By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
JERUSALEM — In a scathing report with potential political and criminal repercussions, Israel’s state comptroller sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for excessive spending of public funds in his official and private residences.
The highly anticipated report, which came just four weeks before Israeli elections, faulted Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, for using public funds to spend lavishly on a variety of personal goods and services, including cleaning, clothing, water and grooming, between 2009 and 2012. The spending dropped after that.
Netanyahu defended his behavior, but political opponents seized on the report. Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog said he found the findings infuriating.
“But it is not because of how you conduct yourself in your homes that the public wants to replace you, but because you have destroyed our home,” Herzog wrote on Facebook. “We will replace you because on your shift, Hamas grows stronger … young couples cannot buy a house … because you eat a $5,000 breakfast when every third child in Israel goes to bed hungry.”
The Netanyahus live and work in the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and keep a private home in Caesarea, one of the country’s priciest spots. According to the report by Comptroller Joseph Shapira, spending on both often far exceeded necessity, formal budgets and good taste. In addition, the report pointed to improprieties in management of finances, human resources and external contractors.
When Netanyahu took office in 2009, expenses at both residences totaled roughly a half-million dollars a year. By 2011, that had roughly doubled before dropping to about $600,000 in 2013. Food and hosting expenses alone started out at about $55,000 and more than doubled to about $125,000 in 2011. After a modest cut in expenses the following year, expenses for 2013 dropped to near the 2009 level.
Cleaning both residences came with a particularly high price tag: a monthly average of about $20,000 between 2009 and 2013, including more than $2,000 a month for the Caesarea house, which was usually empty. Shapira found this spending “significantly exaggerated.”
About $20,000 a year was spent to order meal deliveries, despite employing an in-house cook. These and other expenses, Shapira wrote, were “not compatible with the basic principles of proportionality, reasonability, economy and efficiency.”
Personal grooming expenses for the prime minister and his wife totaled well over $100 a day, which Shapira found to be more than double the budgeted amount.
Some of the findings could lead to criminal proceedings. According to the report, Sara Netanyahu finagled employing an electrician who was barred by protocol because he was a personal friend and a member of the prime minister’s political party, Likud.
Justice authorities will have to decide how to address other breaches, including money kept temporarily from recycling bottles from the official residence several years ago and a set of patio furniture bought for the official residence but transferred to the private one. While these were noted in the report, they were not officially investigated.
“Public trust in government institutions is a cornerstone of every democracy,” Shapira wrote, adding that such institutions must gain this trust by adhering to both law and “moral norms.” While he welcomed the apparent cost-cutting after 2012, the comptroller said “one would expect an elected public official to demonstrate extra sensitivity … and serve as an exemplary model of saving public funds.”
Netanyahu was well-prepared for the report, as his attorneys and aides responded swiftly with a press conference, stressing there were no grounds for criminal concerns. The prime minister, said his spokesman, Nir Hefetz, respects the report and has instructed his staff to act on its recommendations.
A statement from Netanyahu’s Likud party accused the news media of pushing the issue for weeks in a “clear effort to remove the prime minister from office … through a focus on irrelevant minutia.”
The statement added that the uproar was distracting from “the real issue at hand,” which is “who will defend Israel in the face of the real security threats and pressure from the international community” — Netanyahu or rivals Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
But for others, money matters are a real issue, and the prime minister’s spending has struck a nerve with some voters who are concerned about the high cost of living and are demanding what they consider a more just distribution of resources.
Housing prices have soared since Netanyahu took office, and with 1.6 million people below the poverty line, Israel has the third highest poverty rate in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
(Sobelman is a special correspondent.)
Photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr