The next Israeli prime minister will be the first in the state’s history to have a personal plane, a remodeled Boeing 767. Six years after a decision was made on the matter, the plane will finally take off, but with considerable turbulence. In a country rife with scandals, the story of the Israeli Air Force One deserves a place of honor. The state comptroller has already ordered his office to look into the matter.
Until 2001 Israeli heads of state flew abroad on an air force Boeing 707. Over the years, the plane aged and the prime minister’s office started to lease civilian planes on a public tender (El Al usually won) according to a predetermined budget. In December 2013 a committee headed by former High Court justice and former state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg examined dedicating a plane to the prime minister and the president. In April 2014, the committee recommended that a plane be purchased for reasons of security and National Security Council head Yossi Cohen recommended that the state spend 175 million shekels ($48 million) to purchase a used plane.
But since then, the price of such an aircraft has skyrocketed. In summer 2016, it rose to 220 million shekels ($60 million). Later, at Netanyahu’s request and in a decision not released to the public, the cabinet authorized 360 million shekels ($99 million) for the project. In November 2018, a representative of the prime minister’s office admitted to the Knesset’s finance committee that the real price was actually 580 million shekels ($160 million). In December, Calcalist published an official document that showed that already in 2015, the cabinet, whose meetings are confidential, had authorized a sum of 729 million shekels ($201 million) for the project.
The problems don't stop there. The plane landed in Israel in 2016 and was supposed to be ready within a year. According to informed sources, it will finally take off in the second part of 2019, almost three years after work started to remodel and refit it for the needs of the prime minister. The delay itself has heavy financial ramifications that are not included in the sums above.
The committee had pointed to two serious problems in flying prime ministers abroad: the lack of an encrypted wireless system on the plane, preventing continuous telephone communication, and compromised security. Dov Weissglass, who was once the chief of staff of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rejects these claims completely. “No prime minister conducts a war from a plane,” he said in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “Government procedures are built such that there’s a hierarchy that can function well even with a short absence of the leader. When an emergency situation starts happening, the leader usually doesn’t leave the country. In the Sharon era we made do with a satellite phone and we managed fine. Same for security. What works for Israeli citizens also works for their prime minister.”
Shmulik Filosof, who once headed the dignitary protection unit at the Shin Bet and is now a security consultant for companies around the world, told Al-Monitor about the challenges of securing a leased plane. “I remember quite a few times that due to the use of leased planes, we had to work under time pressure,” he says. “In general, in order to prepare a plane, we need two days of work. But sometimes the timeline was too short and we had to work harder. Still, we increased our staff and we did it.”
Filosof rejected security needs as justification for a dedicated plane. “It’s certainly easier to secure a private plane that’s under our supervision than a random plane, and there’s no need to install security systems every time,” he explains. “But what a private plane contributes is not so significant that it justifies such significant additional costs. If they asked me and told me that this was the difference in cost, I would immediately say that it’s not worth the money. We’ve done it for years and there’s an orderly system of how to do it right. There are bigger security challenges.”
One defender of the decision is former Shin Bet head and current Knesset member Avi Dichter, who as a member of the foreign affairs and defense committee had led the push to finance the plane. He told Al-Monitor, “This issue has three aspects: Security, national pride and finances. From a security standpoint, the situation is unbearable today. The financial aspect is also a consideration, and there’s also an aspect of the nation’s image. The plane is a national symbol and it can’t be that prime ministers and president have to hitch a ride every time in the planes of other countries’ presidents.”
Weissglass scoffed at the idea of national honor. “Netanyahu has adopted imperial manners. What are we, Russia? Are we the United States, India? We’re not a world power. We’re hardly a middle-sized city in European terms. We were once a country whose leaders were modest people who made do with little. Unfortunately, today we can’t manage with any less than a private plane. The financial questions should worry every citizen.”
The former head of the Civil Aviation Authority, attorney Avner Yarkoni, smells corruption. “My intuition is that someone has profited from this,” he told Al-Monitor. “I have no other explanation for a jump from 175 million to 750 million shekels. There’s no doubt that everyone has had a party here. Civil aviation, Rafael [a military aerospace company], the air force. Everyone has put up a nice price and reaped enormous sums. Such a deviation in the budget requires a thorough investigation. My concern is that everything will be classified as secret and they’ll hide information from the public.”
The prime minister’s flights have provided quite a few scandals in recent years. Stories about beds Netanyahu demanded that cost a million dollars per flight and preferences for certain planes at three times the cost of alternatives have led to sharp public criticism of his and his family’s hedonism.
President Reuven Rivlin has already announced that he doesn’t need it, and future prime ministers might not want to use the plane at all for fear of public criticism.
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