As the Green Prophet’s resident suburbs commentator, I read with interest this week that part of newly elected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s economic plan includes privatizing the Israel Lands Administration. The ILA was established in Israel’s first Basic Law (1960) as the keeper of the land of the Jewish people. To date, 93 percent of land in Israel is under the jurisdiction of the ILA, which historically has given this government body a tremendous say in how the land is developed.
Netanyahu heralded the change, saying it “will end the dependence on inefficient and burdensome bureaucratic mechanisms,” and also “reduce the price of land and, correspondingly, the prices of apartments, putting them within the price range of young couples and newly discharged soldiers.”
But the privatizing the ILA will likely trigger a suburbanization free-for-all, as has-been farmers rush to cash in on their lands that are suddenly worth a great deal of money.
For some background, in Israel’s first few years, the agriculture-oriented government made every effort to protect farmland against urban sprawl. Farmers leasing land from the ILA could not subdivide or build non-agricultural structures on it. New settlements had to be agricultural and collective in design. Any variation from these norms required crossing yards and yards of red tape and the approval of several committees (for more detail check out Amiram Gonen or Israeli geographer Eran Feitelson’s 1999 article in The Journal of Rural Studies).
But farming’s prestige has been declining since the late 1970s, and farmland protection has diminished with it. This has resulted in suburban-style communities popping up in the West Bank, the Galilee, the Negev, and in the extension neighborhoods of moshavim and kibbutzim. However, these new communities still face plenty of bureaucracy. Would-be new suburbanites have to get ILA approval to live in moshavim, and the amount of land that has been released for construction is limited.
Privatizing the ILA will gradually remove these constraints. Farmers’ long-term leases will turn into title deeds, and their lands will be able to go from fields to tract housing.
Haaretz’s Zafrir Rinat writes:
“The move to privatize land and the spread of construction to agricultural lands will have far-reaching social and economic implications. It is an unprecedented incentive to weaken Israel’s urban centers, whose “strong” populations and businesses will leave for houses in the country and employment nearby. It is also a huge waste of the infrastructure that will have to be thrown far and wide to serve all the construction that will develop with the privatization and rezoning of land.”
A scathing opinion in Maariv is here (Hebrew).
One of the most surprising elements of this vast reform is that it has been proposed as part of the Economics Arrangements Law, which allows for speedy Knesset approval rather than a longer approval process that would invite more public debate.
The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense has also harshly criticized the move in this position paper (Hebrew), saying that the reform
“…is likely to create a shortage in the state’s land reserves, to reduce the state’s ability to provide for the needs of the public, and to bring unnecessary harm to the open spaces in Israel … There is indeed a need to reform the management of Israeli lands, but the government must create a deep, transparent and educated decision making process.”
Privatizing the ILA may create some new players on the Israeli economic field – theoretically, privatizing the land takes it out of collective Jewish ownership, and therefore Arab real estate developers could also benefit. However, the real winners of this deal will be the farmers who will now own the land (largely Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis of European descent), the developers who make a killing on building new homes, and the banks that get thousands of new mortgages. Losers include weaker cities and anyone who likes open space unmarred by car-dependent subdivisions and their accompaniments, like highways and strip malls.
From a quick scan of Israeli green organizations, the IUED seems to be the only one with a timely response to this issue. If you want to get involved, I would read up on the issue, contact the IUED and write letters to Israeli papers like the Jerusalem Report, the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.
(Photo from the Association of Architects in Israel, http://www.arc.org.il/)