Up in the air

The decision to delay the Open Skies Agreement ultimately has one primary victim: the Israeli traveler.

Arrivals board at Ben-Gurion Airport 370 (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Arrivals board at Ben-Gurion Airport 370
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Israeli travelers to Europe will bear the brunt of the government’s decision to postpone a long-delayed “Open Skies Agreement” with the European Union.
The agreement had promised to increase the number of flights that European airlines operate to and from Israel gradually over a five-year period as of 2013, as well as lower ticket prices to Europe for Israelis.
But it would have come at a cost to El Al and other local carriers, which would have lost business to cut-rate European airlines. Strong opposition came, inter alia, from El Al CEO Eliezer Shkedy, a former Israel Air Force commander, who said it represented a serious threat to the national airline.
Among other opponents was the Histadrut, which backed the local airline industry and even threatened labor action.
The Prime Minister’s Office said the postponement had been ordered to avoid making important decisions ahead of the January 22 election, in accordance with principles of good governance.
The official signing of the agreement between Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority and the European Commission had been scheduled to take place in Brussels this coming Thursday at a meeting of the EU’s transportation ministers.
The explanation by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Transportation Ministry for the move sounded benign.
“In accordance with the prime minister’s instructions, it has been decided not to sign the final agreement with the European Union, stemming from the need to refrain from making far-reaching decisions at this time prior to the elections,” the Transportation Ministry said in a statement last Wednesday.
Unfortunately, though, the announcement had several negative consequences.
Firstly, it affects Israeli travelers who had been waiting for cheaper flights. Secondly, it upset the local hotel industry, which is likely to lose potential European customers.
“We are disappointed and surprised by the government’s zig-zag. This is a cynical move, and election economics,” Ami Federmann, president of the Israel Hotel Association, told Globes.
“The explanation that the agreement is being deferred because of the election is ridiculous,” he said. “I fail to understand how the state can sacrifice its true interests for the sake of other interests. I don’t understand this surrender to narrow interests, instead of seeing the general good.
I presume that it’s a case of various workers committees, that this is not the time to annoy them.”
Federmann called the delay a blow to incoming tourism, especially in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense last month. He said the deferral of the agreement would prevent European airlines such as Ryanair from flying about 50,000 tourists from the UK to Eilat in the next few months.
Finally, it angered the European Union on the very day that Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman – speaking at The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference – compared European states’ attitude towards Israel with their abandonment of Jews during the Holocaust.
“Specifically at this time, when the European Union is exposed to criticism by Israel, Europe was willing to sign the agreement, but Israel has decided to postpone it at this time,” a European source told The Marker. “Both sides will miss a complete year in which the agreement could have been implemented.”
Israeli airlines, however, were delighted by the development.
The Open Skies pact, initialed after prolonged negotiations with the EU this past July, would essentially open Israel’s aviation industry to greater European competition, much to the chagrin of local carriers, especially El Al.
El Al workers committee head Asher Edri praised the government’s decision.
“I’m happy to see that the government understood that difficult decisions should not be made in a transition period.
We didn’t pressure anyone,” Edri told Globes. “We are not afraid of the competition that this agreement will bring, but it should be fair.”
Government sources denied that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz had given in to pressure from Israeli carriers and the Histadrut.
One can accept at face value that their reason for the move was not wanting to implement such a major change during a transitional period. Or it can be argued that Netanyahu and Katz simply did not want to risk labor unrest and incur the wrath of local airlines ahead of the election.
But either way, the decision to delay the Open Skies Agreement ultimately has one primary victim: the Israeli traveler.