What if Sde Dov Airport isn't closed on schedule?

Sde Dov airport Photo: Shutterstock

Opponents of closure are raising the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the costs of deferral are enormous.

Two weeks before the scheduled closure of Tel Aviv's Sde Dov Airport, the battle over the move has intensified. This evening, the heads of the campaign against closure, led by Eilat mayor Moshe Yitzhak-Halevi, and hundreds of Eilat residents, will demonstrate opposite the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem in an attempt to change the fate of the airport, which is slated to close down on July 1, a date fixed a year ago in an appeal to the High Court of Justice.

If that happens, and the airport is not closed on the planned date, this will constitute breach of an agreement between the state and the owners of the land in the vicinity, who have already declared that they intend to sue the state for NIS 4 billion for trespass on land that does not belong to it. (Incidentally, the estimated cost of compulsory purchase of the land is another NIS 6 billion). The question is whether postponement of the closure is at all possible, and what the consequences will be.

1. The cost to the state could reach NIS 18 billion

The battle between the opponents of the closure of Sde Dov and its proponents comes with wretched timing during an election period. All eyes are lifted to the one person who has the authority to cancel the decision, namely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last week, Netanyahu held a meeting with Yitzhak-Halevi, Federation of Local Authorities in Israel chairman Haim Bibas, and Dr. Eldar Berkovich, director of Eilat's Yoseftal Hospital, who argues that closure of Sde Dov will be calamitous for patients of the hospital who need to be transferred to hospitals in the center if the country. Associates of Yitzhak-Halevi say he left the meeting with the feeling that the prime minister was trying to find some legal way of deferring the airport's closure. In fact, no request for such a legal way out has been referred to the Attorney General.

Is it even possible? A source in the Ministry of Justice with whom we spoke today said that if the government was willing to leave Sde Dov open and bear the estimated cost of doing so amounting to NIS 12-16 billion, rising to at least NIS 18 billion if the loss of tax revenues from the housing units that will not be built is taken into account, then the Attorney General would examine the consequences and the legal means of enabling it to happen.

2. The state will have to pay NIS 5 billion

16,000 housing units are due to be built on the land on which Sde Dov Airport stands. It is estimated that another 14,000 units will be built on the area north of the airport, up to the border with Herzliya (on which no construction has taken place up to now because of the location of the airport). 70% of the general area of the airport belongs to the state and is slated for construction of affordable housing, commercial buildings, and hotels.

The first stage is for the airport land to undergo decontamination, which could take three to six months, or more, depending on the degree of contamination. Dismantling the airport itself will take 4-5 months, with the outline construction plan due to come into force by October.

The anti-closure campaign's position is that "not even a single hut" should be built on the land for the next five years, and so they are seeking postponement of the closure date. At the same time, under a plan of Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, they propose construction in stages: 4,000-5,000 housing units initially, with the airport runway left intact. Government sources, including the Israel Land Authority, rule out the plan, as it will put the entire process into reverse. It is no coincidence that the Israel Land Authority has come out in fierce opposition to cancellation of the airport's closure.

As the Israel Land Authority sees it, the process of obtaining building permits by contractors takes place after the land has been sold, and sources at the Authority say that under any scenario in which the airport remains operational, the land will not be sold. "You can't sell occupied land, certainly when there is uncertainty over it."

Here the financial implications enter the picture: the state will lose NIS 4 billion for the rights that the owners of the land "granted" it under legal agreements, and another NIS 1 billion that they will claim retroactively for use of the land as an airport. Under the agreement, they will also claim another NIS 160 million a year until another plan is formulated.

3. The IDF is ready to evacuate

The civilian activity at Sde Dov take place by virtue of the fact that it is a military airfield. Under the agreement signed more than a decade ago with the landowners, the IDF will be the last to leave the airfield, with the aim of stymieing any possibility of civilian use. The Ministry of Defense has already certified that there is no security need for continuing to operate Sde Dov, and the IDF is ready to evacuate it within two weeks.

Theoretically, civilian activity could be legitimized by stationing some military presence on the site. In practice, the Ministry of Justice has stated in the past that it will not accept such a subterfuge. Here too, all eyes are on one man - the prime minister, who is also minister of defense. In the background is a statement by the Ministry of Defense director-general that postponing closure of the airport would actually have negative consequences for security.

Meanwhile, a third of funding of the project for transferring IDF bases to the Negev, due to be completed by 2024-2025, is due to be financed by revenue from the development of the Sde Dov site, according to the Ministry of Finance's planning. If closure of the airport is deferred, the money will have to be found elsewhere. "The significance of not closing Sde Dov is that the state will have to find another source for this money, given the deficit in which it finds itself. This means that it will be the public that pays, through taxes and cuts in government spending."

5. Will construction of the Light Rail Green Line be affected?

The pressure to ensure evacuation of the airport has been added to in the past few days by NTA, the government company responsible for planning and executing construction of the light rail lines in the Tel Aviv rea, including the Green Line, which is meant to serve the residential neighborhoods that will be built on the area of the airport.

The Green Line is planned to run from Herzliya via Tel Aviv to Holon and Rishon LeZion, with a branch line to Tel Aviv University and Ramat Hahayal.

This morning, against a background of claims that postponing the closure of the airport will lead to difficulties in carrying out work on the Green Line, Tel Aviv-Yafo mayor Ron Huldai wrote a letter to the prime minister in which he argues: "The proposed alternatives (the reference is to the plan for construction in stages - M. R-Ch.) do not cause any difficulty to construction of the Green Line. For each of the alternatives an alternative, statutorily approved plan for the Green Line has been drawn up. The Green Line does not represent an obstacle to operating Sde Dov, and none of the alternatives delays work on the line."

Huldai proposes shifting the route of the Green Line so that it will pass to the east of the airport area. This alternative does have statutory approval, but it will adversely affect transport connections for residents of the future neighborhood.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 17, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Sde Dov airport Photo: Shutterstock
Sde Dov airport Photo: Shutterstock
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