State Comptroller Yosef Shapira announced Sunday that he would investigate the purchase of an official state aircraft to be used by the prime minister and the president, in a project that is hundreds of millions of shekels over budget and several years behind schedule.
Shapira made the announcement in a letter sent to the Prime Minister’s office, the Israel Defense Forces, the National Security Council and Israel Aviation Industries, notifying them of his intention to probe the decision-making behind the project, the budget overruns and the delays.
The project, dubbed “Israel’s Air Force One” after the plane used by the president of the United States, was originally budgeted at NIS 175 million ($50 million), but it is now estimated that the final cost will run to some NIS 580 million ($160 million.)
The plane arrived in Israel in 2016 and was expected to be ready a year later, but it’s still not clear when it will be able to enter service. Full details of the plane are barred from publication by the military censor.
The plane is primarily intended to ferry the prime minister around the world on his frequent overseas trips and is being fitted with specialized equipment to give it a longer range, various defensive capabilities, and the ability to maintain communications with Israel at all times.
President Reuven Rivlin will also have use of the advanced aircraft, though he has stated that he is happy to continue traveling on commercial passenger airline flights.
The prime minister’s plane was first approved in 2014 by the Goldberg Committee, which also approved the construction of a new residence and office for the prime minister.
At the time, a report in The Marker financial daily indicated that treasury officials believed the plane’s purchase was not worthwhile, but the committee declared that the decision was not to be based solely on financial considerations.
The decision also followed a public outcry at the time, after it was revealed that the government had spent NIS 450,000 ($127,000) outfitting an El Al plane with a bed for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a five-hour flight to the UK.
Currently, a tender is issued to Israeli airlines whenever the prime minister travels. The system works well for midrange destinations such as Europe, when all three Israeli airlines are able to compete, but for longer-range trips — such as to the US — only El Al has aircraft capable of nonstop flights.
According to a Channel 2 report in August 2016, El Al took advantage of the lack of competition, charging very high prices for such flights and on one occasion demanding $4,700 to place an oxygen tank on a flight for then-president Shimon Peres, who ended up flying Air Canada instead.