Putting Himself Above Rest of Us

The prime minister's plane in test flights, November 3, 2019.
Nir Keidar

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added something of no modest proportions to his legacy this week. On Sunday, a Boeing 767 that Israel Aerospace Industries dubs “the plane of the state’s leaders” completed its first test flight. This plane is supposed to serve Israeli prime ministers and presidents for the next 50 years. But even if Benny Gantz forms a government in the next month, the plane is likely to go down in history as “Netanyahu’s plane,” after the person under whose leadership the decision to buy it was made. So far, 600 million shekels ($170 million) has been spent to buy and convert the plane – more than twice the original estimated cost..

According to plan, the plane is also supposed to serve the president if he isn’t flying at the same time as the prime minister. Moreover, the price includes the costs of maintenance for the first five years. Nevertheless, its total cost is similar to the cost of the last 10 years of prime ministerial trips abroad on leased commercial jets – and that was with a prime minister who goes overseas a lot. Moreover, the latter cost includes outlays for fuel and security, which the state will continue to have to make even with the new plane.

Like business tycoons, the prime minister finds it more comfortable and convenient to travel abroad in a private plane built just for him. Nevertheless, according to the Finance Ministry’s calculations, it would have been cheaper to stick with the system used to date – renting a suitable plane from El Al whenever the prime minister needs it. The Goldberg Committee’s decision to buy a prime ministerial plane in 2014 was based on the Shin Bet security service’s view that such a dedicated plane had security advantages, as it would include special communications gear that would let him run the state while he was in the air and additional gear that couldn’t be specified for security reasons.

The scenario familiar to many of us from action films – the country on fire, and the prime minister managing the flames from his flying command center – is hard to discuss in numerical terms. The same goes for “secret security reasons.” But during the last Knesset term, the opposition charged that some of the delay in building the plane, as well as some of the increase in its cost, stemmed from Netanyahu’s demands for changes in the plane’s residential section. As long as the financial data remain classified, the public has no way to judge.

The State Comptroller’s Office promised to look into the issue of the plane’s cost, but it’s hard to believe such a probe will be of any real value under the new comptroller, Matanyahu Englman. And until this happens, the prime minister – who is requesting an urgent increase of billions of shekels to the defense budget due to threats from Iran – will pride himself on a plane whose price is similar to that of two F-35 fighter jets.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.