French Aliyah Drive Turns Into Junket for Israel's Periphery

Kiryat Gat, Beit She’an, Nahariya among bloated delegations to Paris immigration fair.

 A woman lights candles in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes in Paris January 21, 2015.
A woman lights candles in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes in Paris January 21, 2015.Credit: Reuters

To mark the 30th day since the deadly terror attack at the kosher supermarket in Paris, an Israeli immigration fair was held in the French capital last week. The Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, Silvan Shalom, joined a delegation of Israeli mayors. According to a press release issued by the ministry, which organized the event, Shalom and the mayors met with thousands of French Jews and described the benefits offered to new immigrants in each community.

But Haaretz has discovered that a number of the mayors brought along entourages comprising city officials and employees whose jobs do not necessarily have anything to do with the purpose of the trip, and apparently all on the dime of the respective municipalities.

The delegation from Kiryat Gat, for example, included at least five people, including mayor Aviram Dahari, his aide, the city engineer and two interpreters, as well as several council members. According to the chairman of the opposition on the city council, Haim Abargel, two days before the delegation flew to Paris the council was convened to approve the travel, but councillors were not told that the city, and not the ministry as many assumed, was paying. Abargel said that Dahari phoned him only after the meeting to explain that the city would be paying the travel expenses.

Beit She’an’s delegation to the fair consisted of Mayor Rafael Ben-Shitrit, the city treasurer and the mayor’s driver. A council member, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity, said that such a delegation should have included the city’s adviser on foreign relations, its immigration coordinator or the head of human resources, not a driver and the treasurer, adding that if they did not pay their own way it was an improper use of public funds.

Nahariya Mayor Jackie Sabag took along the city manager and the head of security, who according to the municipality is also Sabag’s aide. “Nahariya has a budget deficit and huge loans to pay off, and still the mayor and senior officials go on a junket abroad at taxpayers’ expense,” said Eyal Weizer, councillor and head of the Green Party in Nahariya. He said financial mismanagement and wasteful spending was the main reason for the city’s high municipal taxes and economic problems.

Beit She’an and Kiryat Gat are also carrying heavy budget deficits. In November, Ben-Shitrit told Haaretz that when he became mayor in 2013, the deficit was 150 million shekels ($38.5 million). Kiryat Gat currently has a deficit of some 20 million shekels and more than 100 million shekels in outstanding loans.

Last week’s trip to France was not Ben-Shitrit’s first as mayor of Beit She’an with the same entourage. About a year ago the treasurer and the driver joined him on a fund-raising trip.

A month after Sabag was elected mayor of Nahariya, in October 2013, he, his deputy and the city’s head of culture and foreign relations went to Miami, Florida for three weeks for a tour by a local band. When Israel Channel 2 television news broke the story, the city claimed that the municipality picked up just 60,000 shekels of the tab.

Other mayors from the Galilee and Negev who attended the Paris fair came alone or with one other person. The other communities represented at the Paris fair, with delegations of one or two people only, were Tiberias, Upper Nazareth, Eilat, Dimona, Netivot and Yavne’el.

In a statement, the Nahariya municipality said the trip was approved in advance by the city council and that in the course of the visit city officials met and spoke with a large number of French Jews who expressed great interest in immigrating to Israel.

“It is not clear to us why you are focusing on petty issues, as your questions would suggest, instead of the main thing, which is the attempt to aid the Jews of France, who at this time are feeling threatened due to the growing anti-Semitism and increasing number of Muslims in that country, and to bring about their immigration to Israel while creating a connection between them and the local governments that are interested in absorbing them and welcoming them in the best way possible,” Nahariya’s response continued.

No response was received from Beit She’an or Kiryat Gat to the questions sent by Haaretz.

The Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee said in a response that it offered all the mayors and regional council heads in the Negev and the Galilee the opportunity to join the fair, adding, “The local authorities were the ones who decided, voluntarily, which of them would take part. The local governments paid the trip’s expenses.”

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