Olmert. Another affair
Photo: Reuters
Lindenstrauss. Another report
Photo: Gil Yohanan
Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel
Photo: Boaz Oppenheim

Olmert's involvement in tourism project criticized

State comptroller clashes with prime minister once again, releases new report stating that during his tenure as industry minister, Olmert pressured Investment Center to approve aid to extensive project in southern Israel

State comptroller vs. PM – new round. A State Comptroller's Report released Wednesday morning criticized Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's involvement in a tourism project in southern Israel during his tenure as industry, trade and labor minister.


The report focused on the Aquaria tourism project for the establishment of a recreation park in Kibbutz Eilot, north of Eilat.


"The interference and repeated pressure exerted by the industry, trade and labor minister's assistants in terms of the Investment Center's work, which may have been interpreted by professionals as an attempt to dictate a decision in a statutory and independent body, must be viewed with severity," State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote in the report.


"This incident is in addition to similar cases in which the then-industry minister, Mr. Ehud Olmert, intervened, whether directly or indirectly through his assistants, in the activity of the Investment Center," he added.


The Aquaria project, which is stuck and has not been implemented to this day, was slated to be one of the greatest tourism programs in Israel – a Disneyland-style recreation park spreading across 321 acres.


The State Comptroller's Office looked into the project for about a year. The report dealt with the performance of the Israel Land Administration and several of the ministries involved in the project.


The report revealed numerous fundamental flaws in the ministries' conduct in terms of the project.


Jordan out of the picture

The affair began in 1998. A group of American entrepreneurs initiated the establishment of a wide-scale project, spreading across 1,235 acres, which would include hotels and sports and recreational facilities in a joint Israeli-Jordanian plan, from Eilat and Aqaba up north.


The joint project failed, and in 2002 the entrepreneurs recommended to the Israeli government to implement the plan in Israel alone. The project was slated to serve as a recreation site for the entire family and to include a slew of attractions.


The comptroller stated that by the time the examination was concluded, in August 2007, the project's plans were approved by the planning institutions, the economic profitability checks ordered by the various ministries were complete, and the government agreed on a $30-million grant which the Aquaria company would receive from the State upon completing the project, in addition to other benefits. The Tourism Ministry, however, had yet to recommend that a grant be given.


The report described and criticized the pressures exerted in 2003 by Olmert's assistants during his tenure as industry, trade and labor ministry – Doron Shofen and current Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel.


'Abusing proper procedures'

The comptroller wrote in the report that a letter sent by Yehezkel to the Investment Center manager reveals "an attempt to predetermine that within a month positive decisions will be made in terms of the Aquaria company.


"Moreover, the letter was sent without completing the project's economic inpections, without a recommendation of the Tourism Ministry's investment committee and without a discussion and approval of the Investment Center administration."


The report states that "the State Comptroller's Office believes that Mr. Yehezkel's attempt to predetermine the results of a discussion in a statutory body is an abuse of proper procedures."


Yehezkel replied that his letter was aimed at briefing the minister on the progress made in the project, and was not an appeal or an attempt to tell the Investment Center's manager what to do.


The State Comptroller's Office noted that "the wording of Mr. Yehezkel's letter does not match his response."

Lindenstrauss and Olmert. New round (Photos: Gil Yohanan and Moshe Milner, GPO)


The second incident relates to one of the entrepreneur's appeal to Olmert to write a letter expressing his support for Aquaria, which will be sent to an American bank in regards to the project.


A month later, Shofen turned to the Investment Bank manager and asked him for a recommendation letter, which was never written. Shofen's representative responded that writing a support letter to an entrepreneur was a routine procedure.


The Prime Minister's Office said in response, "The report has been received and we will study it and its findings in the near future. We would like to note that a large number of ministries took part in the various planning stages of the Aquaria project, and after several feasibility checks, the Tourism and Finance Ministries agreed to promote this project. This was also the recommendation of different external experts, as revealed in the report.


"The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and its employees worked on this issue in accordance with this professional perception, and in cooperation with the other government ministries involved in the issue.


"The heads of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry at the time believed and still believe that it was their duty to promote such projects, and they have not changed their minds."


פרסום ראשון: 08.27.08, 10:50
 new comment
This will delete your current comment