Meitar -  Eliahu Ben Igal - 07112011
The town of Meitar, a satellite of Be’er Sheva. Photo by Eliahu Ben Igal
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The good people of Arad and Dimona had thought government investment in their towns would be growing. They'll just have to keep waiting, it seems. The government would rather invest in building entirely new towns from scratch in the Negev instead.

A week ago Sunday, the government decided to proceed with a plan to develop the Negev by building 10 new towns. Among other things, that means tremendous investment in building infrastructure for electricity, water and sewage, and roads for all these new towns.

The government's resolution was based on a proposal submitted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Silvan Shalom, the minister in charge of regional development; and Moshe Ya'alon, minister of strategic affairs. Their aim in building a whole new residential hub is to strengthen non-central Israel and pursue the dream of cultivating the Negev. They presented their initiative as a way to increase the housing supply in Israel and thereby lower housing prices, the heavy cost of which is one of the key reasons that hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest this summer.

The new communities are intended to serve, in part, people who want a relatively pastoral - rather than hectic urban - lifestyle.

Also, the government resolution explicitly states that groups may build community towns if they wish to do so - which is another way of saying they will be able to bar unwanted other communities.

The new towns are also supposed to house the families of career soldiers whose bases are moving from central Israel to the Negev.

In keeping with past directives handed down by the attorney general, the location of any new town must be determined by the state planning committees, not the government.

Only two ministers tried to point out problems with building a whole new slew of towns: Gilad Erdan, minister of environmental affairs; and Michael Eitan, the minister in charge of improving government service to the citizen in Netanyahu's gargantuan cabinet. Both opposed the resolution to build new towns.

Right hand, left hand

Erdan said that the massive infrastructure works ruin open space of ecological importance, but that wasn't even his central argument. His main argument was that the plan contravenes the Trajtenberg recommendations, which the government accepted at the very same session at which it voted on the Negev development plan.

The Trajtenberg recommendations were drafted by a committee headed by national economic adviser Manuel Trajtenberg. Its mandate was to identify ills in the economic and social scene following the intense grassroots protests this summer, chiefly over the onerous cost of living and housing prices.

What the Trajtenberg committee recommended was that the state pour its efforts into fixing up and expanding existing urban areas, Erdan points out. The committee did not recommend that the state build a whole new expanse in the Negev. The Trajtenberg plans rely on existing public transport.

"Clearly a resolution to build a new bloc of towns does not contribute to realizing the report's recommendations. It is in utter contrast and its execution will just widen social gaps in the Negev and weaken the existing towns," Erdan said at that same cabinet session.

The existing towns will weaken because budgets will be moved from their development to building the infrastructure for new towns, he explained. Also, the new towns are likely to attract "strong" - meaning well-to-do - people who would otherwise have to move to the existing towns, the minister said. That sort of thing has happened in the Negev before, Erdan added, with the construction of Lehavim and Meitar by Be'er Sheva - neighborhoods featuring family homes rather than apartments.

Moreover, Erdan said at the government session, the cost of building these new towns has not been clarified, nor has the issue of where their residents would work.

As for the required investment, a study that the Environmental Protection Ministry commissioned two years ago looked at the cost of expanding existing towns as opposed to building new ones. It also looked at the costs of routine maintenance in both cases.

It costs 113% more to build a new housing unit when building a new non-central town from scratch than it does to build a new housing unit in an existing non-central town, the study concluded.

Building a new housing unit in a non-central town is 300% costlier than building a new housing unit in an existing centrally located city, the study found.

Both the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which also opposes the idea of the new towns dotting the desert, note that plans to expand existing towns have already passed approval processes. Thousands of families could be moved to new neighborhoods in existing towns such as Meitar and Kibbutz Kramim. No new towns need to be built, they argue, beyond the plans in existence for a new town named Carmit and the new Haredi city Kasif.

National planning authorities agree with Erdan's position. A series of master plans and policy statements in recent years prioritize expanding urban areas or towns over building new ones, in order to preserve open space and Israel's sparse land reserves. Another goal is to minimize the need for private transportation, which exacts an environmental cost. Also, the more roads that get built, the greater the disruption of the natural continuum and the greater the ensuing pollution.

A report prepared this year by the committee tracking the execution of National Master Plan 35, which lays down planning principles for 10 years, buttresses these views. "The motivation to establish new settlements usually originates in the desire of a defined, separate population group to live together," it states. "Some even add qualifications and explicitly bar the inclusion of outsiders. This trend will exacerbate the trends of segregation and polarization of Israeli society. Building new settlements means the spatial arrangement of a number of small settlements, encouraging the use of private transportation, and constraining the possibilities of using public transportation."

Based on this analysis, the committee recommended sharp curbs on building new towns.

Israeli governments in recent years have blithely ignored these recommendations. The government resolution last week to build new areas in the Negev is just an extension of the long list of new towns approved by the previous government in areas such as the Negev dunes and Lachish.