Israeli Health Minister pulls plug on Knesset vote to create more ‘tourist islands’

The Health Ministry appears to be fighting its own coalition’s decision to help revive the tourism industry.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein stopped a Knesset meeting mid-vote on Monday that would have declared popular Israeli spots for tourists as special “tourist islands” in order to help revive the industry hardest hit by the pandemic.

The government had agreed in its proposed bill, which passed its first reading two weeks ago, to include only Eilat, a tourist city on the coast of the Red Sea, and Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea, as “tourist islands.”

But the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee then inserted language that would allow the government to proclaim other popular sites as “tourist islands” as well.

The committee’s goal was to allow more more attractions, restaurants, hotels and other tourist-related businesses to benefit from the bill.

Edelstein argued that this went too far and would endanger the public’s health, but his amendment to keep the law limited to two of the hottest tourist sites in the country failed 49-46. The government then pulled the bill from going to a second and third reading. Three readings are required to pass a bill into law in Israel’s parliament.

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“Unfortunately, populism won out,” he said. “I’ll return the bill under conditions that won’t endanger the residents of Eilat and the rest of the country.”

MK Yaakov Asher, chair of the Law and Constitution Committee, said that the new language only evened the playing field for all tourist sites and was based on logic.

“To maintain the principle of equality, the committee demanded that the law explicitly establish criteria that justify the declaration [of being a green zone] and the concomitant side-benefits, and that every region that fulfills those criteria could also be declared a special tourist zone by the government,” he said.

Meir Yitzchak Halevy, Eilat’s mayor, said the government would “bear the responsibility for the destructive consequences of this decision.”

Several Israeli media outlets, including Kan News, Globes and Calcalist, have petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to force the government to release the cabinet protocols regarding the pandemic fight for the sake of transparency. They argue that the government shouldn’t be allowed to keep the information classified as it’s not a matter of national security.