POLITICS
"Nobody is above the law in Israel" - Israeli Amb. Speaks out about Visa-free regime controversy
07 March, 2017
The visa-free regime between Israel and Georgia was, and is, rightfully considered a huge step toward closer ties between two nations that share a 26-century history of fraternity and friendship. There may be many a thing you can accuse Georgians of, but Anti-Semitism would probably be at the very end of that list. Therefore, cries from deported Georgians that they were treated with disrespect at the Israeli border caused quite an uproar in Georgian media and society recently.

Wanting to
hear both sides of the story, and from a reliable source at that, Panorama TV Show and GEORGIA TODAY spoke with the Israeli Ambassador to Georgia, Shabtai Tsur, who opted for a rather straightforward approach to the issue.

Serving in his second term as Ambassador (his first was in 2005-2008), Tsur was born and raised in Georgia, in the Vani region, and, in his youth, went by name Shota Tsotsiashvili. The Vani native left Georgia when he was 21 to study in Russia, before permanently moving to Israel. He now boasts 32 years of public service, having held posts as Advisor to the Prime Minister on Georgia and the South Caucasus, Honorary Consul of Georgia in Israel and, as mentioned, Ambassador. His second coming to his second homeland, as he calls Georgia, has, however, been somehow overshadowed by the recent deportation controversies, and he was keen to explain just what is going on at the Israeli border for Georgians.

“First of all, let’s talk numbers,” he says, visibly eager to underline the pros of the visa-free regime that was considered a major boon from Israel. “In 2015, around 70,000 tourists came here from Israel. In 2016, that number grew to 100,000. Similarly, more than 13,000 tourists visited Israel from Georgia. What we see from those numbers is a mutually beneficial tourist flow between our two countries. “

However, there are challenges and problems, too, a fact he’s willing to admit. “There are three types of tourist coming from Georgia,” he says. “First, the ‘real’ tourist, those that come and go back. Second and third, however, are more problematic – these are people who seek to work there, often illegally, or ask for asylum.”

“In 2016, when we looked at the statistics we were quite confused,” he confesses. “The numbers of those who illegally remained in Israel and asked for asylum had dramatically increased.” Looking at numbers wasn’t the only thing they did, though: a few weeks ago, Israel promptly recognized Georgia as a country of safe origin, which effectively rules out getting asylum in Israel on grounds of persecution or discrimination in Georgia.

“Nobody is above the law in Israel – not the prime minister, not the president, nobody. And that certainly includes tourists from Georgia,” Tsur says. According to his logic, an Israeli border guard shouldn’t be above the law, either, so how about investigating those claims from Georgian travelers that caused such a public outcry here?

“Every concrete issue will be looked at. The embassies of both countries, and foreign ministries – all of this is being discussed at the highest level. We are working very hard to make such things happen less and less often. Each and every complaint is monitored by the Georgian Consulate. And don’t get me wrong- I don’t deny anything; it’s possible somebody at the border made a mistake. When, out of 100 % of travelers, 80 % seems to be trying to stay illegally and engage in illegal activities, 1 or 2 % mistakes are to be expected. As bad as it is, such things happen in every country, at every crowded border. But rest assured, we’ll investigate every single issue,” he promises. And, he says, the tourist flow between the two countries is only going to get bigger.

“In 2017, there will be literally 100 flights per month. It’s really, really busy. So, no matter what some people might say, the visa-free regime between Israel and Georgia is doing just fine, and will continue to do so. The relationship between Israel and Georgia is as steady as ever,” he concludes reassuringly.

Vazha Tavberidze
Source: Georgia Today
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