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  • PM vows to build rail to Eilat, two new cities in Negev desert
Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians promised the moon on Tuesday to develop the Negev, but regional leaders were still skeptical they would see any real results. Among other promises Netanyahu made at the third Negev Conference in Eilat yesterday was to build two new towns in the Arava and "a train that would connect Asia to Europe."

After opening his comments with praise for the naval commandos who captured the ship carrying arms yesterday, Netanyahu also spoke of the four main steps his government is taking to promote the Negev: Stopping the wave of illegal immigrants by building a fence along the Egyptian border, moving IDF bases to the south, building a fast train line to Eilat and reducing bureaucracy.

"Our problem is that only 10% of the population lives on over 60% of the area of the country. The Galilee and Negev have not received the required push for development. The rising housing prices should be motivating people to live in the Negev and Galilee," said Netanyahu.

The prime minister added that the population of the Negev is changing due to the large number of illegal immigrants infiltrating into the area - and elsewhere in Israel - from across the Egyptian border, and this has taken jobs away from Israelis. Netanyahu also said these illegal immigrants threaten Israel's status as a Jewish and democratic state. "Every country has the right to defend its borders," he said.

The premier said the best way to improve the economy of the Negev was to enable citizens to get there. "For this we need roads and trains. We have already done that with Be'er Sheva and it generated change. Now I have decided to promote the train to Eilat, which will connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. We do not intend to replace the Suez Canal, but I have noticed Egypt is also building a railway line, and if they are doing it, why shouldn't we?" he said.

"We want to connect the markets of Asia to the markets in Europe, and at the same time connect the minerals of the Dead Sea to Europe," he said.

"In addition, we may build a city or two in the Arava," he added. "Not maybe, we will do it. Today the trend is to build in the desert since there is air conditioning. In the U.S. there are two cities that succeeded greatly in the desert: Phoenix and Las Vegas," Netanyahu added.

Peres: All I got wrong was the timing

"They laughed at me when I talked about a new Middle East," said President Shimon Peres at the conference. "If I made a mistake, it was only in the timing. Look at what is happening around [us]. Gadhafi can try to survive, but he has no future," said Peres.

Peres said the world will be completely different in 10 years. "The day is not far away when there will be peace, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan will also find new opportunities in the Negev, and that will be a great lever for tourism," he added. Peres said the Negev can be a center for solar energy and desalination that would enable covering the entire Negev - and Sinai - with agriculture.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who is also the regional development minister and the minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, said Israel had neglected the Negev for years. He said it was necessary to put education, immigrant absorption, health, welfare and infrastructure before defense. He called on Netanyahu, who was sitting in the audience, to finally carry out moving the IDF to the south. He also called for building a new international airport at Nevatim, outside Be'er Sheva, and extending the railroad to the new airport. Shalom said the state is also building a new motor sports park and golf course in the south, which will create jobs in the leisure industry, "projects which will bring about change."

Ad exec: Brand the Negev the new Sahara

IDF deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, presented the IDF's plans for the Negev to the conference. He said GDP in the Negev would rise NIS 6 billion a year because of the army and its move to the south, and by 2017 there would be 25,000 more soldiers in the area. He said the move would also free up land in the center of the country for some 20,000 new housing units.

Advertising executive Reuven Adler proposed branding the Negev internationally, such as is done for the Sahara Desert with the Paris-Dakar road rally. He said it brought more tourists to Morocco last year than to Turkey. For example, he said, as a result of the unrest in Egypt, Italian tourists canceled their trips to the Sinai - but instead of coming to Israel they went to the Dominican Republic.

Be'er Sheva Mayor Rubik Danilovich was very excited and said high-tech company EMC had just told him on Monday it would hire 140 engineers in the city and the Negev. He said he hoped to announce soon that two more large and important companies would also be moving to the city and hiring.