starting from one of the more recent leaders of government, the guard who barred my entrance to Akirov Tower West in posh North Tel Aviv wasn't persuaded that there was a public interest in learning the details regarding the 31st floor where the former prime minister (and present defense minister) Ehud Barak just sold his apartment. To the guard, a putative historical interest in the home of a former prime minister seems like a poor excuse for snooping. Certainly it wouldn't be tolerated on this guard's watch: that much was clear.

Yet we did not let this forbidding guard to deter us, and did a round of former prime ministerial homes. It was an experience to understand a different era, when the premiership and extraordinary wealth didn't necessarily march together in lockstep.

It is a well-know story in Israel that Menachem Begin pledged not to leave his tiny two-room ground-floor apartment in central Tel Aviv unless it was for the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.
The Sycamore Ranch, with its blue fence, watchtower and large manorial estate, looked a little like the set of the American television show 'Dallas.'
It is in this small, austere home, where David Ben Gurion spent most of the final decade of his life, that many Israelis like to imagine the man who founded their state.
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It is a well-know story in Israel that Menachem Begin pledged not to leave his tiny two-room ground-floor apartment in central Tel Aviv unless it was for the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The Sycamore Ranch, with its blue fence, watchtower and large manorial estate, looked a little like the set of the American television show 'Dallas.'Credit: Moshe Gilad
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It is in this small, austere home, where David Ben Gurion spent most of the final decade of his life, that many Israelis like to imagine the man who founded their state.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Netanyahu's hidden fortress

The prime minister's official residence straddles the neighborhoods of Rehavia and Talbieh in Jerusalem. Aghion House, as it is called, was built by Jewish-German architect Richard Kaufmann between 1936 and 1939 in the unadorned International Style.

The house has an impressive pedigree. It was built for a wealthy Greek-Jewish merchant named Edward Aghion and served as the home of King Peter II of Yugoslavia at the beginning of World War II. Around the time of Israel's War of Independence, the Irgun, a rightwing Jewish militia that later became part of the Israel Defense Forces, converted it into a makeshift military hospital.

In 1952, the State of Israel purchased the house to serve as the official residence of then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett. After Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister in 1974, it was given its current role as the Israeli premier's residence.

Pedestrians can walk along Balfour Street, but the sense that dozens of cameras are following one's every move is a tad creepy. To add to the effect, the residence was ringed by massive walls and the guards explicitly told sightseers that photography is forbidden.

The bottom line is that the house is reportedly lovely, but the towering walls render it invisible from public view.

A farm rich with plots

Gilad Sharon, son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, sounded friendly over the phone. He listened to my request to visit the Sycamore Ranch and wondered in a low voice what I wanted to do there.

Hearing that I wanted to see the room where the elder Sharon would meet with his close advisors ahead of crucial government decisions in what was known as the "Ranch Forum," he deliberated a bit and apologized. He said he didn't really like having journalists over at the house; that the last thing he needed was visitors showing up to see the ranch and that maybe sometime he would invite me over for a coffee irrespective of this article.

Sycamore Ranch entered the Zionist narrative in 1911, when a Russian pioneer group called Shearith Israel bought the property. Sharon purchased the land in 1972, when serving as a career officer in the Israeli army, and hired Israeli architect Zalman Einav to build his family's home there.

The best view of the ranch is from the nearby hill where Lili Sharon, wife of Ariel, is now entombed. When I visited, it was late afternoon and the air was filled with the soft light of late spring. The hill was covered in yellow chrysanthemums and the surrounding fields and ravines were a luscious shade of green. The ranch, with its blue fence, watchtower and large manorial estate, looked a little like the set of the American television show “Dallas.”

No security guards were visible, but the fence appeared well secured.

Since Sharon bought the ranch, it has been the site of more than a dozen scandals, including (all alleged) dodgy loans, bribery, money laundering and mortgage fraud.But like the grating sounds of the farm's agricultural machinery, these controversies seem very distant.

"Don't talk to me about that house"

The Julius Jacobs House in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood was the first official prime minister's residence, doing the job from 1950 until the Aghion House took over in 1974.

Russian-British architect Benjamin Chaikin designed the house in 1933, when the British still ruled over Palestine. Its spacious arched balcony, high ceilinged rooms and expansive lawn must have been beautiful at the time.

Years of vacancy and neglect have taken their toll. The front gate is broken and the walls are covered in graffiti. The guardhouse on the patio is advanced decay.

The original owner of the house was Julius Jacobs, a British government official in Palestine. He was among the 91 people killed the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in 1946. His widow later rented the house to the Jewish Agency, which served as a kind of proto-government for Palestine’s Jewish community prior to Israeli statehood.

After Israel declared independence, the Julius Jacobs House served as the residence of every prime minister from Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin. During Golda Meir's term, the house was famously known as "the kitchen," and served as the site of high-level planning meetings and other affairs of state.

When Yitzak Rabin became prime minister in 1974, the Israeli premier's official residence was moved to Aghion House, a five minute walk away. Former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's widow, Elisheva, later established a nonprofit organization to convert the house she has once shared with her husband into a research institute and fund its repair and maintenance. But the project foundered due to lack of funding, and the plaque announcing the house's renovation has long since been obscured by rust and uncut grass.

“Don’t talk to me about that house,” Eshkol’s daughter, Ofra Nevo, said when I asked her about its condition. “It’s like a knife through my heart.”

Golda's forgotten home

A house where former Prime Minister Golda Meir once lived is located in a narrow alleyway in the older section of Ramat Aviv, just north of Tel Aviv. It is a long two-story building without any distinguishing features, other than a small soot-covered plaque commemorating its most famous resident.

When I visited, the front gate was locked and the garden was slightly unkempt. It was hard to tell whether it was occupied.

Just as I was about to leave, I noticed a small faded-blue guardhouse in the corner of the yard. Decades after it has last been used, the crumbling structure remained standing, a vestige of one woman’s power.

Reclining in wait

It is a well-know story in Israel that Menachem Begin pledged not to leave his tiny two-room ground-floor apartment in central Tel Aviv unless it was for the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.

He ended up living there for 30 years. Yet no plaque or guardhouse remains to mark the building where one of Israel's founding fathers spent most of his adult life.

The most notable features of the building are a beautiful wooden banister in the stairwell, which twists and turns along the wall as it ascend to the top floors, and a painting of white floors and green bushes near a window at the entrance.

A precise recreation of Begin’s apartment is on display at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Some furniture from the real apartment is also there, including Begin's recliner. As the museum notes, Begin finally left his Tel Aviv apartment for the Aghion House upon being elected prime minister of Israel in 1977.

Eshkol's "noblesse oblige"

Levi Eshkol lived in several places before moving into the Julius Jacobs House. But his daughter, Nevo, says he always thought of Kibbutz Degania in northern Israel as his home.

"He was an amazing dad who loved the earth and farming, a real socialist who worked like a dog during the most difficult period this country has experienced," she said. "There isn’t a man alive today with his sense of humility or noblesse oblige."

Soon after Nevo was born, the family moved from the kibbutz to a workers' dormitory in central Tel Aviv. It still looks like a pleasant, if unpretentious, place to live. On my visit, a mother with a stroller had laid a blanket on the lawn and was playing with her toddlers.

"The state has changed," she said. "Today people want money and wealth, which wasn't how it had been," Nevo says. "I am proud that my father didn’t leave me villas in his will. He left me other things."

Nevo says that her father was always concerned with "not raising any eyebrows." For instance, he insisted that all of his daughters get married at the Julius Jacobs House rather than a fancy hotel. When Nevo was younger, she says she was not even allowed to tell people about her father's job.

"You have to earn everything by your own merit," she remembered Eshkol saying.  "Not because you're somebody's daughter."

After a decade in Tel Aviv, the family moved to an apartment in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, and then to a house in the nearby Katamon area. The Katamon home is now gorgeously renovated, with a large yard, lots of flowers and security cameras that peer at passersby with their inquiring lenses.

Many of the houses in the neighborhood belonged to Arabs until Israel's War of Independence, after which they were declared abandoned. Nevo says that the Julius Jacobs House was converted into the premier's official residence largely to avoid the potential embarrassment of having a prime minister who lived in an expropriated Arab home.

From prime minister's home to student dorm

The second prime minister of Israel, Moshe Sharett, spent most of his life in rental housing and state-owned apartments, according to his son Yaakov. He moved his family frequently, often between apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that were otherwise used to accommodate important political guests.

Among the places Yaakov Sharett remembers as home is an apartment in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. His family moved there in 1934, when Moshe Sharett was chosen to replace the recently-assassinated director of the Jewish Agency's Political Department, Chaim Arlosoroff. It is just a few minutes' walk from the Aghion and Julius Jacobs Houses, and only slightly farther from the president's home.

The stone building contains ten apartments, which seem to be mostly filled by university students today. Plants climb its exterior walls and bars cover the windows.

As I entered the building an elderly woman carrying a basket descended the staircase and looked at me suspiciously. When I asked her if she knew the Sharett family she shrugged and muttered something under her breath as she walked away.

Ben Gurion's two homes

Israel's first prime minister, Ben Gurion is generally remembered as a humble and unpretentious leader. But he lived most of his life in a relatively luxurious home in central Tel Aviv.

The house was built in 1931 based on the design of Israeli engineer David Tuvia, and renovated in 1946 and 1960. Although it has a simple rectangular exterior, it stands out in a neighborhood of apartment buildings.

It is also unique as the only former Israeli prime minister's home open to the public.

Walking through the house, I noted the bedroom of Ben Gurion's daughter – from which the prime minister communicated with his Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan, during the 1956 Suez War – and marveled at the library, which almost entirely fills the second floor.

Ben Gurion used the Tel Aviv house until his death in 1973, but spent most of the final decade of his life in a shack in Kibbutz Sde Boker. It is in this small, austere home that many Israelis like to imagine the man who founded their state.

The Julius Jacobs House is said to have been converted into the Premier's official residence largely to avoid the potential embarrassment of having a PM who lived in an expropriated Arab home.Credit: Moshe Gilad

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