Knesset panel okays state funding for Netanyahus’ 2 homes, more money for clothes

Balfour residence is being renovated; state to also cover travel expenses for PM’s wife, hospitality costs; opposition MKs: Government ‘living in parallel universe’ as prices rise

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, depart for a trip to Paris on February 2, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, depart for a trip to Paris on February 2, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

The Knesset’s Finance Committee voted Thursday to approve a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allocate state funding to cover housing costs at two private residences of the Netanyahu family and increase funds for expenses such as clothing, travel abroad for the premier’s wife Sara, conferences and other state events, staff hiring, and hospitality costs.

The motion, which passed 9-4, followed a stormy committee discussion that stretched over two days and featured relatively rare Knesset action on a Thursday.

According to reports, the state had been requested to finance a clothing budget for Netanyahu and members of his household of NIS 45,000-80,000 ($12,000-22,000) per year, cover travel costs for the premier’s wife Sara Netanyahu, and allow the family to hire two more staff members — for a total of four — for their official residence. The family had also asked the state to cover the costs  of hosting, for an as-yet-unknown amount.

Netanyahu’s office has presented the funding as urgently needed in light of the ongoing renovation of the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, while opposition MKs have sought to portray the government as aloof and detached from the public it serves by fast-tracking funding for the premier while citizens face mounting inflation and rising cost of living.

The request pertains to the Netanyahu’s residence on Jerusalem’s Gaza Street and the family home in the affluent coastal town of Caesarea.

The Gaza Street residence 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.

View of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Azza (Gaza) street in Jerusalem, January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu had asked the committee to recognize the family’s home on Gaza Street as the premier’s official residence while the renovations and security upgrades at Balfour Street continue. The process is expected to take at least two more years, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Reports on Wednesday said Netanyahu’s office had asked Likud lawmakers and MKs from parties in the governing coalition to attend the committee discussion in a show of support for the prime minister’s requests.

Head of the Knesset Finance Committee Moshe Gafni leads a committee meeting in Jerusalem on February 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before the vote, Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak of the opposition tore apart his copy of the request, saying he was “ashamed to be part of the committee.”

“In the two months that have passed since this government was formed, [the prices of] electricity and water have gone up, the interest rate has been hiked twice, food prices continue to surge, daycares will become more expensive, and after all that — the coalition chose to discuss and urgently approve the funding requests of the Netanyahu family,” he said.

National Unity MK Yifat Shasha-Biton said: “There are rockets on the south, strikes in local councils, the shekel is dropping and inflation is already here. But the coalition members are living in a parallel universe… initiating an emergency discussion on doubling the budget for the prime minister and his wife for clothes, makeup and other luxuries.”

MKs Vladimir Beliak, left, and Moshe Tur-Paz at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, February 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid tweeted that the government had decided that “there’s no available money to subsidize daycares, but there is money for two prime minister residences.”

During the first part of the debate on Wednesday, Prime Minister’s Office Director-General Yossi Sheli argued that the state was required to provide the prime minister with an official residence and that the Netanyahus’ decision to reside at the home on Gaza Street would cost the state just as much as any other alternative residence designated as official.

Sheli said the request asks that the state fund expenses at both residences through 2026 amid “the working assumption that by then there will be a new residence [at Balfour Street], and we will return to the normal procedure.”

Another PMO official cited existing legislation from 1982 that says the state must bankroll a prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem and an alternative residence for the head of state’s family outside the capital, and explained that the request [in Hebrew] asks the committee to consider the Netanyahus’ private residence on Gaza Street in Jerusalem as the official residence while also maintaining the home in Caesarea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea. (Video screenshot)

The PMO said there was a “fake news” campaign surrounding the “so-called demands” which, it argued, pale “compared to the NIS 45 million ($12 million) that former premier Naftali Bennett reportedly spent on renovating his private house in Ra’anana” and Lapid’s and Bennett’s “failure” to finalize “the official residence at Balfour as a prime minister’s residence.”

The Balfour residence has been undergoing long-overdue renovations and security updates since Netanyahu moved out in July 2021 after leaving office.

Due to the ongoing work at the official residence, Bennett spent most of his time in office living at his Ra’anana home — to the consternation of his neighbors there — while Lapid stayed in a small apartment within the prime ministerial compound.

Earlier this month, the Haaretz daily reported that the Prime Minister’s Office estimated the ongoing renovations at the Balfour residence will cost between NIS 80 and 100 million ($25-30 million) and may take years more to complete.

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