Finance Ministry nixes rezoning of Atlit, Eilat salt ponds

Decision comes decade after petitions submitted to High Court of Justice against idea of rezoning ponds to tourism, residential land.

Salt ponds 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Salt ponds 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) claimed victory on Wednesday after the Finance Ministry officially nixed a deal that would have rezoned Atlit and Eilat’s salt evaporation ponds to tourism and residential land.
The State Attorney’s Office released a document on Tuesday night indicating that Finance Ministry director-general Yael Andorn last Wednesday authorized the cancellation of an agreement between the Israel Lands Authority and Israel Salt Industries – now a subsidiary of the Arison Group but formerly owned by the Dankner family – to rezone the land. The Atlit salt ponds, which SPNI described in particular as a “complex and diverse ecosystem with unique values of nature,” are located about 20 kilometers south of Haifa and 80 kilometers north of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Coast, west of the Carmel mountain range.
The decision occurred a decade after SPNI, the Movement for Quality Government and the NGO Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow – New Discourse submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice against the idea of rezoning the salt ponds.
In 2003, the ILA gave Israel Salt Industries 30 percent of the building rights for the Eilat ponds and 50 percent of the rights for those Atlit, but the agreement never went into force because the Finance Ministry never signed on to it.
In April 2010, the NGOs that had filed the 2003 petition requested that the High Court begin hearing their case, after police arrested Danny Dankner, then head of Israel Salt Industries, and Ya’acov Efrati, former director of the ILA, over alleged bribery and corruption related to the salt agreement. In June 2010, however, the High Court elected to postpone any hearings about the petition, as the state had determined that the police investigation into the Holyland real estate scandal was linked to the salt deal.
In November 2011, after the High Court ordered the state to explain why it had not yet made a decision as to the validity of the salt agreement, the Attorney-General’s Office responded that the finance minister was preventing the deal’s advancement “in light of severe defects in the proceedings.”
The attorney general called for the issue to be returned to renewed discussions.
As of the State Attorney’s Office update on Tuesday night, the Finance Ministry had officially signed a statement canceling the agreement once and for all. In addition, the ministry approved a new Resolution No. 1293 that SPNI said would prevent zoning changes in areas of environmental importance.
Andorn, to whom Finance Minister Yair Lapid delegated the responsibility of nixing the rezoning deal, signed the new agreement, which reduced the benefits to the landholders significantly, the Finance Ministry said.
Nili Even-Hen, director for economics in the Movement for Quality Government, likewise praised the decision, but stressed that it came 11 years too late.
Calling the decision “a tremendous victory for nature,” however, SPNI reveled in the fact that “the salt ponds were saved.”
“The approval of the Finance Ministry brings to an end and long and winding saga about the salt ponds, which began in the 90s,” said Hagit Helmer, the legal counsel for SPNI who submitted the original 2003 petition.
“The salt ponds deal gave salt companies extensive benefits, with unreasonable economic measures, and gave them a foothold in a valuable area of Atlit.”Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.