Incoming Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich intends to call an emergency meeting of the disbanded Knesset in order to pass legislation that would delay the closure of Sdeh Dov Airport by as much as three years. He intends to bring the move for approval by the Cabinet at its Sunday meeting, Yisrael Hayom reported.
As a minister in a caretaker government, Smotrich is unlikely to bring any major initiatives to the table. But given the public furor over the closure of the Tel Aviv airfield, and the fact that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked him to find a solution to the issue, Smortrich told the newspaper that he intends to act. “Closing Sde Dov at this time would be extremely unjust,” he said. “Planning for what will come to the site afterwards has not even begun yet, and no new construction can take place there for at least three years anyway. Meanwhile, closing the airfield will badly damage tourism to Eilat.”
Under his proposal, Sdeh Dov – which includes both the civilian airfield and an Israel Air Force base – will be largely shut down anyway, with just the terminal building and a single runway remaining, so construction, when approved, can take place in other parts of the field.
The legal battle for rights to the land used by Sdeh Dov by private landowners has been long and messy, and the government’s promise to transfer usage rights to the land’s owners “is very important, and we intend to keep that promise,” Smotrich said. “But the state has a right to intervene and it has the tools to ensure those rights, by Knesset legislation.”
Under the law proposed by Smotrich, the airfield will remain active for the next three years, but planning for construction of housing and other projects slated for the site will go on. Smotrich expects the law to draw near-universal support of MKs, as the majority of Knesset members on both the right and left are opposed to the closure.
At a recent press conference, both Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzchak Halevi and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said the closure of the airport will constitute a “death blow” for the southern city. “We must reverse the closure decision – it is the smart thing to do, and the right thing to do, and the merciful thing to do,” Halevi said. “Hundreds of Eilat residents travel to the Tel Aviv area for treatment, and many doctors go to Eilat to treat patients. Many doctors have told me that they won’t travel the long route they will have to take in order to get to Eilat.” Bad enough that patients and doctors now need to travel a half-hour out of town, to Ramon Airport, in order to fly, with the closure of Eilat’s airport; traveling another half-hour to [and from] Ben Gurion airport will be too much for either. “In essence, this decision is closing the city of Eilat,” Halevy said.
Huldai, calling the decision to close the airport “stupid,” said that real-estate interests were behind the closure. “They are building airports in the entire world, and here they are closing them. If it were not for the real-estate interests, no one would be talking about closing the airport.” Ben Gurion airport will not be able to handle the traffic that Sde Dov now handles, Huldai said, adding that “the closure of Sde Dov is a problem not just for Eilat, but for the entire country.”
Sdeh Dov, which takes up hundreds of dunams of some of the most valuable land in Tel Aviv, was slated for closure already in 2017, after the Knesset voted in 2015 to authorize the closure. The airport’s civilian flight runways are used strictly for domestic flights, mostly to and from Eilat. The flights are to be moved to Ben Gurion airport, while the land that currently constitutes the airport will be developed for homes and shopping. The military section of the airport was set to continue operating until 2019. In 2017 a new Knesset law extended civilian operations at the airport until 2019 as well.
The date for its final closure is currently set for July 1. After that, Arkia and IsrAir, which account for nearly all the civilian air traffic at Sdeh Dov, are supposed to transfer all flights to Ben Gurion airport. Several officials, including Smotrich, have promised that they will try to keep the airport open. At a recent meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee, Smotrich railed against the closure of the airport, saying that it would be “the end of the Open Skies policy” of the Transportation Ministry that has brought the prices of air travel down.
“Ben Gurion airport cannot absorb the flights that currently use Sde Dov,” said Smotrich. “There is a limit to the number of flights the airport can handle. This is what all professionals who are familiar with the situation tell us. The only party that is really pushing the closure is the Finance Ministry, which is looking forward to the income from real estate and other taxes.”