The ministerial committee for privatization headed by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday approved the sale of 15 percent of the government's holdings in the country's Haifa and Ashdod Port Companies next year in an effort to improve services and reduce waiting times for ships. "Bringing the privatization process forward will remove a central obstacle for economic activity, while helping to boost a major engine of growth," said Steinitz. "The approval is a central part of the government's economic plan agreed upon with the Histadrut Labor Federation and the Israel Manufacturers' Association within the framework of the 'economic package' deal." The privatization of Israel's ports has been on the drawing board since the Port Reform agreement in 2005, and will be implemented in three stages. The process does not include the Eilat Port Company Ltd. As part of the reform process, it was decided that the government will retain 51%, or the controlling interest, of the holdings in the two ports In the first stage of the gradual privatization process, 15% of the government holdings in the port companies will be put on sale to the public in an initial offering on the stock market from February 17, 2010. In the second stage, which will take place at least a year after the initial offering, the government will sell 34% of the Ashdod Port and the Haifa Port through a public offering or sale to institutional investors. The volume and division will be determined by the Government Companies Authority. In the third stage of the reform, which has not yet been approved, the remainder of the government's holdings in the port companies will be sold through a public offering or in an offer to institutional investors, planned from February 17, 2020. "Israel is a small country and 99% of its foreign trade is coming through the sea ports," said Udi Nissan, acting director and budget supervisor of the Government Companies Authority. "The ports represent a major crossing for the economic activity of the country which in turn demands the implementation of measures to improve operations and efficiency in an effort to maintain international standards of services and reduce waiting times for users. "Living up to international standards will empower Israel to take advantage of its geographical location and become a strategic regional port for international trade." The Treasury noted that according to the plan, the government would still retain a 51% stake in the port companies, and that the board of directors would be appointed by the government.