Israeli leader Netanyahu under fire for costly lifestyle

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's prime minister is under fire for a costly lifestyle at taxpayers' expense, just as his government is slashing welfare benefits and raising taxes to cope with a huge budget deficit.

Israeli media took aim on Tuesday at a disclosure that Mr Benjamin Netanyahu's expenses have soared nearly 80 per cent since he took office in 2009, totaling about US$905,000 (S$1.1 million) last year. Mr Netanyahu and his family split their time among three homes, including an official Jerusalem residence, a private apartment in Jerusalem and a villa in the upscale coastal town of Caesarea.

Mr Netanyahu's spending on catering, housekeeping, cleaning, furniture, clothing and make-up all doubled during the four-year period. The information was released only after a civil liberties group filed a freedom of information request.

The disclosure followed a TV station's report that Netanyahu spent US$127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a recent five-hour flight to London.

The uproar comes at an inconvenient time for Mr Netanyahu, already saddled with an image of a smug cigar-smoking, cognac-drinking socialite with caviar tastes who is out of touch with the struggles of the average Israeli. The country's January election came on the heels of a protest movement against Israel's high cost of living and widening gaps between rich and poor, and the campaign focused largely on domestic economic issues.

The new national budget, passed on Monday, increases income, sales and real estate taxes, while cutting family subsidies and medical benefits. Additional taxes were also slapped on cigarettes, alcohol and luxury goods.

Against this backdrop, veteran Israeli political reporter Shimon Shiffer recounted in the Yediot Ahronot daily that Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara are always accompanied abroad by hairdressers and make-up artists. On a recent flight with Mr Netanyahu, he said he saw two young men holding large bags.

"For a moment, under the influence of movies I'd seen about things that can happen in the American president's plane, I thought that it might be the suitcase containing the codes to operate the nuclear weapons that Israel allegedly possesses," he wrote.

"A brief investigation turned up slightly less heroic results: The two men were hairdressers who had been flown... to make sure his hair was properly styled and brushed," Shiffer wrote.

In a statement, the prime minister's office said the figures included expenses for events and working meetings that took place at the official residence.

Israeli leaders were once lauded for their modesty. Prime ministers lived in humble homes, took the bus to work and famously performed household tasks like washing the dishes and taking out the garbage. But as Israel has evolved from its socialist, agrarian roots to an affluent, high-tech power, its leaders have also taken a liking to the spoils of office.

Though not linked to major corruption scandals like some of his predecessors, Mr Netanyahu has developed a reputation for small-scale antics with the public coffers.

Earlier this year, Mr Netanyahu was forced to stop buying ice cream from his favourite Jerusalem parlour after an Israeli newspaper discovered his office was spending US$2,700 a year for the treat.

His wife has also come under fire for reportedly treating her domestic staff poorly, her expensive tastes and for insisting on travelling overseas with her husband.

Reflecting the public mood, famed Israeli photographer David Rubinger published a photo he took in the early 1980s of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin slouched across two seats in a plane, sound asleep, his legs covered by a simple red blanket. In an accompanying essay, he said the image highlighted how leaders have since abandoned their role of setting personal examples.

"I grew up at a time when half the ministers in the Israeli government were kibbutz (collective village) members, who on Saturdays would go home to their kibbutzim to work in the kitchen," he wrote in Yediot Ahronot. "I don't think the prime minister has to sleep in a seat. Maybe some kind of bed has to be provided for him, but it should be done at the right time, not the same week that cuts are being made to others."

Mr Netanyahu is said to have a painful back condition.

The Israeli prime minister's office does not have its own plane, in contrast with the United States presidential aircraft, Air Force One. Instead, Israeli leaders must charter a plane when travelling abroad. Some analysts say it would be cheaper in the long run to purchase and maintain a special plane reserved for official travel by the prime minister and other officials.

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