12/01/2011 04:04

Eilat, Atlit salt-drying flats won’t be rezoned for private construction.
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Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein announced Wednesday the state intends to annul a controversial agreement between the Israel Lands Authority and the Dankner family-controlled company Israel Salt Industries Ltd regarding use of plots of land in Atlit and Eilat.

In response to a High Court of Justice petition filed in 2003 by the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Movement for Quality Government and the NGO Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow – New Discourse, lawyer Aner Helman wrote on behalf of the attorney-general that the finance minister will not approve the agreement.

The petition addresses the highly controversial “salt deal” agreement between the ILA and the salt company, and calls on the court to revoke it.

The deal, which caused considerable public controversy at the time, aimed to rezone two different plots of land in Eilat and Atlit from saltdrying pools to residential construction.

The NGOs were prompted to file the petition when, in October 2003, the ILA gave Israel Salt Industries 30 percent of building rights on the Eilat plot and 50% of rights on the Atlit plot – and also gave Dankner’s company the rights to a third tract of land for a salt plant.

The potential value of the land following its rezoning for residential construction projects was estimated as being far in excess of its value as salt-drying pans, and most of the income from the plots would go to the Dankner family via Israel Salt Industries.

However, the agreement never went into force because the finance minister never signed it. In 2006, then acting prime minister Ehud Olmert who was also finance minister at that time, agreed to sign the ILA decision approving the deal, but withdrew his signature when the High Court issued an injunction saying Olmert could not approve the deal since he was technically chairman of the ILA.

The “salt deal” hit the headlines once again in April 2010 when the Movement for Quality Government asked the court to finally begin hearing the petition, after police arrested Danny Dankner, head of Israel Salt Industries, and Yaakov Efrati, former director of the ILA over alleged bribery and corruption connected with the “salt deal.”

Police suspected Dankner of paying about NIS 1.3 million in bribes to former ILA chairman Efrati, to ensure the land in Atlit and Eilat could be converted into profitable real estate developments.

Two months afterwards, in June 2010, the state told the High Court the police investigation into the Holyland real estate scandal was linked to the so-called “salt deal” because several of the individuals involved in the Holyland affair were also involved in the Salt Industries scandal. As a result, the High Court delayed any further hearings into the petition.

In May this year, the Tel Aviv district attorney’s office notified six companies, among them Israel Salt Industries, that it may file indictments against them, subject to a hearing, regarding their alleged involvement in the Holyland affair.

However, the petitioners argued that the court should hear the civil case, despite the criminal investigation.

In September, the court issued an injunction ordering the state to “present an explanation regarding why it has not made any decision about the validity of the agreement between the ILA and Israel Salt Industries.”

In the state’s response to the High Court on Wednesday, lawyer Aner Helman wrote on behalf of the attorney-general the ILA’s decision to approve the agreement was invalid because the finance minister had never approved it. The state suspected, Helman continued, that there had been “serious flaws” in the decision-making process and added that “the attorney-general has come to the conclusion that there is no alternative but to bring the entire agreement for reexamination and rediscussion.”

The state also informed the High Court that the state attorney’s office has sent letters to various individuals involved in the agreement, including former ILA chairman Yaakov Efrati, summoning them to a hearing and informing them of the state’s intent to prosecute them subject to that hearing, although of course no decision has yet been made as to whether anyone will be indicted over the affair.

In response, SPNI welcomed the court’s decision.

“SPNI congratulates the state on taking the right decision, finally, after many years of being dragged from defect to defect, from bad to worse, in terms of the salt ponds deal,” SPNI lawyer Hagit Helmer said.