A brief presentation, accompanied by much self-congratulatory verbiage from the prime minister and senior cabinet members, was the manner in which the public was informed on Sunday of the proposed reforms in planning and construction laws, reforms that could have a major impact on the future of Israeli society and the quality of life in this country.
No presentation, however, could hide the false pretenses of the proposed reforms.
This is no overthrow of the "bureaucratic monster," in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's phrasing, to achieve efficiency and transparency. There are many flaws in the planning system that could be tackled with intelligent changes and concessions, especially when it comes to licensing and the link between the planning authorities and social and environmental policies.
But the moves announced on Sunday, combined with the recent land privatization reforms, amount to the abolition of the control mechanisms and balances that exist in the current system.
What this means is that private real estate firms and local interests will gain control over our most precious public resource. Netanyahu is ideologically convinced that the privatization of land, and the watering down of the planning infrastructure to almost nothing, will achieve the social goals that he believes in.
Although he claims that the outcome of the reform will be greater transparency of the proceedings in planning committees, what he presented was a move that was conceived in almost total secrecy, without allowing the public, or even some ministers, to influence or change it.
He spoke of the inefficiency of the committees, but abolished the one that is tasked with preserving the coastal environment and that has proved efficient and has approved plans faster than required by law.
The reforms are purportedly to create an accessible supply of land for construction, but the heads of the planning system have repeatedly demonstrated that this supply has existed for years. Almost nothing was said about what the latest moves will do to the environment and the landscape.
Netanyahu may not have used the phrase "a robe of concrete and cement," that poet Nathan Alterman once wished upon an underdeveloped Israel, but there's no doubt that this is a plan for real estate developments and asphalt.
The new reforms will greatly expand the powers of local planning committees, practically permitting them to reshape most of the country's lands.
The reforms provide for public representatives on these panels and promises controls that will prevent corruption. However, these committees will be able to perpetuate uncontrolled suburbanization and commercial growth on agricultural land, in a democratic and perfectly legal manner.
They will not increase the planned supply of apartments for students and young couples, but mainly the supply for well-off families who will get yet another country home.
On the one hand, real estate interests and local planning bodies are being allowed to maximize the profits from the sale of land by means of privatization and authorization, and on the other hand there are those who claim that this will lead to reductions in housing prices.
The abolition of the committee for the preservation of coastal areas is more than a symbolic move. It entails the removal of protection over the most desirable tracts of land, and to a large extent takes the teeth out of the law for the protection of coastal areas, which are facing a grave threat of construction encroachment.
The proposal that is being submitted today to the cabinet committee on legislation in the form of amendments to the Planning and Construction Law states that this committee's planning powers are to be transferred to other planning institutions, but what Israel's seashore needs is not to be placed in the hands of bodies whose job it is to speed up the issuing of building permits. It needs uncompromising and total protection so that at least some of it will remain accessible to the public at large.
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