It’s a far cry from the White House or 10 Downing Street, but the house at 9 Smolenskin Street, on the corner of Balfour in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood, has become more than just a political status symbol.
Originally known as Aghion House, it was built in the second half of the 1930s for Edward Aghion, a wealthy Jewish merchant of Greek extraction, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.
The architect was a German Jew by the name of Richard Kaufman, who from 1920 to 1932 was the chief architect of the Palestine Land Development Company (Hachsharat Hayeshuv), which was then part of the Zionist enterprise but was later privatized.
In 1941, the house was graced by royalty when King Peter II of Yugoslavia came to live there briefly.
During the War of Independence in 1948, the house was used as a hospital for fighters of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, whose leader, Menachem Begin, almost 30 years later became one of the occupants under somewhat different circumstances.
cnxps.cmd.push(function () { cnxps({ playerId: ’36af7c51-0caf-4741-9824-2c941fc6c17b’ }).render(‘4c4d856e0e6f4e3d808bbc1715e132f6’); });

if(window.location.pathname.indexOf(“656089”) != -1){console.log(“hedva connatix”);document.getElementsByClassName(“divConnatix”)[0].style.display =”none”;}

IN 1952, with the government headquartered in Jerusalem and with a residence for the prime minister already in place at 46 Ben Maimon Boulevard, it became imperative to find a nearby residence for the foreign minister. And so the government purchased Aghion House, which is located in what is today an upscale residential neighborhood, but which in those days was not quite as affluent nor as well-populated.
What was important was that it took only five minutes to walk from the residence of the foreign minister to that of the prime minister.
The last premier to live in the residence on Ben Maimon was Golda Meir, who was succeeded in office by Yitzhak Rabin. That house had been built in the Bauhaus style in 1933 for Julius and Nechama Jacobs. Julius Jacobs, who worked at British High Command headquarters in the King David Hotel, died of a heart attack in 1946 – two weeks before the hotel was bombed – and the house was subsequently rented to the Jewish Agency, whose Central Executive at the time was chaired by David Ben-Gurion, who famously was to become the first prime minister of the sovereign State of Israel.
It was a natural progression for the Jewish Agency to purchase the house once Ben-Gurion became the leader of the nation’s first government. Unfortunately the house fell into disrepair, and when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister the first time around, it was fairly dilapidated and Leah Rabin simply refused to live there.
The most convenient alternative was the foreign minister’s residence. The Rabins moved into 9 Smolenskin Street in January 1974, for what was supposed to be a temporary period. But as so many temporary things in Israel wax into permanence, so too did the Prime Minister’s Residence.
IN THOSE days, security was minimal. The fence was low. There was a slightly higher swinging metal gate, and a glass-paned door led to the entrance to the house.
The prime minister’s official car was parked outside, and Rabin used to come out into the street to get into it.
When Menachem Begin was prime minister there were frequent demonstrations, but not as large and not as noisy as those of the past year. Moreover, demonstrators were permitted to congregate on both Balfour and Smolenskin.
Security was just a little bit tighter than it had been for Rabin, but Begin’s wife Aliza went to the local grocery store in Lincoln Street (which is the extension of Smolenskin) and to the hairdressing salon on Ben Maimon on foot, like any other local resident.
A pergola was erected during the administration of Yitzhak Shamir, but security was still relatively lax, and Shamir went out for a walk every evening accompanied by one pedestrian bodyguard with another trailing them in a car. The security situation became just a little more stringent when Shimon Peres became prime minister the first time around, then again with Shamir the second time around.
When Rabin served his second stint as prime minister, the incitement stemming from opposition to the Oslo Accords was similar to what is going on now, but with fewer social media platforms. Still, the demonstrations were quite frightening, and security was beefed up – but not enough. Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1995, and from that time on security in the Balfour-Smolenskin vicinity kept increasing, with the fence becoming ever higher, security cameras everywhere, giant mirrors so that security personnel could have ample warning of anyone approaching the area, double and triple barricades in both streets, a huge black curtain blocking the view at the Balfour-Azza Road intersection, plus Shin Bet, Border Police and regular police personnel, depending on the gravity of the security situation.
But it was obvious to neighbors that security measures were being constantly enhanced during the administrations of Peres the second time around, Benjamin Netanyahu the first time, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
During all those years, the Prime Minister’s Residence was usually referred to as such, but the Balfour sobriquet took hold only after Netanyahu seemed to assume squatter’s rights over the property.
THE IRONY? Netanyahu – who knows a thing or two about architecture, having one of his academic degrees in the subject – is not particularly fond of his surroundings.
When he was seeking to return to office well over a decade ago, he came to speak to the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post, and made it quite clear that he didn’t like the house.
Long before he moved back in, it was realized that the location in the heart of a residential neighborhood was unsuitable, aside from which the house was too small for a premier’s needs.
Olmert had commissioned an innovative design for a prime ministerial complex that would include offices for all government ministers, a theater-style auditorium and many other amenities. The design was approved by the government in February 2009, but when Netanyahu took office just over a month later he said the NIS 650 million project was too grandiose, and succeeded in having it squashed.
That may well have been the beginning of Balfour syndrome.
Perhaps it was some kind of subconscious desire to be identified with British nobility; or perhaps because the Balfour Declaration had in a sense been the engine for the creation of the modern State of Israel, it was important to identify the Prime Minister’s Residence with Balfour – even though the address, according to Wikipedia, is on Smolenskin Street. Even the most educated of Israelis have difficulty pronouncing the name Smolenskin, and in many cases would be shocked to learn that Peretz Smolenskin was a Zionist before Herzl and a promoter of the Hebrew language before Eliezer Ben Yehuda.
But let’s face it: Balfour – which is actually an ancient Scottish surname, especially in the historic county of Fife – sounds much more sophisticated than Smolenskin, and so the media began referring to the Prime Minister’s Residence as Balfour, knowing full well that the front entrance is on Smolenskin and the side entrance on Balfour. (Lord Balfour, by the way, was born in Scotland, albeit not in Fife.)
If you say “Balfour” in Israel, everyone knows that the reference is to the Prime Minister’s Residence, but there are several Balfour houses elsewhere in the world. 
A few examples include: Balfour House in North Finchley, London, comprising serviced offices; the once-splendid Balfour Mansion in Hamilton, Ontario, which has fallen into extreme neglect; Balfour House in Fife, Scotland, which before it was demolished, was an old castle that had fallen into ruin; Balfour House in Vancouver, Canada, which is a bed-and-breakfast; and Balfour House in Cannock, Staffordshire, UK, a housing development project in which former offices have been converted into nine self-contained apartments.
IN 2014, Balfour House in Israel was once again on the way to becoming history when Netanyahu realized the need for much larger and more elegant premises. The concept of a prime ministerial estate was again put to the government for approval. The cost factor was more or less what it had been on the previous occasion, and once again approval was granted. 
A site close to the soon-to-be completed new National Library was chosen, but for some strange reason, when it was initially checked out by the Shabak, they were apparently not informed of plans to change the gateway to the city.
At least two very tall high-rise buildings would tower over the prime minister’s complex, which would violate all security regulations.
Even though a start had already been made on the infrastructure, it was essential that another site be found. One of the ideas put forward was to extend the building of the Prime Minister’s Office to include elegant living quarters. Whether that will eventuate remains to be seen. 
Commercial projects in Jerusalem move fairly quickly, as developers want to see a return on their investment in apartment blocks, shopping malls and office buildings; other construction projects rarely move at the same pace.
Whether the “Balfour” title will apply indefinitely to the Prime Minister’s Residence, or whether it will be packed in one of Netanyahu’s suitcases if and when he leaves, is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that a replacement for the current residence will be completed before 2030 – if then.