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Op-ed

The PM’s official home isn’t Netanyahu’s personal castle; he should leave ASAP

Netanyahu, now the opposition chief, is still using the PM’s residence on Balfour Street as if he hasn’t been voted out of office, exploiting the lack of clear rules of transition

  • The Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street, Jerusalem. (Yaakov Saar/GPO)
    The Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street, Jerusalem. (Yaakov Saar/GPO)
  • A protester dressed up as a cleaner demonstrates against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the official residence of the prime minister in Jerusalem, as Netanyahu is due at his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    A protester dressed up as a cleaner demonstrates against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the official residence of the prime minister in Jerusalem, as Netanyahu is due at his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)
    Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

The official residence of the prime minister on the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin streets in Jerusalem is one of relatively humble location and modest appointments, but during his past 12 years in office Benjamin Netanyahu wielded it as an implement of power: Those he sought to honor received invitations for personal meetings there; those with whom scores needed to be settled were snubbed.

For instance, Ayelet Shaked — the new interior minister, who started her political career managing Netanyahu’s office and who is despised by his wife, Sara — has never visited the residence. On the other hand, when Netanyahu recently sought to recruit the help of Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, in forming a government, he signaled his seriousness by inviting him to Balfour.

Even now, with a new government and a new prime minister sworn in, Netanyahu, now head of the opposition, is still living in the historic Beit Aghion as if it were his name on the mortgage payments.

Netanyahu’s office has told aides to his successor, Naftali Bennett, that he will not vacate the official residence for several more weeks at least, Channel 12 reported Monday. The report said Bennett was indifferent, indicating he is making an effort not to antagonize his predecessor.

But Netanyahu is doing more than sleeping and eating at the residence. On Monday night he hosted prominent guests there — Nikki Haley and Christians United for Israel founder John Hagee.

Haley, who served as ambassador to the UN under former US president Donald Trump and is often mentioned as a possible 2024 Republican presidential contender, later tweeted a photo from the meeting inside the residence, and referred to Netanyahu as “prime minister.”

“We have not heard the last from him,” she tweeted, in a possible indication of the topic of their conversation.

For years, critics have accused Netanyahu of conflating the state’s needs with his own. Now it seems that as far as he is concerned, Bennett is just a guest in the Prime Minister’s Office, the new coalition will collapse within weeks and he, Netanyahu, will quickly be back in power. Given that premise, why bother to pack his bags?

The Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street (Yaakov Saar / GPO)

The strange situation raises several issues.

First of all, there is no official protocol for the handover of power in Israel, including on procedural matters like vacating the official residence. The attorney general or another top official would be advised to formalize relevant instructions once and for all.

It’s reasonable to allow several days for the transition, since changes of power take place swiftly, with little advance notice and no guarantees until they are done. Still, it is inappropriate to make use of the trappings of leadership during that time, as Netanyahu is doing.

A legal adviser at the Prime Minister’s Office has already recommended that the state stop covering Netanyahu and his family’s utility costs at the residence.

So who is paying the Netanyahu family’s bills while it continues to reside on Balfour Street? Is someone even supervising the matter during this twilight zone, or has the government, headed by Bennett, decided to allow Netanyahu to make use of this state asset and symbol as he wishes?

The Netanyahus’ attachment to the residence has become a national joke — and their attachment to some of the gifts that came along with it, the subject of a corruption trial.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives at the president’s residence in Jerusalem for a group photo of the new government, June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Bennett can be excused for wishing to avoid dealing with the issue of Netanyahu’s continued use of the residence; it’s not really in his job description. But where are the professionals in the Prime Minister’s Office who should be overseeing the handover of power?

Oh, right. Netanyahu has left the Prime Minister’s Office without a director general for three years, despite repeated calls by the state comptroller to fill that vacancy.

That, too, is Netanyahu’s legacy.

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