After several nerve-racking days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that Tel Aviv's Sde Dov airport was closing last night at midnight. Sde Dov, which had become a battlefield between real estate and aviation interests, is now being vacated. The Israel Air Force unit, which operated it, is now being transferred to the Hatzor base and Arkia Airlines Ltd. and Israir Airlines and Tourism Ltd. were instructed to remove all their aircraft and equipment by 23.59 last night.
The closure of Sde Dov was inevitable. When Bezalel Smotrich was appointed Minister of Transport a few weeks ago, he zoomed in on the issue. His predecessor Yisrael Katz had refrained from expressing an opinion on the matter but Smotrich embarked on a campaign, calling the closure of the north Tel Aviv airport "an anti-Zionist move."
Speaking before the Knesset Finance Committee last week, Smotrich spent 20 minutes detailing planned new snap legislation that would have left Sde Dov open for another three years, while planning of the future construction was being carried out on the land. The aim that he set was to change the focus and delay the date of closure. From the moment that Smotrich said that he understood that a U-turn was impossible, it was clear that the closure of Sde Dov on July 1, the first day of the school summer vacation of all dates, could not be stopped.
Last night, even sources, that attended the meeting convened by Netanyahu with Smotrich, Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi, Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar Dov and others, admitted that the decision had already been made before last night. Several days ago, senior officials at the Ministry of Finance and the Attorney General made it very clear to Netanyahu what would be the results of delaying closure of Sde Dov.
The cost would be huge with no exact final amount specified. During various briefings with journalists by Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Justice officials numbers in the double digit billions of shekels were mentioned. And above all that Sde Dov's imminent closure came at an unfortunate time with elections coming up and the widening government budget deficit continually in the headlines. This meant the writing was on the wall for the closure of Sde Dov.
Are Eilat's screams about damage justified?
Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi launched a media campaign in recent weeks. Demonstrations, protests, press conferences and a lot of moving human interest stories were involved. The chronically ill, needing frequent treatment at hospitals in Tel Aviv, were thrust into the center of the campaign. Yitzhak Halevi even burst into tears during a Knesset Finance Committee session as if his life depended on it. The focus on tourism as a boost for the Red Sea resort city hit the headlines while the alternative was ignored - transferring all flights to Ben Gurion airport, which can easily absorb the entire domestic flight schedule to Eilat.
Is that so terrible? It depends who you ask. True it takes longer to get to Ben Gurion airport for many and it means negotiating a large international airport rather than the compact and convenient Sde Dov. But steps have been taken to alleviate the inconvenience. 500 parking places have been designated and reserved for passengers flying to and from Eilat from Terminal 1. In any case, 85% of Israelis who vacation in Eilat travel there by car, and many of them do it in company cars at their employers' expense.
At the other end, the transfer of the airport from the center of Eilat to the new Ramon international airport has caused much more inconvenience than the closure of Sde Dov. The 18 kilometers distance from Eilat means a NIS 100 taxi ride in each direction.
All this added time, inconvenience and expense means that many are deciding not to fly to Eilat or not even to go there at all. Opening the new airport without operating a rail link, or at least a regular shuttle, is an oversight that cannot be ignored.
Eilat depends on domestic tourism and regardless of Sde Dov it is a tourist product that is expensive, without any new hotels or entertaining attractions, and in trying to retain the Israeli tourist not everything can be blamed on the closure of Sde Dov. Eilat should do some soul searching rather than wait around for trains and planes.
What is in Israel's interest regarding the land?
1,900 landowners have become the 'baddies' in the Sde Dov story, which sees the rich pitted against the poor in Israel's most remote city. Lists of names of those owning the land have been revealed during legal proceedings about quarrels between them. But the fact is these are people that bought the land legally after the government decided back last century to forego the airport. Decades of promises reached a turning point when the government became a 50% owner in the land. This was a smart move, which meant expedited closure, because the government saw the value of returns on thousands of apartments, commercial centers, hotels, spacious parks, and more. Only the government forgot to take into account the advantages of an airport in Tel Aviv. In 2012, when the decision was again taken to close the airport, the skies had not yet been opened with 30 million passengers flying annually to, from and around Israel. Sde Dov could have served not only for domestic flights to Eilat but also for short-haul flights to Cyprus and Greece.
In hindsight it would have been smarter to requisition all the land and payoff the landowners before the soaring value of property blinded all those involved. Aviation experts, former senior government and security figures tried to influence Netanyahu. They sent him dozens of letters, outlining and explaining why foregoing Sde Dov is a historic mistake - but it was all too late. But it is no good crying over spilt milk. A swift and smart decision must now be made on where to build Israel's next airport.
Israel must understand that airports are an infrastructure that should not be easily given up, if at all.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 1, 2019
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