JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a backlash after reports surfaced that his office was charged an extra $139,000 for a bed on a recent five-hour flight to London.
The uproar comes as Israel faces a new austerity budget, tax hikes and just two months after the Netanyahu residence's $2,700 annual ice cream bill came to light.
Israel's Channel Ten broke the news that Netanyahu, accompanied by his unpopular wife Sara, flew to London for Margaret Thatcher's funeral on a specially outfitted El Al plane that cost the tax payers an extra 500,000 shekels, or $139,000, more than a standard plane for that distance would cost.
El Al reportedly automatically won the bid to fly the prime minister because it's the only national carrier that has big enough planes for a sleeping cabin with a double bed. While sleeping quarters are standard for long-haul flights, the flight to London is just five hours which usually means business class seating for the prime minister and his entourage.
Netanyahu's office initially justified the decision by saying the prime minister had just come off a long day of events for Israel's Independence Day and had a busy day in London the next day.
"The flight was booked for midnight after a day full of events, and afterwards the prime minister was to represent the State of Israel at a number of official international events, including a meeting with the prime ministers of Canada and Britain," his office said in a statement. "It is acceptable for the prime minister of Israel to be able to rest at night between two packed days as those."
Critics immediately compared Netanyahu to 90 year-old President Shimon Peres who recently flew 11 hours to Seoul in business class. A photo also circulated on Twitter of former Prime Minister Menachim Begin sleeping in a rather uncomfortable-looking position across two plane seats.
"Honey, how did you sleep?" read the air bubble above Netanyahu in a photo of the couple going around on Facebook. "Like half a million shekels," his wife Sara responds.
"A cabin like that won't be ordered on the [upcoming] flight to Russia," a Netanyahu spokesman later told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, while source close to Netanyhau added, "this can be done at a much lower cost, and so it shall be."
The news came as Israel's government is expected to approve an austerity budget cutting $840 million that will see income taxes raised 1.5 percent and family allowances cut. It also follows another mini-scandal in February which saw Netanyahu blasted for the $2,700 annual budget for ice cream in his official residence (Netanyahu is known to have an affinity for pistachio).
"It is unbelievable that not a single person in the prime minister's inner circle saw how reprehensible this was," wrote columnist Sima Kadmon in Yedioth Ahronoth. "Could the people in that ivory tower be as out of touch with the public as that? Or perhaps they're afraid of telling the royal couple what they think?"