Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Motzoei Shabbos with Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich on the impending closure of Sdeh Dov Airport in Tel Aviv. If nothing is done by the end of the day Sunday, the airport will officially close on Monday.
If it does, say many public officials, including the mayors of Tel Aviv and Eilat, tourism in Eilat will suffer, and thousands will lose their jobs. In protest, 40 local authorities will close customer-facing offices, and services for the public, such as licensing and payments of bills, will not take place. The Histadrut said that if the airport is closed, it will conduct “widespread disruptions” in workplaces beginning Monday morning.
Netanyahu has the final say on whether the airfield will be shuttered permanently, and analysts said that recent actions by the Prime Minister indicate that he will side with the closing. Among those actions was an order that the government pay for taxi rides for sick people who arrive in Tel Aviv for treatment on flights from Eilat to Ben Gurion Airport to their destinations; among the concerns that had been raised by those against the closure was that sick people, including cancer patients, would have a much harder time getting to Tel Aviv-area hospitals from Ben Gurion Airport than they would from Sdeh Dov.
Smotrich, on the other hand, is opposed to the closure. He has suggested a plan where the final closure of the field would take place in three years. “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.”
The problem is that the land used by Sdeh Dov is private property, and a lease that the government imposed has expired. Owners of the land have sued to get the rights to the property, which they plan to use for development.
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 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 Sdeh Dov now handles, Huldai said, adding that “the closure of Sde Dov is a problem not just for Eilat, but for the entire country.”
Sde 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.
If the airfield does close beginning Monday, 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 MK 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 th of air travel down.