Stas Misezhnikov
Stas Misezhnikov. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan this week announced their support for dredging salt from the Dead Sea Works' industrial evaporation pool. This is meant to prevent the flooding of hotels near the southern part of the Dead Sea, since the salt is what causes the pool's water level to rise and puts the nearby hotels at risk.

Misezhnikov and Erdan also support setting up a fund to develop the entire Dead Sea area.

This only the first step in a long journey. Now the ministers have to face the big challenge of implementing the plan. They say the Dead Sea Works should pay for dredging the pool and should provide some of the money for the regional development fund.

Minister Misezhnikov, do you believe you will succeed in getting the Dead Sea Works to foot the bill for dredging the salt?

The Dead Sea Works has already accepted the principle that they must pay for protecting the hotels, and they have already done this in an interim stage and have paid 40 percent of the costs of protection. The Finance Ministry is currently conducting negotiations with them and I can't say now whether they will pay 80 percent or 90 percent.

What is clear is that the larger the sum imposed on them, the less the state will have to pay, including the fund for the area's development. I wish to stress that the Dead Sea Works is not the enemy. It contributes a great deal to the area's development, and I have no intention of beginning a struggle against them or against any other business enterprise. On the other hand, if we speak about actions to rehabilitate the region, there can be no concessions. They have earned huge sums and they have to clean up the salt that has been left behind.

Some people will say that, as with the Sheshinski committee on taxing oil and gas revenues, the government is once again changing agreements with entrepreneurs and thus endangering future investment in the region.

This is completely different from the case of the Sheshinski committee, in which I opposed raising the royalties. In the case of natural gas, the entrepreneurs took a risk and it was possible that they might not have found a thing. Even before they produced something, the state leaped up and imposed taxes on them, and that was defective in my eyes and not right. In the case of the Dead Sea, the state was the one that set up the works in the past. It certainly did not intend that those who managed them would not clean up after themselves.

What was the decisive factor in your decision to support harvesting the salt and to reject other alternatives, such as moving some of the hotels to reduce the risk that they would get flooded?

I knew at an early stage that dredging the salt was the only correct solution. It cannot be expected that our bureaucracy will make it possible for the hotels to be destroyed and rebuilt within a short time; that's simply impossible. I also refused to respond only to the alternatives that were suggested to me, and I demanded a combined solution that would include the establishment of a designated fund for developing the region, which can do wonders for the region. Harvesting the salt will give hotel owners a feeling of security and the fund will assist in attracting other entrepreneurs.

What part did protecting the environment play in choosing the salt-dredging option?

It did play a role, and there was also a report from experts that was carried out by the government's Dead Sea Preservation Government Company in which the environmental implications were examined. I'll say more than that: The fact that Gilad Erdan joined me on this issue establishes an important principle and a precedent - and that is that from now on, economic development cannot be opposed to environmental considerations. That is true of the Dead Sea and of all areas of the country.

What is your position on plans by the Dead Sea Works to set up another industrial pool north of the hotel area?

We have no position either for or against. If, after the discussions by all the sides involved, it is decided that the pool must be set up, we will examine whether it is possible to include tourist activities next to the pool, since we will be talking about another body of water in the area.

Assuming that your proposal is put into effect, what kind of tourism development do you expect to see in the area?

The last time the area was developed for tourism was in 1985, when the hotels were built and the area was designated a national priority zone and received money for developing the land. Since then the grants have stopped, the Dead Sea is no longer in a national priority zone, and we have been left with old hotels. Entrepreneurs don't come to the area and it doesn't have tourist attractions. The area has remained desolate and neglected.

The fund we have set up could break the vicious cycle and, together with including the Dead Sea as a national priority zone, could draw entrepreneurs and new tourist attractions, and open up commercial centers and restaurants. People will spend money outside the hotels as well and the tourism will not be limited to medical tourism.

Didn't you contribute to the area's poor image when you described it in such gloomy terms at the news conference you held with Erdan?

One of the best things that has happened in recent times is that a public discourse about the Dead Sea has begun, as a result of the flooding. I also held off on my decision about harvesting the salt a little longer so that a debate could be held. I also said Eilat was a boring place; that gave rise to a public discussion, and now we are investing in the town. I expressed myself in sharp terms about the Dead Sea, but I did so out of pain because of the tourism situation now. But I'm doing things, and I think that the solution we proposed can change the situation.

What is Israel's tourism policy for the northern part of the Dead Sea, an area that lies beyond the Green Line and is not under Israeli sovereignty?

We are very cautious about construction there and try not to change the situation on the ground. There are no hotels and tourism infrastructure there, even though it's an area with amazing beaches that have maintained their wild character. It is heartbreaking that we can't develop the area, but even though I don't believe that the peace negotiations have much chance of success, I will not create facts there that could harm the faint chance that the talks will indeed succeed.