Text size

On Sunday, the cabinet will make a decision involving the fate of tens of billions of shekels. It will be a decision that will change the distribution of wealth in Israel. It has the potential to broaden or narrow economic gaps. It can make a few people rich or become the source of social change. If the cabinet makes the right decision, the government will have at its disposal all the funds it needs to build roads and railway lines that will connect the Negev and the Galilee with the center of the country, and there will also be money for financing a long school day in the periphery and in the disadvantaged city neighborhoods. If the wrong decision is made, three percent of the population will get rich, but Israeli society as a whole will suffer.

We're talking about a very valuable natural resource - land. On Sunday, the cabinet is slated to decide the fate of tens of thousands of dunams of agricultural land that is held by kibbutzim and moshavim. Originally, the land was designated for farming alone, but a plan exists to use the land for housing, commerce or industry, and the big argument concerns who will benefit from the land's greatly increased value - the residents of the kibbutzim and the moshavim, or the people of Israel as a whole.

From Israel's establishment in 1948 until the beginning of the 1990s, the custom was that whenever the government needed land - whether it was to build housing for new immigrants, to expand roads or to use for any other worthy purpose - it entered into negotiations with the farmers in the area in question and compensated them for every dunam (quarter of an acre) it nationalized according to its worth in farm produce, because the farmers effectively received the land for free. The usual compensation was $1,500 for every dunam of non-irrigated crops, $3,000 per dunam of irrigated fields and $5,000 for every dunam of orchards.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Ariel Sharon became the cabinet minister responsible for the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) and threw out the old system. The new rule was that farmers would receive 50 percent of the value of the land based on its new use (residential or commercial construction). They were also given entrepreneurial rights for the land.

Naturally, as a result of this decision, the kibbutzim and the moshavim (particularly those in the center of the country) became very rich overnight, but this came at at the expense of the state, public interest and investments in infrastructure and education that could have benefited weak population groups.

The ensuing great public outcry led the finance minister in the Rabin government, Avraham Shochat, to reduce the compensation received by farmers to 27 percent of the value of the land in the center of the country and to restore the right of entrepreneurship to the ILA. However, the objections continued. The Ronen Commission further reduced compensation in the center of the country to 15 to 20 percent of the value of the land. When opposited persisted, the Milgrom Commission slashed compensation to 10 percent plus rights in plots that were adjacent to residences.

None of these developments fazed the farm lobby, which did not relent in efforts to grab a larger slice of the nation's land. The current agriculture minister, Shalom Simhon (a moshav resident), and the prime minister, Ariel Sharon (from Moshav Kfar Malal and the resident of a ranch in the Negev), are now working vigorously to restore the glories of the days of yore; in other words, to enlarge the portion that will remain in the hands of the farmers (most of whom are no longer engaged in farming) and also give them entrepreneurial rights. Such a change will also benefit many of the country's rich and powerful.

Although this represents the greatest distribution of wealth ever undertaken in Israel, the city dwellers, the industrialists, the merchants, the teachers, the engineers and all the others who constitute 97 percent of the country's citizens and their representatives in the Knesset are watching as they are robbed blind - and saying nothing. Fortunately, the powerful farm lobby was challenged by the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow coalition, an advocacy group that promotes the rights of Sephardim and Jews of Middle Eastern descent. Its activists enlisted the Shas party and its chairman Eli Yishai, the interior minister, in the struggle, and together they are a political counterforce. The Sephardi Democratic Rainbow has filed a petition with the High Court of Justice that attacks the system of compensation, contending rightly that the land belongs to all the country's citizens and that it was given to the farmers solely for agricultural purposes - not to build malls at Shfayim or factories at Rishpon.

This intense battle has transformed the farmers, the kibbutzim and the moshavim from being the guardians of the nation's land into real estate procurers; it has fomented quarrels and crises within kibbutzim and moshavim; and it has destroyed the land-settlement movement. Granted, the farmers have to be compensated, but at a rate of what it was until the beginning of the 1990s - not as a percentage of the value of the newly zoned land and not as entrepreneurial rights, but as a one-time payment that reflects the loss of income from farmland.

The big money that will accrue from turning farmland into commercial property must go to the state and be used to bring about a comprehensive social revolution. Because this land belongs to all of us.