Ariel Atias: One minister for all
It probably wasn't the reaction that Ariel Atias was hoping for when he told TheMarker a month ago that he'd "flood the country with plots of land" in order to depress home prices.
Last week, the new housing and construction minister held a festive press conference to announce that 5,300 apartments would be put on the market. Yet to his shock, he found himself lashed by criticism, after it turned out about half of the land was in Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Gat. Both cities in recent years have been identified with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector.
Most of the rest of the land was in "low-demand" areas - nobody wants to go there.
Clearly, that wasn't what the market had been expecting.
"Contractors heard what he had to say and snorted," said a source in the real estate business. "For years Beit Shemesh has been considered out of the question for those who are not Haredi. In Kiryat Gat, the only people buying land in Israel Lands Administration tender offers in recent years have been ultra-Orthodox Gur Hasidim."
Anyone hoping for something more relevant as a solution to the perennial land shortage in Israel's crowded center was likely underwhelmed by the "flood" of 12 apartments in Tel Aviv or 130 apartments in Netanya, the source added.
By a coincidence of timing, or perhaps not, one day after the press conference, the National Planning and Building Council was to debate the plan which Atias, who is from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was promoting to establish Harish. That's a new city for the Haredi sector in the predominantly Arab Wadi Ara area of the north.
Critics needed no more to label Atias another ultra-Orthodox party politician who was looking after only his constituency.
"It's impossible to escape the feeling that Atias is looking after only the ultra-Orthodox sector," said a senior real estate industry official. "On one hand, he's saying from every dais that he wants to flood the country with plots of land and thereby lower apartment prices. But in practice, the only ones benefiting from his great efforts are the ultra-Orthodox. What about the secular public? Israeli government ministers are supposed to look after every sector of the population."
Atias has heard the complaints, and they ruffle him. But he says that " It's not true."
So you don't just look after the ultra-Orthodox sector?
"I am not hiding, and will not do so in the future, that it's part of my job to look after the Haredi sector. But do I only look after them, ignoring secular people? That's far from the truth."
The land that was offered for sale and the attention to Harish benefit only the ultra-Orthodox sector.
"It's important to make the facts clear. All of the land being offered for sale at this time was land that we had [in stock], ready for sale. There is no land here that was designated after I became minister, because we haven't yet gotten to that stage. It will take a little more time. For that reason alone, I don't understand how it can be said that I am working for the benefit of the Haredi sector.
"I must stress that anyone saying we're only selling land in Beit Shemesh to Haredim, is saying things that aren't true.
"The plan in Beit Shemesh is for three sectors: the secular, the national religious community and the ultra-Orthodox.
"The Beit Shemesh land tenders are zoned only for big apartments. I'd like to see young couples from the Haredi sector buying big 120-square meter apartments. It can't happen. People claiming it's all for the Haredim don't know what they're talking about. They don't know the plans.
"Anyone who understands the field has to know the only area in all of the current [land for sale] directed only to Haredim is the land in the Guggenheim neighborhood of Kiryat Gat. Even in that case, we're not talking about new land, but rather an area where there were two public tenders that failed in the past."
Our real estate market veteran was not impressed with Atias' arguments.
"His actions speak louder than his words. He shouldn't say the land in Beit Shemesh is also directed to secular people, because secular people won't go there. Everyone knows that. If after so much discussion about the difficulties of the secular public, what we are seeing from the minister is marketing of land to Haredim, then he shouldn't complain about critics."
Atias isn't the first housing minister to seek to establish Harish. It was Ariel Sharon who many years ago spoke of creating the city.
Three years ago, when Meir Sheetrit of Kadima was housing and construction minister, it was he who designated the city for the ultra-Orthodox and tried to promote the project, without success. His successor, Ze'ev Boim, also of Kadima, continued the efforts to establish the city.
Nonetheless, it appears that Atias, either because he is new to the post and energetic or because he belongs to the ultra-Orthodox sector, is working more vigorously than his two predecessors to establish Harish.
Atias though is taken aback by that suggestion.
"Sheetrit is the one who initiated the idea that Harish be a Haredi city, and after him, Boim also supported the idea. So to say that I work only for the benefit of my sector is simply a distortion. Do you know that every year there are 5,000 Haredi couples who get married and have nowhere to live? There is terrible distress in this sector. In Betar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit [both Haredi towns in the West Bank], they have stopped construction and in Bnei Brak there is already no space.
"I've said it in the past and I say it again: I don't think populations can be mixed together. A Haredi population needs to live in locations with other Haredim, so we don't descend to sectarian violence, as is happening right now in Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem. And then there is the whole matter of demonstrations on the weekends over the [Jerusalem] parking garage. I advocate the separation of population groups as a healthy solution.
"If Harish is not built, more and more [ultra-Orthodox] couples from Bnei Brak will drift into other places in the Tel Aviv area, simply because they have no place else, and therefore promoting the establishment of Harish is also in the interest of secular people."
Atias promises that soon we will know that he is housing minister for everyone : In the coming months, many new public tenders are scheduled to be published.
"They will be primarily in Rosh Ha'ayin, in a new neighborhood where 12,000 apartments will be built," Atias said. "In the coming stage," he added, "we will release land for construction of 4,500 apartments - for secular people. So do I look after the Haredim? I send them to Wadi Ara [to Harish] and I house the secular people in the center of the country, 20 minutes from Tel Aviv.
"In Rishon Letzion we will also release land soon for 1,000 apartments, but it's not magic. It is not the work of robots but of people, and we are devoting a lot of effort at this time in planning so we can offer large amounts [of land] for sale, so as to bring about an increase in supply."