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Netanyahu's extravagances are undermining the citizens' future

Netanyahu's extravagances are undermining the citizens' future

Even when things are relatively quiet, life in Israel tends to be very intense. Events that play out during a year in Israel would fill a decade in older and larger countries. And because of the rapid pace, things tend to fall swiftly by the wayside to make way for the next hot topic. That is likely what will happen to the latest story that has taken the media and the public by storm – the extravagant lifestyle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family and its scandalous cost to Israeli taxpayers.

This is not the first time that the media has exposed bizarre details about Netanyahu's lifestyle. Whenever journalists go to great lengths to uncover information -- this time it required a freedom of information petition -- a controversy breaks out, prime ministerial spokespeople parry questions and the news seemingly falls off the radar shortly afterwards.

The facts are unsettling. Aside from a handsome official residence in Jerusalem's exclusive Rehavia neighborhood, Netanyahu and his family maintain two additional luxurious houses. Meeting the security demands of the private houses comes at an enormous cost, but it now transpires that the cost of regular maintenance of the houses, especially the villa in the coastal community of Caesarea (which the family uses on weekends) have crossed all red lines.

According to the newly released figures, the annual maintenance costs have reached NIS 3.3 million, nearly $1 million and triple the allotted budget. These include exorbitant flower arrangement bills, the purchase of tubs of ice cream, extravagant expenditure on cleaning and laundry services, the employment of an army of hair and make-up stylists and more and more ad nauseam – all at the public's expense.

Particularly symbolic is the water bill for the Caesarea villa - NIS 81,000 ($22,000) – 20 times the bill of the average Israeli household.

The government has handed management of the country's water utilities to private corporations, a move that has led to a spike in bills and an aggressive enforcement of billing. This has spawned a beautiful and heart-wrenching film called "Menatek HaMayim" ("The Water Enforcer"), depicting the violent cut-off of water supplies to poor families who cannot pay their bills on time.

This policy, which affects a growing number of households, is one of the sharpest manifestations of the Netanyahu government's aggressive neo-liberalism that erodes human rights.

Netanyahu is not the only one to display crude extravagance. Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak was arguably more modest, but only because Netanyahu has really crossed the line. Even if Barak did not pour out wine and perfume like Netanyahu, he was just as detached from the life of the average citizen.

Other heads of state like Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy must have provided examples for him, as did others who made fortunes out of politics, like Tony Blair whose personal wealth is estimated at 60 million Pounds.

Not that there is any justification for such behavior in France or Britain, but in Israel such corruption is particularly odious. Israel is a small country that has been around for less than 65 years. Its founders conducted themselves in almost spartan modesty, which was the young state's cultural motto.

Public life in Israel was heavily influenced by a culture of working hard and settling for little, as it still in Germany and Scandinavia. Angela Merkel shamelessly stands in line at the supermarket and Scandinavian ministers and heads of state travel coach, Israel's past leaders lived in sheds or cramped apartments and were well acquainted with the price of bread and milk.

Israel has transformed into a different country at a dizzying pace. An aggressive privatization process allowed the government to reduce its services to a minimum and shed its responsibilities to the citizenry.

The government invests a fortune in West Bank settlements and makes painful cuts in health, welfare and education budgets. The gap between rich and poor is growing to monstrous levels and working men and women can no longer provide for their families with dignity.

These people, the loyal taxpayers, are being asked to tighten their belts while the prime minister lives like a king at their expense.

Something is rotten in Netanyahu's state. Up until now he was able to hide it behind Iran's nuclear threats. We can only hope that this method doesn't hold up.

Avirama Golan is an Israeli writer and journalist. She is the Head of the Center for Urbanity and Mediterranean Culture, in the town of Bat Yam.

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