Netanyahu's big spending has Israel up in arms

Premier's million-dollar lifestyle, including hairdressers and makeup, does not sit well with Israelis facing higher taxes and welfare and medical-benefit cuts. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV // Throughout his political career, Benjamin Netanyahu has been known for his extravagant tastes.

Known as a socialite, the Israeli prime minister is often seen smoking expensive cigars and sipping drinks that cost even more.

But revelations this week about his habits of spending tax money - including US$127,000 (Dh466,000) to add a bed on a London flight - have led to an outcry among Israelis increasingly critical of Mr Netanyahu's economic policies.

The controversy - which the Israeli media has termed the Israeli prime minister's Bedgate, an analogy with the US's Watergate political scandal in the 1970s - may reinvigorate mass protests against the high cost of living in the country that took place in 2011 and appear to be reawakening.

Israeli media commentators have blasted Mr Netanyahu this week as "hedonistic" as news of his use of public money infuriated Israelis that - according to several polls taken since January - care far more about economic hardships than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the threat from Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The scandal came at a particularly unfavourable time for Mr Netanyahu. In the past week, his government has faced condemnation for planning to narrow a huge budget deficit with measures including new income, sales and property tax increases and the slashing of child welfare and medical benefits that will hurt the lower and middle classes while barely affecting the wealthiest Israelis.

On Tuesday, Israel's state comptroller, Joseph Shapira, said he plans to investigate a request by Mr Netanyahu's office last month to add a custom-made bedroom for him and his wife, Sarah, on their five-hour flight to London to attend the funeral for the former British leader, Margaret Thatcher.

The same day, a disclosure by Mr Netanyahu's office that was prompted by a freedom of information request by an Israeli civil rights group spurred a further furore, showing that the prime minister's expenses have jumped nearly 80 per cent since he came to power in 2009, amounting to some $905,000 last year.

That includes a doubling of the amount spent by Mr Netanyahu - whose family has three homes, including an official residence and private apartment in Jerusalem and a villa in the wealthy seaside town of Caesarea - on housekeeping, cleaning, catering, clothing and furniture, as well as on hairdressers and make-up.

Ariana Melamed, a commentator at the Ynet news website, wrote on Tuesday in a column she addressed to Mr Netanyahu: "Someone needs to say it out loud - you are corrupt … your lifestyle as the leader of a small country with a million poor children make your personal expenses a slap in the face to every such child."

Mr Netanyahu's office claimed this week that the Israeli leader would no longer request the addition of beds for short-haul flights and tried to calm anger by saying he should "be given an opportunity to sleep" after attending four events just hours before the flight and as he prepared to represent Israel in London.

This isn't the first time Mr Netanyahu, long labelled by the media as having a penchant for luxuries, has become mired in scandal over his spending. In February, the premier was lambasted after news emerged of his $2,700 annual budget for ice cream.

The controversy over what some journalists are calling the "flying-bed affair" has been the lead story in Israeli media since Sunday.

A headline this week in Yedioth Ahronoth blasted out: "Cuts? Not for Mr Netanyahu", in reference to the new budget measures. Over the headline was a photograph of Menachem Begin, Israeli prime minister from 1977 to 1983, seen slouching across two aircraft seats as he sleeps, with several pillows supporting his head and back and a thin red blanket covering his legs, on a 12-hour flight to the US.

In a development likely to increase public fury over Mr Netanyahu's spending, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks the economic wellbeing of 34 countries in the developed world, said yesterday that Israel had the highest poverty rate among its members, rising to 21 per cent last year from about 14 per cent in 1995. That surpasses economically troubled countries including Mexico, Spain and Greece.

The OECD said Israel also had the fifth-widest income disparity.

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