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Ministers to debate plan to reopen airport ahead of elections

Netanyahu creates interministerial task force to hammer out proposal to gradually ease restrictions on international travel, following 5-week shutdown of Ben Gurion Airport

Ben Gurion Airport stands nearly empty, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Ben Gurion Airport stands nearly empty, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Ministers on Tuesday will discuss a plan to gradually reopen Ben-Gurion Airport ahead of the national elections later this month, following a five-week closure and widespread criticism over the government’s opaque decision-making process for allowing some Israelis to enter the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he was creating a special interministerial task force, which along with the National Security Council will hammer out a plan to ease restrictions on international travel.

The task force will be composed of representatives from the health, transportation, defense, public security, finance, and interior ministries, along with the attorney general, said Netanyahu.

Their plan, details of which have yet to be disclosed, will be brought to the so-called coronavirus cabinet later on Tuesday, followed by a full cabinet vote.

The departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“We have the constraint of the elections, but there are many who will try to take advantage of this and want to enter the country, though the center of their lives is not in Israel,” Netanyahu said on Monday night, according to leaks to Hebrew media from a cabinet meeting.

He was referring to the March 23 election, the fourth national vote in two years. Israel does not permit absentee voting, with the exception of diplomats stationed abroad.

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata hit back, saying: “With all due respect, this is not merely a constraint of elections. There are basic rights that are being harmed.

MK Pnina Tamano-Shata at a Knesset committee meeting on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Many Israelis have become refugees in other countries against their will. Many Israelis are in difficult situations. These include pregnant women, the elderly, and single mothers who haven’t seen their children for a long time,” she continued. “There are those who have run out of money. These are Israelis for whom we are responsible. We cannot abandon them.”

While details of the government’s plan remain under wraps, Transportation Minister Miri Regev said Sunday that her ministry would propose a plan to the cabinet whereby all Israelis abroad would be permitted to return to Israel to vote. Hebrew media reports said Monday that the Transportation Ministry plan would also enable Israelis to leave the country, though not to high-infection destinations listed by the government.

Unvaccinated Israelis who enter the country will be forced to self-isolate in state-run hotels or quarantine at home with an electronic bracelet, reports said.

A pilot program forcing Israelis to accept an electronic bracelet as a condition for quarantining at home was rolled out on Monday, as the government struggles to find an alternative to mandatory quarantine in the hotels.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return. Entrance into the country — for a maximum of 2,000 people a day — requires special permission by the government that is granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of a flight.

An Israeli think tank on Sunday said Israel’s denial of entry to its own citizens represented an extreme erosion of rights, unparalleled in the democratic world.

The government’s permits committee has also come under scrutiny, amid reports that ultra-Orthodox were given preferential treatment while numerous emergency requests by other Israelis were denied.

Channel 12 said last week that some 90 percent of those approved to come to Israel during the closure were Haredi, while many secular people’s requests were being denied. The network asserted that many Haredim were flying in using fraudulent permits, and that some had secured their authorizations through ties to ultra-Orthodox politicians.

The report has been contested by many in the media, however. The Kan public broadcaster, citing airport data, on Monday said that the main flight spotlighted in the Channel 12 report as carrying predominantly Haredim had only 68 ultra-Orthodox passengers out of 260, of whom 30 had recovered from the virus and 18 were fully vaccinated.

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