Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel last week helped to set back cutting-edge Israeli research and also apparently overstepped government regulations on gifts by giving the only scientific research helicopter of its kind in the country to Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
The minister’s impulse to hand over the NIS 200,000 ($50,000) piece of equipment — purchased by the Volcani Agricultural Research Organization, near Tel Aviv, with research funds that did not come from the ministry — came during a tour of agricultural technology at the institute, a source from the institute said.
While Medvedev played with the controls of the helicopter, Ariel asked his ministry’s director general Shlomo Ben Eliyahu for permission to gift the equipment, which Ben Eliyahu gave on the spot.
The surprised translator asked whether he should relay the conversation to Medvedev. Ben Eliyahu said yes.
On a recording by Boris Stern of Channel 9, broadcast Monday by Army Radio, one can hear the translator saying that the minister said: “It’s a present for you, tell us where you want it, tell us and we’ll take it for you.”
Medvedev replies, “It’s a great present, thanks,” and then turns to his entourage and jokes that he already owns an unmanned combat plane.
Volcani representatives tried unsuccessfully to delay the course of events without upsetting the visit, but at the end of the tour, two members of the Russian delegation took the helicopter to the Russians’ plane, along with various accessories.
According to government regulations issued by the accountant general, gifts of up to NIS 300 can be made to visitors from abroad. In extraordinary circumstances, a minister or deputy minister can make a gift worth up to NIS 700, with permission from the ministry’s director general.
Journalist Omri Milman, who exposed the story and published it in the Calcalist daily, said Monday that the government department that supervises security exports was looking into the matter.
The helicopter is designed to carry thermal and infrared cameras capable of providing complex images of the actual uptake of water and water-borne materials such as pesticides by crops and trees which have been given uniform irrigation.
The 16-kilogram helicopter, able to stay airborne for up to two hours, can carry cameras weighing up to 2.5 kilograms which gather information from large areas, such as fields and orchards.
The researchers hope the data will enable farmers to tailor provisions to each plant and in so doing, to save water.
Three academics are involved in the project. Until a replacement helicopter is provided, they will have to mount the cameras — which were not given to the Russians — on inferior hovercraft which cannot fly as high or stay for as long in the air.
“The software is unique to Volcani,” a source from the Volcani Institute told The Times of Israel. “Medvedev wanted that too, but we didn’t give it to him.”
The Agriculture Ministry says it will buy another helicopter “in the upcoming period.”
But even if does, several months will pass before a replacement can be registered with the Airports Authority, as it is a flying object.
In a statement, Moshe Reuveni, representing the researchers, said the setback to research was just one clear consequence of the damages caused.
“Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel proves yet again that he is as far from good governance as the sky is from the earth,” the statement said.
“The direct and indirect consequences of the minister’s actions are so depressing and difficult that it’s hard to believe it actually happened,” he added.
A statement from the Agriculture Ministry focused on the agreement signed between Israel and Russia, which it described as a “road map leading to business worth billions of dollars which will contribute greatly to agriculture and to the economic prosperity of Israel.”
“The giving of the helicopter to the [Russian] delegation was with the permission of the relevant professionals,” the statement said. “The Agriculture Ministry will acquire a new helicopter in the coming period so that the research activities can continue.”
An Agriculture Ministry spokeswoman was unable to say exactly when, or from which budgets, the new helicopter would be purchased.