Plan for Israeli-style White House going nowhere, wasting millions – comptroller

Resources went ‘down the drain’ as planners of prime minister’s office-residence project spent years working from outdated info; estimated costs have doubled, feasibility in doubt

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A view of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A view of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Despite years of work and millions paid out, a project to set up a new combined Prime Minister’s Office and official residence has not even made it past the planning stage, and the entire idea is up in the air, according to a State Comptroller report published Monday.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman found that the cost of the so-called Israeli White House project now stands at NIS 1.2 billion ($352 million), as estimated in 2018, twice the figure of NIS 650 million ($176 million) put forward when the project was given the go-ahead in 2009.

“The planning of the project has not been completed, construction has not yet begun and the feasibility of its construction is in doubt,” Englman wrote. “This is despite the clear position of the professionals regarding the need for the rapid advancement of the project.

“As a result, there is a danger to key national interests,” he wrote.

The residence of Israel’s prime minister, officially named Beit Aghion, is located in a residential neighborhood of central Jerusalem and is not adjacent to the Prime Minister’s Office, which is in the government quarter near the city’s Western entrance.

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 in the government quarter. The government in 2014 decided to again move ahead with the project, and in 2015 called for it to be completed by 2018.

Englman directed criticism at the Shin Bet security service, which, he found, had spent years assessing the security requirements of the project based on outdated information that did not include significant changes made to the traffic system at the entrance to the capital, and the introduction of the light rail system. Only in 2018 did the Shin Bet begin working with more accurate plans.

“Delays in the check of planning information caused a waste of precious time, financial and non-financial resources that went down the drain,” Englman wrote.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman speaks at the annual justice conference on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In the meantime the project has again been put on hold as the Shin Bet, working from more accurate plans, has concluded it may not even be possible to set up the complex at the intended site as it would require significant security arrangements that, Englman noted, greatly contribute to the increase in estimated cost. Consideration is now being given to finding a new location for the office and residence.

Englman found that NIS 6.5 million has already been spent on architectural planning, which will go to waste if a new site is selected. At the same time, the current prime minister’s residence needs to undergo a NIS 50 million security upgrade.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk while walking to the West Wing of the White House for a meeting March 25, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

The comptroller also discovered that a special Knesset committee established in 2014 to assist in smoothing out any obstacles to completing the project did not hold a single meeting until last year, when the comptroller assessment was carried out, despite the problems with progress.

Englman advised that a government decision be made about the future of the project “as soon as possible.”

The Prime Minister’s Office responded in a statement, reported by Haaretz, that “it sees great importance in advancing the project.”

The statement said that in light of security issues that the came to light “only in the later stages” of the planning work, “it was immediately decided to suspend the project at the designated location — a decision that saved many millions.”

Even before the state comptroller report came out, the PMO had begun looking at an “efficient and functional alternative to the project with an emphasis on reducing costs, maximizing efficiency and minimizing the impact of the structure on those living in its vicinity.”

The PMO noted that the security upgrade at the current official residence has not yet begun.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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