Border Control / The Airport That Nearly Got Off the Ground

The state comptroller's review of the preparedness of airports to deal with terrorism exposed a plan for the construction of an airport in Timna - which was well underway despite the reservations of the security establishment.

Instead of the letter of complaint he sent to the attorney general, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should have sent flowers to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss yesterday. Were it not for the alertness of the state comptroller's staff, it is doubtful the prime minister would have had the chance to meet the king of Jordan. And were it not a matter that could have ended with a loud explosion of a civilian plane and of ties with the king of Jordan, one could even find it funny. Perhaps because of its dry title - "Decision-making procedures regarding construction of the Timna airport" - this chapter in the latest State Comptroller's Report, which was published last week, did not merit the attention it deserved. This is one of the rare cases in which the state comptroller caught a debacle still underway and grounded it before it had the chance to take off with a bundle of damages and a wad of cash. It comes as an answer to critics of the comptroller's "hyperactivity."

It all started in early 2006, when the members of the State Comptroller's Office security unit decided to review the preparedness of airports to deal with "terror from the skies." This is also how they arrived at the plans for the scheduled construction of an airport in the vicinity of Ramat Timna, which is about 20 kilometers north of Eilat. The economic-social cabinet headed by then finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to build the airport on February 24, 2004 in accordance with the recommendation of then transportation minister Avigdor Lieberman. The cost of planning and building the airport was estimated to be over $200 million. In a letter sent to the cabinet secretary ahead of the meeting, Lieberman wrote, "after several alternate sites for building the airport were considered, all the relevant parties in the matter, including planning officials, agreed to locate the new airfield in Ramat Timna."

In response to one of the ministers' questions about the agreements regarding Israel's use of the airport in Aqaba, Lieberman said he objected to such use, because "we will lose all of the tourists to Jordan." It is unclear whether the transportation minister, who went on to become minister for strategic affairs, was aware of the agreement signed with Jordan in August 1997 regarding cooperation on international flights to Aqaba airport. In the wake of that agreement, international flights operated for six months for passengers flying to Eilat via Aqaba. Opinion is divided about the success of this trial, but the idea is alive and breathing as part of the Peace Canal project approved lately by the cabinet.

The first (and last) meeting with the Jordanians about the Timna airport took place in February 2005, a year after the economic cabinet's decision to go ahead with the project. The comptroller reveals that a few days after the head of the Civil Aviation Administration and Foreign Ministry officials met with their Jordanian colleagues, a telegram was dispatched from the Israeli embassy in Amman to the Foreign Ministry, which left no room for doubt as to the plan's impact on ties with Jordan. "We expect a response from the Jordanian Foreign Ministry that will not be mild," warned the Israeli ambassador, "as according to their interpretation, this indicates a retreat from implementing something that was agreed upon in the peace agreement."

And, indeed, it was not more than a few days before the Jordanian foreign minister contacted then prime minister Ariel Sharon and asked him to revert to implementing the Aqaba-Eilat agreement. While Sharon directed the director general of his office to look into the matter, engineering firms worked diligently on planning the airfield in Timna prior to submitting the plans to the planning committees.

In May 2005, the Israeli ambassador to Jordan sent another document to the Foreign Ministry. "The king considers it of great importance to implement the joint airport project," wrote the Israeli diplomat. "Even those who reject any possibility of a joint airport project must understand that presenting the Timna airfield project to the Jordanians, before the discussion of the previously mentioned Jordanian request has been completed, would be a mistake (at least tactically) as we are doing so for the purpose of coordination and we need their cooperation." An internal auditor at the Foreign Ministry informed the comptroller that there was no dialogue with the government of Jordan.

No coordination with Jordan

The comptroller found that on the military level as well, there was no coordination either with the Jordanians, and this despite the fact that a document from the operations department of the General Staff dating from May 2005 stipulated that "the IDF response to the construction of an airport and its proximity to the Jordanian border will require agreements and security arrangements to be made with the Jordanians" and that "it is necessary to coordinate with and obtain the consent of the Jordanians for the construction of the airport as part of our defense approach."

The defense minister's representative on the district planning and construction committee, Lieutenant Colonel Sigalit Sapir, also pointed out to the chairman of the Southern District Planning and Construction Committee in August 2005 that "it is our duty to present you with the security risks and dangers that will be created after the construction of the Timna airport ... it will be necessary to coordinate with the Jordanians and obtain their consent for the construction of the airport."

After all that, she stated, "the security establishment will not object to construction of an airport at the Timna site, while attempting to deal with the security problems stemming from the location of the airport."

The planning progressed and the money poured in. The comptroller distributed a draft of the report to the government ministries in June 2006, a minute before the heavy equipment was to enter the site and upset the Jordanians. The draft version was distributed shortly after the Interior Ministry's district committee approved the plan, and just before the plan was to be published in Reshumot, the government gazette. It was after engineers had raked in NIS 14 million, but moments before the contractors started to collect the $200 million. The head of the IDF's oversight department said in response to the draft that "in light of the increasing activity of the world jihad movement in Jordan, the IDF's recommendation is not to build the airport on the proposed site."

Interior Minister Roni Bar-On ordered a temporary halt in the statutory process to approve construction of the airport and then transportation minister Shaul Mofaz decided to freeze the project until further notice. Perhaps he saw the following lines in the draft: "The importance should be stressed of continuing to maintain and develop the peace treaty with Jordan whose strategic significance in the existing reality obligates us to make a supreme effort to continue to adhere to it while constantly trying to enhance our relationship with them," which appeared in the summary of the annual intelligence assessments presented to the cabinet in February 2006 and was signed by Shaul Mofaz.

Winograd is not alone. The terms "failure," which stars in the report on the shortcomings of the internal coordination and decision-making during the Second Lebanon War also adorns the comptroller's report on the Timna airport.

"Due to the serious failure in the staff work and presentation of data," he writes, "it is only fitting that the driving forces - primarily the IDF, the National Security Council's counter-terrorism unit and the Transportation Ministry - conduct a thorough review of the work processes on the organizational level and on the personal level that led to this failure."

The march of folly within the house started already in late 2003, three months before Lieberman presented the plan to the economic cabinet. In a letter to the transportation minister and to the director general of the Airports Authority dated November 2003, the head of the security wing of the Shin Bet security service recommended a review of the location of the Timna airport, explaining that based on the data presented to him, there was "a considerable security problem with the location of the planned new airport."

From the minutes of the economic cabinet's meeting, it appears that the director general of the Airports Authority, Gabi Ofir, pointed out to the committee that the Shin Bet had expressed reservations about the Timna airport's proximity to the international border.

The Shin Bet representative argued, on the other hand, that the Airports Authority officials had informed him "the location that was designated is final and this despite the above threat." In a discussion in March 2005, the head of the southern area in the IDF operations department noted that the operations department objected to the construction of the airport. The head of the Transportation Ministry's Civil Aviation Authority stated at the time that he, too, did not support the Timna option because of its proximity to the border on the east and to the mountains on the west.

The head of the Interior Ministry's southern district argued that the district committee was unaware of the numerous positions and opinions in the defense establishment. The Transportation Ministry confirmed that "the location of the airport is not optimal (to put it mildly)."

A matter of law and order

On March 20, Haaretz reported that Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's spokesman had said no one had informed the minister of the March 2005 cabinet decision, which was revived upon the formation of the Olmert-Peretz government, in which the justice minister automatically becomes the chairman of a ministerial committee to implement the report on outposts (the Sasson report). In any case, he was unaware that he had to convene the committee, which was to have submitted its recommendations within 90 days. The cabinet secretary, Yisrael Maimon, later told Haaretz that he spoke with Friedmann and clarified the matter with him. The minister's media adviser, Tzahi Moshe, refused at the time to respond to the question of whether the minister who carried the banner of the rule of law and order had taken it upon himself to implement the cabinet decision to head the committee for law enforcement in the West Bank. What has happened since then? The minister's adviser: "The matter has still not been finalized."