Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced heavy criticism Saturday after it was revealed he spent $127,000 (over 450,000 shekels) of taxpayers’ money having an El Al plane fitted out with a double-bed in an enclosed bedroom for his five-hour flight to London last month to attend the funeral of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

News of the expense broke Friday, coincidentally just before a renewal of public protests over inequalities in the Israeli economy, with a major demonstration taking place Saturday night in Tel Aviv, and smaller protests in other cities, ahead of the scheduled finalization of the state budget in the next few days.

The Prime Minister’s Office initially defended the expenditure, noting that Netanyahu, who traveled to London with his wife Sarah, left for Thatcher’s funeral at midnight after an event-packed Independence Day, on Tuesday, April 16, and represented Israel in the English capital at the funeral the next day and in talks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister David Cameron. It was “appropriate that he be able to rest” on the flight, the PMO said in a statement, adding that the transportation arrangements were in line with all norms and regulations.

Sources close to Netanyahu on Saturday night, however, said the prime minister would henceforth not demand the installation of a bedroom with double bed on European trips.

El Al Aircraft at Ben Gurion airport (Photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash 90)

El Al Aircraft at Ben Gurion airport (Photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash 90)

The cost of Netanyahu’s April 16-17 flight to and from London was revealed by Channel 10 News. The prime minister is only permitted to use local airlines for his flights, for security reasons, but the demand for a double bed excluded two of the three Israeli airlines — Israir and Arkia — from the contract to arrange the London flight, because their aircraft are not large enough. Their cost for the flight, in which the Netanyahus would have enjoyed business class or first class seats that recline as beds, would have been $300,000, the TV news said. El Al charged $427,000 for the flight because of the additional cost of installing the requested bed in an enclosed bedroom. Thus the requirement cost the taxpayer an additional $127,000.

The Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel said Saturday it would ask the State Comptroller to investigate the expense. Labor MK Micky Rosenthal said he would raise it at the Knesset Control Committee.

Margaret Thatcher (photo credit: CC-BY-SA 	Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

Channel 10 noted that President Shimon Peres, who is about to turn 90, did not request a bed even on a recent 11-hour flight to Korea, and never does so on flights to Europe. It said prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon also never asked for a bed to be installed on their flights to and from Europe, and that Sharon sometimes chose not to have a bed installed even on transatlantic flights.

Sources close to Netanyahu said Saturday that the Prime Minister’s Office had not been aware that the demand for the bed had raised the cost of the flight by $127,000.

Netanyahu was personally invited to the funeral by the Thatcher family. Peres was also invited, but it was decided after consultations that only Netanyahu would attend.