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During Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert's first four years in office (from late 1993 to 1997), the municipal site allocations committee distributed 238 plots of land with a total area of 225,000 square meters for the establishment of Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox institutions. In contrast, this same committee allocated only 5,000 sq.m. - or six plots - for the establishment of secular institutions. Some 80 percent of the plots allocated in Jerusalem were earmarked for institutions providing religious services: 176 plots were allocated for synagogues and another 14 for mikvehs (ritual baths).

Jerusalem municipality officials claim that secular residents of the city are not suffering from any shortage of plots of land and that secular schools in any case receive plots of land through other agencies besides the site allocations committee. This argument does not fit the facts dating from the mayoralty of Teddy Kollek. Even when Kollek was mayor, secular Jerusalemites always received the short end of the stick; however, they were invariably allotted a third of the plots of land.

Over the past three years, the bargain sale on plots of land has ground to a halt. For a period of two years, the reason was political constraints: Primarily, the inability of both United Torah Judaism and Shas to decide how to divvy up the pie.

Then, in August 2000, the High Court of Justice, in the Blumenthal case, ruled that the allocation of plots of land and structures is a form of resource distribution. Thus, noted the court, there must a clearcut, egalitarian and fair procedure for the allocation of such resources.

The legal adviser of the Jerusalem municipality, Asa Eliav, requested guidelines from the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, as to what steps should be taken in the interim period - that is, before the introduction of the above procedure. Rubinstein instructed the Jerusalem municipality to freeze any further land distribution until his staff had finished working out the new procedure.

The petition to the High Court in the Blumenthal case was submitted by secular residents of the city of Rehovot who protested their municipality's decision to allocate land in their neighborhood to a private ultra-Orthodox association, Halichot Haim, for the purpose of establishing a yeshiva and a spiritual center.

The petitioners claimed the municipality had not publicized in advance its plans for allocating the land and had thus not given them the opportunity to present their objections. The High Court accepted their arguments and even noted that the steps the municipality took undermined the faith of citizens in the foundations of their government.

A year has passed, and, last month, the Ministry of Interior's new procedure for the allocation of lands and structures has finally gone into effect. This procedure will make it very difficult to continue with the widespread practice of distributing plots of land to cronies. The new procedure also reflects the position of the High Court in the Blumenthal case that the "country's democratic nature requires the publicizing of all administrative measures" and that one of the reasons for publicizing administrative measures is "to prevent any suspicions of cronies receiving special benefits."

From now on, all plots of land and all structures that a municipal council allocates are open to competitive bids. The moment a municipal council decides to transfer a plot of land to a private association, it will have to publicize its intentions in several newspapers so that any association interested in that plot of land can submit a request.

Residents will no longer be surprised to learn that, alongside their home, an association is establishing an institution that they have no need for and which, as far as they are concerned, is completely unwanted. From now on, every request for a plot of land can be countered by local residents.

The decision on the recipient of a plot of land will have to be made jointly by the municipal site allocations committee and the municipal council in accordance with clearly defined principles, such as whether a more vital use can be found for the land as far as the residents' needs are concerned, the position of the neighbors on the allocation, and the maximum number of users of the structure that is to be built or allocated.

The members of the site allocations committee will include the legal adviser of the municipality and a representative of the municipal treasurer. This kind of arrangement is intended to ensure the process is properly conducted. The municipal council will be authorized to approve the allocation only after it has received the professional opinion of the municipality's legal adviser that the allocation has been carried out in accordance with the new procedure.

The new procedure is complicated, and that is a blessing. The transfer of a plot of land from a municipal council to a private association should be a complex procedure requiring much thought.

One can expect a certain - and difficult - period of adjustment now that the new procedure has gone into effect. During this period, it can be anticipated that local governments will try to circumvent the procedure. In any case, the High Court will have a lot of work on its hands over the next few years as it deals with petitions protesting violations of the procedure. In the long run, municipalities in Israel will have to accustom themselves to the new situation: The allocation of land and structures will, from now on, be a public procedure carried out in cooperation with local residents.

Naturally, even under the new procedure, a large portion of the plots of land will be distributed to cronies; however, at least the municipality will now have to prove those cronies deserve to receive the land in question, and they are not merely being treated to a free lunch.