Hirchson Takes Aim at Mofaz on Open Skies Policy After Ukraine Spat

Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson will tomorrow demand that Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz adopt the open skies policy and allow regular and charter flights between Israel and Ukraine.

This follows a recent refusal by the ministry to allow an increase in flights from Ukraine, which is putting government investment in tourism from that country at risk.

Hirchson will tell Mofaz at the their meeting that the open skies policy is a powerful financial lever for development of tourism, for the increase of employment and fast growth of the economy, and these are central to the Arrangements Bill, which will soon be brought before the Knesset for approval.

Sources close to the minister emphasize that Hirchson turned down several suggestions which were raised in the Knesset Finance Committee to split the open skies legislation from the Arrangements Bill, and that therefore the matter will soon come before the Knesset.

Mofaz intends to raise the issue of the founding of a national authority to combat road accidents, and will demand funding for this, but Hirchson will rather emphasize the open skies policy, in the light of the Ukraine flights debacle.

The Ukraine flights issue came to the fore last Tuesday, when Arik Ben Ari, deputy head of the Civil Aviation Authority, which is part of the Transport Ministry, met his Ukrainian counterpart in Kiev to discuss the increasing the number of flights between Israel and Ukraine, owing to the demand from tourists in both countries. Many Ukrainians want to visit Israel to see the Christian holy sites, the sea and the sun, and also because of the 1.5 million Russian speakers who live in Israel and make the Ukrainians' stay here easier.

There is also great potential for Israeli tourism in Ukraine. Tens of thousands want to go to Uman, to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, but they can't do so because of the high price of flights. Likewise, Kiev and other places in Ukraine have become popular tourist destinations.

Despite this, only El Al and one Ukrainian carrier are allowed to operate flights between the two countries, and thus there is a chronic lack of seats and tickets cost $750.

The Civil Aviation Authority, which in fact does whatever El Al wants it to do, has never allowed charter flights to Kiev. Only under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties were the skies opened to charter flights during the high holidays for flights to Uman, but they do not take place the rest of the year.

The Ukrainian representative at the talks said it is time to open the skies, and allow other companies to operate regular flights between the two countries, and allow unlimited charter flights, and thus to promote tourism and help the two countries' economies.

But Ben Ari, as representative of the Transport Ministry, absolutely refused. Under some pressure, he agreed to add one charter flight per week, but the Ukrainian representative, who wanted much more, was insulted and broke off the talks. He said that "if Israel doesn't want them, then the Ukrainians will go to other countries for their vacations."

It turns out that recently the Tourism Ministry has spent a considerable amount of money on opening a tourist office in the Israeli Embassy in Kiev. Now this investment will go to waste, and rooms which have been booked in Israel will stay empty, unless Mofaz, the new transport minister, stops acting as El Al's representative, and starts advancing the Israeli economy by means of the open skies policy.