Cabinet okays panel to look at personal wings for PM

Supporters say buying a dedicated aircraft for prime minister will save money; Finance Ministry opposes plan as too costly

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boards a plane to Russia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boards a plane to Russia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved the establishment of a public committee to review the possible purchase of a plane for flights by the prime minister and president.

The creation of the committee is a major step in the quest for the government to make the long-discussed acquisition, but comes against the backdrop of a series of spending scandals out of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The committee will be chaired by retired Supreme Court judge and state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg, and includes former Israeli Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Ido Nehushtan and accountant Iris Stark.

Currently, planes are chartered from commercial companies to fly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Shimon Peres abroad, and the costs frequently run into millions of shekels per trip.

In addition to looking into an Israeli version of Air Force One, the committee will also evaluate the possibility of building a single structure to combine the Prime Minister’s Office and his official residence. At present, the office is down the block from the Knesset building, whereas the official residence is several kilometers away in the center of Jerusalem.

“The committee will submit its recommendations to the full Cabinet after it has evaluated both the economic and security aspects,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. It noted that even if the committee decides on constructing a new office and residence for the PM, the project would only be completed “many years” in the future.

Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit said the decision over the plane involved more than just financial considerations.

“This is a national security need that will serve the State of Israel at least for several decades,” he said, according to a statement from the Government Press Office. “Moreover, today the prime minister’s plane lacks proper communications equipment, which the head of state for almost every advanced country has.”

Mandelblit rejected suggestions from some ministers that the Cabinet decide on the plane and new office without first going through a public committee, a move that is within its rights.

“While it would be possible for the Cabinet to decide directly, we thought it would be more proper to establish an outside committee,” he said.

Proponents of the purchase of a dedicated plane say that it will be more cost-effective in the long run and point to other countries with comparable populations and economies, such as Ireland and the Czech Republic, which maintain dedicated aircraft for use by their heads of state. Currently, Israel charters a commercial aircraft, which must be specially fitted and secured, for each international trip by the prime minister or president.

However, despite Mandelblit’s claim that the Finance Ministry had previously determined that purchasing a plane would be economical, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Sunday morning he would vote against the plan, citing estimates that it would cost some NIS 800 million ($228 million).

“We believe that, in this period of belt-tightening and rising taxes, with the gap between [Israel’s] rich and poor among the highest in the world, it would be appropriate for the government of Israel to be more frugal and not take steps that will appear disconnected from the daily difficulties faced by the public,” Lapid said in a statement.

In May of this year, Netanyahu faced criticism after it was revealed that the government spent over NIS 450,000 ($127,000) outfitting a plane with a double bed for a five-hour flight to England to attend the funeral of former UK leader Margaret Thatcher. He was also recently flayed in the press after a spending report revealed an NIS 80,000 ($22,840) water bill at one of Netanyahu’s homes, and an NIS 6,000 annual budget for scented candles.

Last week, Netanyahu cited “onerous financial and logistic outlays” as a key reason he declined to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The cost for the flight and security arrangements was estimated at NIS 7 million (almost $2 million), as opposed to the roughly NIS 1 million ($285,000) outlay to send six representatives from the Knesset, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, according to a Channel 2 report.

The residence of Israel’s prime minister, officially named Beit Aghion, is located in central Jerusalem but is not adjacent to the Prime Minister’s Office in the city’s western side. In 2009, the government approved a plan — ultimately not implemented due to excessive cost — to unite the prime minister’s residence and office in a new location.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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