Amid vocal protests, Netanyahu says Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov Airport to close Monday

State to compensate Eilat with NIS 400 million development plan; court nixes planned Tuesday strike at Ben Gurion Airport

Passengers boarding what appears to be one of the final Arkia Airlines flights to Eilat at the Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv on June 30, 2019. (Flash90)
Passengers boarding what appears to be one of the final Arkia Airlines flights to Eilat at the Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv on June 30, 2019. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that there was no reversing the decision to close Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov Airport and the facility would cease operation on July 1 as planned.

“There was no way to stop the eviction of Sde Dov and any attempt would cost the country billions of shekels and cause heavy damage to the state,” Netanyahu said in a tweet.

The decision came after the prime minister held an emergency overnight discussion with newly appointed Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

In recent weeks, protests mounted in the southern resort city of Eilat and other locations against the Sde Dov closure, saying the decision to shutter the 81-year-old airport would damage the Eilat economy.

In a bid to assuage concerns by Eilat city officials, who say that closing Sde Dov will negatively impact the tourism industry, Netanyahu said he is advancing an economic development plan for the southern resort city to the tune of NIS 400 million ($112.5 million).

The closure and the aid package were slammed by Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi, who said he had to return home to a city of angry residents. Halevi said Netanyahu had promised a similar economic package in 2012 that had never been delivered.

“Nobody is doing us any favors,” Halevi told Channel 12 news. “It’s a right that the government is obligated to give us” and not compensation for the airport closure.

Eilat residents protest the closure of Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov Airport, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. The placard (center) says “Bibi – don’t damage the future of tourism.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Halevi said he did not accept the explanation that the legal decision could not be reversed.

“In the end, greed won out,” the mayor said, adding that he had quit Netanyahu’s Likud party because he could not face his electorate after the government failed to find a solution, despite promising to do so three years ago.

Yair Lapid of the opposition Blue and White Party derided the closure, saying previous Netanyahu governments had repeatedly broken promises to take care of a long list of issues related to the closing of Sde Dov.

“Under these circumstances, the field must not be closed,” Lapid tweeted.

But there appeared to be no going back on the closure, since delaying a July 1 deadline would put the government in violation of an agreement with contractors, exposing the state to possible lawsuits totaling more than NIS 8 billion ($2.24 billion).

The Finance Ministry said it was in favor of going ahead with the closure, as did Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Smotrich, the rookie transportation minister who only took up his post last week, said there was no choice but to move forward after the legal decision was made to not block the closure.

Often an outspoken opponent of the government’s policies, Smotrich toed the political line while admitting in a statement “the strategic plan for the development of the city has been stuck in the corridors for years.” He saluted Halevi for what he termed a “just struggle” and promised to be at Ben Gurion Airport on Monday to ensure that the changeover goes smoothly.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Israel said Terminal 1 at Ben Gurion International Airport had been prepared to absorb the flights to Eilat, in case Sde Dov does close, including an entire floor in the parking lot with some 400 spots reserved for passengers flying to Eilat.

Separately, a general strike planned for Tuesday that would have shut down Ben Gurion was called off Sunday after a labor court issued an injunction barring the protest action.

The Tel Aviv Labor Court ordered the government to resolve an ongoing labor spat with airport workers, who threatened the strike, claiming their salaries are often delayed or not paid in full.

After the workers threatened a strike last week, a number of airlines warned they would cancel all flights in and out of Tel Aviv on Tuesday if there would be no immigration services available.

The planned strike would have affected some 80,000 passengers on 540 flights arriving and leaving Israel.

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