Israel's shocking lust for luxury

The country is being ruined by greed and self-delusion


By Nathan Jeffay, October 22, 2009
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Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak and his entourage racked up an enormous €96,000 hotel bill when they visited Paris this summer (and bear in mind a Euro is worth almost a pound these days).

They went to France on a state-funded mission for Israel’s security — they were attending the Paris Air Show. But judging by a report from the state comptroller, who audits public life in Israel, the trip was organised more like a stag weekend for a millionaire playboy. Rooms were booked at the sumptious InterContinental Paris Le Grand. They were reserved for six nights even though most were used only for four. Barak, who leads the Labour Party, took a suite that cost €2,500 a night — almost twice the monthly wage of the average Israeli.

Okay, official visits are always going to be dear and nobody expects the Defence Minister to put his assessment of the Iranian threat on hold while he surfs lastminute.com. But this is a bit much, even by his own standards.

Last year when Barak, a seasoned pleasure-seeker, first went to the Air Show, his suite was almost twice the price of his predecessor’s —- €1,800 compared to €1,000. It was bad enough that last year the bill for Barak-plus-entourage came to €25,000, but the fact that it almost quadrupled this year is staggering.

Israeli politicians can't help but hanker after the finer things

Sadly, this is the tip of the iceberg; another example of a disease that afflicts top-level politicians of virtually every political persuasion. They can’t seem to help hankering after the finer things at somebody else’s expense.

It’s become part and parcel of Israeli politics, and most of the time the public never finds out. But when it comes out into the open, the details are shocking. Just a few days before Barak’s spending became public, it came to light that in 2006 Dalia Itzik, then Speaker of the Knesset, refused to stay at the five-star Park Hyatt Paris because, she said, her room was too small. She moved to Hotel Le Bristol, where a €1,300-a-night suite apparently did not satisfy. Itzik reportedly insisted on a €1,995 suite and, counting the cancellation fee at the Park Hyatt, cost the taxpayer around €13,000 for a four-night stay.

And think about the political instability of the last year — the fall of Kadima which seemed to be making slow progress towards peace; months of a lame-duck Prime Minister, and the upheaval of elections. If the State Prosecutor is correct, this all came about because Ehud Olmert, who awaits criminal trial, compromised himself for some cash and a few pens and watches — luxuries he is passionate about.

Of course, Israel isn’t alone in having politicians who cannot be trusted with money. Britain is in the throes of the MP expenses scandal. But whereas in most places in the world the problem stems mainly from greed, in Israel it also stems from delusions of grandeur.

Israeli politicians are under the misapprehension that they are superstars on the world stage, and that they should have a lifestyle to match. They hob-nob with the big boys, leaders of the world’s largest and richest states, and want everything they have plus more. They have forgotten that they represent a small, embattled nation with modest resources. They have lost touch with the Israel they are meant to serve — the Israel where, at some point in 2007, one in five adult citizens skimped on food for financial reasons.

The effect on the public is damaging. By acting so recklessly and by presenting a distorted sense of what Israel is, they undermine the sense of shared responsibility that used to reign supreme — shared responsibility for the country’s resources and its welfare.

But there is more. Israel used to have leaders, not just politicians. So focused on serving his country over himself was former Prime Minister Menachem Begin that when he retired his budget ran only to a small rental flat.

Tragically, today’s politicians haven’t only decided to live beyond their personal means, but also to run a country in such a way that citizens are expected to do so too. Some 47 per cent of Israelis have household incomes that do not cover their monthly outgoings. And unlike when Barak went to Paris, nobody is going to pick up their bill.

    Last updated: 5:27pm, December 10 2009

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