JERUSALEM (Dec. 2)
Twenty-two Israelis of Cabinet rank visited 94 countries on 84 junkets abroad in the 14 months since the Labor-Likud unity coalition government was formed, and at least one Knesset member has asked, were those trips necessary?
Yossi Sarid of the opposition Civil Rights Movement (CRM) raised the question in the context of Israel’s severe economic difficulties which the government seeks to solve by drastically cutting expenditures and urging greater productivity. He noted that apart from the costs of their journeys borne by the taxpayers, the ministers’ travels occupied collectively 812 working days.
Deputy Finance Minister Adi Amorai, responding to Sarid, noted that overseas trips by senior government officials have declined significantly since the government introduced its austerity economic program last May. Before that, the government approved 482 out of 544 requests by ministers and senior officials to travel abroad. Since the belttightening, there have been only 148 requests and only 92 were approved, Amorai said.
AN IRONIC WELCOME HOME
The issue, long simmering, flared anew a week ago when Minister of Tourism Avraham Sharir returned from a 24-day trip to the U.S. and other countries. He was sharply criticized by the public and the press for staying away longer than he was authorized to by the Cabinet and because his absence coincided with the international conference on tourism of the Skol travel agents in Jerusalem which, normally, the Minister of Tourism would have hosted.
When Sharir landed at Ben Gurion Airport a week ago, newspaper reporters handed him a wreath of flowers bound with ribbon bearing the words, “Welcome to Israel.” The irony, not lost on the minister, infuriated him. At a Cabinet meeting the next day, Sharir told his colleagues that his presentation with a “funeral wreath” was an act tantamount with undermining the foundations of the State.
In a statement issued later through the Government Press Office, Sharir said the criticism of his trip went beyond acceptable limits. “Not one of my critics took the trouble to find out the details of my trip and how carefully it was planned,” the statement said. Sharir explained that he had working meetings with tourism representatives and had addressed Jewish congregations and community leaders on the importance of tourism to Israel, especially since it has lagged badly since the Achille Lauro hijack in October.