JERUSALEM — After nine years with Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister, Israelis know a lot about him and his first lady, Sara. Now they also know how much the couple spends on hair and makeup, maid service and swimming pool water.
On Tuesday, at precisely 4 p.m., the Israeli state comptroller released an eagerly awaited report condemning the Netanyahus for “excessive spending” at both the prime minister’s official residence at 2 Balfour St. in Jerusalem and the couple’s private beachfront villa in Caesarea.
Want to know how much the Netanyahus billed the Israeli taxpayer for takeout food in 2011? It was 92,781 shekels, or about $24,000, “even though there was a chef in the residence,” the comptroller noted disapprovingly.
The comptroller’s office warned of more investigations in the offing — into the issue of improper bottle recycling by the Netanyahus, for one. Apparently, the couple pocketed $1,000 in cash refunds paid by stores when staff returned drink bottles for deposit. The bottles were purchased by the state, the report noted, and so the refunds should have been returned to the treasury.
There may also be more to come about patio furniture. According to the report, some teak tables and chairs were suspiciously moved from the patio at the official residence to the patio at the private residence — and then moved back again.
The scandal — and that is what Israeli commentators are calling it — comes one month before a national election on March 17. Pollsters predict a tight race between Netanyahu and his main challenger, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, whose spending on pizza and grooming are not yet known.
The Netanyahu family’s use of state funds between 2009 and 2013 could potentially raise criminal issues, and it certainly violates ethical standards, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said Tuesday. Matters are now before the attorney general.
The 2015 campaign has been notable more for its goofy, spoofy political ads than substantive debate (speaking of which, there’s been no candidate debate).
In his front-page commentary Tuesday in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, columnist Ben Caspit got the national mood just right when he admitted, “It is embarrassing even to write about this. But it can’t be helped, this is what there is, and it’s ours.”
News organizations are going bananas. Leaked copies of the report were alternatively described by the media as “severe,” “dramatic” and “embarrassing.” Israeli television went live with the release of the report — followed five minutes later by rebuttals from the prime minister’s party.
Among the revelations: From 2009 to 2013, average monthly cleaning expenses Chez Netanyahu were 75,400 shekels, or about $20,000. “We see this as much too high,” Shapira opined, though he did not say what it should cost to clean two homes frequently used for official entertaining.
Also: The Netanyahus hire electricians on the weekends, and even on high holy days such as Yom Kippur, which costs a fortune.
Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement stressing there is “absolutely no indication of any assault on the public’s integrity and certainly no indication of any criminal transgressions.”
On the prime minister’s behalf, Likud blamed an “embittered former public employee . . . leading a campaign of slander and defamation” and said the Israeli news media’s “focus on irrelevant minutiae” was designed to orchestrate a Netanyahu defeat.
Yet part of the frenzy is Netanyahu’s own doing.
In a preemptive strike before the release of the report, the Netanyahus had the Israeli interior designer Moshik Galamin over to film a walk-through of the official residence, to show the people the couple does not live in the lap of luxury but rather must endure tired carpets, dusty lamps and the kitchen from hell.
A 15-minute episode was released via social media Sunday by the decorator with full participation from the Netanyahus and their people. It is high camp. When Galamin, dressed all in black, isn’t gushing, he is holding his hands to his cheeks in mock shriek. Dingy drapes!
As they tour the residence, Sara Netanyahu has to yank open stuck doors. She apologizes for the dust and an arrangement of wilting flowers still on display three weeks after she received it from the visiting Japanese prime minister.
The pièce de résistance of the tour is the kitchen, which, depending whether you are an average Israeli voter or an average Israeli interior decorator, is either a bit frumpy . . . or a dump.
“I am shocked that this is your kitchen!” Galamin declares. He says it reminds him of “a 1960s public health clinic” or “a Romanian orphanage.”
Quick-eyed Israeli reporters noticed right away that the kitchen presented in the video is not the Netanyahus’ only kitchen. It is the staff kitchen, they said, the working galley where chefs whip up dinner for guests. There is a modern, unrevealed kitchen for the couple’s use on the second floor.
This might not have been the ideal optic for the Netanyahus, and especially for Sara — already a controversial figure in Israel, lampooned by TV parody shows as a Jewish Marie Antoinette.
Her former housekeepers (who are suing the couple) have alleged in affidavits that she berated them for buying milk in a bag, instead of a carton, and that there were, according to the newspaper Haaretz, “shouting, attacks and unceasing pressure, including conflicting instructions.” The Netanyahus called the accusations “slanders and lies.”
Time will tell whether the report has an impact. Surveys here suggest Netanyahu is not very popular as a person but is respected as a prime minister, even if many Israelis tell pollsters they are tired of him.
Political analysts in Israel agree the upcoming race is essentially a referendum on Netanyahu. Next week’s opinion polls will probably shed more light on what voters think about his family’s household expenses.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.