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MK Ephraim Sneh (Labor) is very worried about the situation of farmers in Israel. In order to prevent a weakening of their connection to the land, he has submitted a proposal for a law to anchor the farmers' rights to the land. The law would allow them to "sow" up to three housing units on every holding, and to "plant" commercial buildings to the total of 500 square meters. Under the proposal, it will be possible to rent out the buildings and enable other people share the experience of country life - in the shadow of warehouses and small industrial plants.

Today the Knesset Economics Committee is slated to discuss Sneh's law in advance of its first reading. The proposal has already won the support of the government, and taking into account the considerable influence of representatives of the agricultural sector, it has quite a good chance of progressing rapidly toward final approval.

Sneh's law deviates from the consensus on the issue of farmers' rights, which is shared by social and environmental organizations that have fought decisions granting benefits in land rights to the moshavim and the kibbutzim. According to this consensus, it is necessary to anchor the agriculturalists' rights to a residence and to grant benefits and incentives to those who continue to cultivate the land. However, representatives of the farming sector who have been involved in formulating the law proposal are not satisfied with this and want to get as much as possible out of the land asset.

Sneh did not try to be original, and cobbled together a proposal almost exactly identical to a decision of the Israel Lands Administration, Number 979, from two years ago, which was also formulated under the influence of the agricultural lobby. His proposal grants the possibility of building extensively on lands, up to 375 square meters for residential purposes on plot with an area of 2.5 dunams. It enables a farmer to split the residential units from the farm holding and transfer the rights to the residential unit to another person.

The proposal could legitimize after the fact thousands of commercial structures of various sorts that farmers have erected illegally over the years. True, some of these structures were in any case slated to receive approval under the recommendations of a professional committee that worked during the last decade. But this committee did not permit trade of these structures nor did it intend that farmers would begin to produce a new stock of employment areas. Rather, it understood that in certain cases no possibility of agricultural employment remained, and that it was necessary to enable alternative employment in order to support the locale itself.

The proposed law constitutes crude preferential treatment relative to the urban sector regarding the financial benefits it entails, and this has already been addressed by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, in an opinion he prepared on ILA decision 979. Mazuz also noted that the state had allocated the land and the construction rights in the agricultural locales to the settlers there in return for "advancing purposes of the cultivation and preservation of state lands," and not for non-agricultural purposes and trade-in residency rights.

The main and unhappy message of Sneh's law concerns the long-term affects it will have on the large cities where most of the population of Israel lives - those same cities which even today are not successful competing against the conditions being offered by kibbutzim and moshavim to business-owners, and to people who are seeking homes with a bit of land around them and want "a villa in the country."

Following the enactment of the law, the kibbutzim and the moshavim will become suburbs that attract strong populations and commercial and employment areas away from urban locales. The cities do not have the possibility of offering the conditions offered by the agricultural locales, among them lower costs for local taxes and water, and once again they will lose some of the economic resources that should be strengthening them.

It is the local planning and construction commissions that are supposed to supervise the new law after its passage. But in many cases these commissions are controlled almost absolutely by representatives of the agricultural locales. Past and present experience proves that they often fail in the application of the law to businesses that have been established without a permit in farming locales, and even initiate themselves building plans that are contrary to regional and national master plans.

Now the legal advisors to these commissions will no longer have to perspire to justify the erection of a furniture warehouse or a shopping center on land that is supposed to be agricultural. Sneh has done this for them and has opened the gates to the great building fling.