Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov says Interior Ministry policies present Israel as "insensitive."
By RON FRIEDMAN
Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov slammed the Interior Ministry on Monday for damaging the country's image, and as a result, the tourism sector, with its harsh immigration policies and enforcement methods.
In a letter sent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Meseznikov (Israel Beiteinu) wrote that the Interior Ministry's actions "presented Israel as a country lacking in sensitivity and humanity, creating long-term damage to Israel's image that will be irreversible should the current policy of the Interior Ministry not be changed."
"Recently, the Interior Ministry has hardened its policy and implemented a range of activities related to the enforcement of the immigration laws, which adversely impacts on incoming tourism and importantly, on Israel's image overseas," reads the letter.
He called on Netanyahu to address the issue in an upcoming cabinet meeting.
the Interior Ministry said in response that it was only implementing the word of the law.
Meseznikov cited several examples where policies of the ministry, or its newly formed Oz unit, reflected poorly on Israel's appearance in the eyes of the world.
For example, he cited the raid on the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv where Oz inspectors entered the hotel and took eight members of the staff into custody, in full view of the hotel's guests.
"This raid, which took place over several hours while many tourists were in the hotel, sowed unnecessary panic and confusion and harmed the image of Israel as a developed tourism destination," wrote Meseznikov.
He also criticized the Interior Ministry's policy of requesting personal guarantees, amounting to tens of thousands of shekels, from tour operators, which would be redeemed in the event that one of the tourists does not leave the country at the end of the visit.
"This decree represents a new obstacle for many tour operators dealing with incoming tourism from countries affected by this decree and, as such, Israel is giving up on visits by thousands of pilgrims from various countries," read the letter.
The missive also criticized the policy of restricting the movement of tourists whose itinerary includes a visit to the Palestinian Authority.
"This represents stricter entry conditions into Israel for foreign residents from various countries with work and business connections or tourists in the West Bank and Israel," wrote Meseznikov. "It goes without saying that this decision taken by the Interior Ministry causes significant damage to Israel's image and to incoming tourism for those tourists who visit the holy sites in the Palestinian Authority as part of their visit to Israel."
In the letter, Meseznikov reminded the prime minister that tourism was an important growth engine, contributing NIS 25 billion directly to the economy each year and employing 90,000 people. "To my sorrow, while the Tourism Ministry acts to encourage tourism, the Interior Ministry thwarts our marketing efforts and the activities of the ministry and the industry as a whole."
Meseznikov stressed that while it was important to obey laws, the enforcement agencies had the ability to choose how to go about applying them. "The policy should not be pedantic and lacking the required sensitivity. It would appear that this has recently been lacking in the policies of the Interior Ministry," he wrote.
According to Amnon Liberman, Meseznikov's media adviser, the Tourism Ministry received complaints from several businesses and individuals calling on the minister to take action and prevent further damage to the country's image.
"We invest tens of millions of dollars in marketing Israel as an attractive tourist destination, and with a single action, the Interior Ministry wipes away all our efforts," said Liberman. "There are ways to enforce the law. It appears that the Interior Ministry has chosen the most draconian and spiteful way of going about it."
The Interior Ministry issued a statement in response to Meseznikov's letter explaining that it hadn't invented any new policies or enforcement methods, but was only implementing the laws and regulations approved by this and previous governments.
"There is no argument that it is an unpleasant job and it would be easier not to do it, but it is impossible to act against illegal residents without conducting thorough investigations regarding the legality of the presence of relevant foreigners in the relevant places, all conducted with sensitivity and within the framework of the law," reads the statement.
"[Interior] Minister [Eli] Yishai [of Shas] adds that he regrets the fact that cabinet decisions were not previously implemented and announces that he will extend all efforts to implement the government's economic and social policies and those of the person who stands at the head of it, and thinks the Israeli government should be consistent and determined in implementing its decisions.
"The minister supports the work of the Immigration authority employees and the Oz taskforce and believes that that there is room to increase enforcement of government-budgeted policies even further," the Interior Ministry said.
The Central Bureau of Statistics released a report on tourist entries during the first six months of 2009. Some 1.4 million tourists visited Israel between January and July, 18 percent fewer than in the same period in 2008 and 16% more than in the same period in 2007. The month of July looked good in comparison, with 252,000 entries, only 4% less than last year.
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