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Israeli leader takes heat as expense account skyrockets

Netanyahu’s lavish life irks Israelis as taxes rise, benefits fall

JERUSALEM — For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saddled with an image of a cigar-smoking, cognac-drinking socialite. Now a disclosure about his soaring spending on housekeeping, furniture, clothing, and other expenses is increasing pressure on him in a country whose leaders once were known for washing their own dishes and taking out the garbage.

The uproar, which began with a TV station’s report that Netanyahu spent $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a recent five-hour flight to London, fuels criticism that he is out of touch with average Israelis who are struggling with tax increases amid a huge budget deficit.

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Netanyahu’s expenses have soared nearly 80 percent since he took office in 2009, totaling about $905,000 last year, according to a civil liberties group that obtained government figures after filing a freedom of information request.

His spending on catering, housekeeping, cleaning, furniture, clothing, and makeup all doubled during the four-year period, according to the group, called the Movement for Freedom of Information.

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.

Although Netanyahu was reelected in January, his victory margin was much narrower than expected. The vote followed 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 Monday, increases taxes on income, sales, and real estate while cutting family subsidies and medical benefits. Additional taxes were slapped on cigarettes, alcohol, and luxury goods.

Against this backdrop, veteran Israeli political reporter Shimon Shiffer recounted in the Yediot Ahronot daily that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are always accompanied abroad by hairdressers and makeup artists. On a recent flight with 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.’’

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 and took the bus to work. 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.

Netanyahu isn’t the first leader to be criticized by Israelis for living it up. Former defense minister Ehud Barak angered his Labor party supporters with a lavish lifestyle that included buying a Tel Aviv apartment reportedly worth more than
$10 million. And Ehud Olmert, who served as prime minister before Netanyahu, was known for his love of such items as fancy pens and cigars.

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