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On Wednesday, the government suffered a temporary setback in the battle it is waging in the Knesset to allow the privatization of national lands. Many consider it to be a clash over the very soul - and heartlands - of this country. The prime minister, determined not to be caught by surprise at next week's decisive vote, is mercilessly twisting his coalition members' arms as he continues his obsessive march toward privatization. Sadly, the gallant struggle to preserve public land ownership in Israel may be lost.

Because of the complexity of Israel's land laws and policies, the public cannot be blamed if it has failed to grasp the enormous ramifications of the so-called "land reform" bill. So it is important to establish what the debate is about.

"The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents." From its inception, the Zionist movement adopted this traditional Jewish land ethic, from Leviticus 25. The social message was powerful: A Jewish state would not suffer the kind of injustices, inequality and exploitation historically associated with unrestrained landownership and real estate barons. Environmentally, public ownership has been the key to balancing development and preservation interests.

Accordingly, public title to 92 percent of the countryside and the state's 49-year land leases to individuals are the building blocks of Israel's land management. Based on the model of the Biblical jubilee year, leases are designed to ensure that the government's Lands Administration remains the ultimate owner of the soil, and that the public is the beneficiary of the windfall profits that come from mounting demand for our very finite common property. The government has insouciantly held that this policy is antiquated and irrelevant, ignoring evidence that reform will exacerbate the growing gap between "rich" and "poor."

It should be emphasized that in no way is the proposed reform about apartment owners' ability to "close off a balcony" without having to suffer the delays of the ILA bureaucracy. Reforms were passed long ago easing the circuitous procedures for such cosmetic modifications, as well as many other historic indignities associated with leased land. Similarly, residents of urban apartments on state-owned land can already purchase their homes. The proposed legislation, however, launches a new real estate sweepstakes that ensures that 4 percent of Israel's lands will be sold off to the highest bidder. When this happens, the precedent will be irreversible.

The bill does include several "minor triumphs" for anti-privatization activists. A tiny fraction of the money from land sales will be set aside for a fund to preserve open spaces. For now at least, sales will be limited to lands for which detailed construction plans exist. Deals are limited to no more than 16 dunams. And there is a vague clause stipulating that if a few owners wind up with too much land, the government can force them to sell. But many critical amendments were rejected: Administratively, membership in the overseeing Land Authority Board will remain rigged so that government privatizers will dominate environmentalists, and even the JNF. And in a last-minute rider, the reform now includes agricultural lands - which sets the stage for speculation, sprawl and strip malls on our country's good and fertile earth.

The real loss, however, involves the extent of the sell-off. The bill states that 800,000 dunams, or 4 percent of Israel's lands, are to be put on the block. Supporters glibly claim that 4 percent is trivial. It's anything but. When the deserts of the south are taken out of the equation, along with the nature reserves, forests and of course the military training grounds, this means an extraordinary percentage of the lands in central Israel will be up for sale.

The difference between private and public land ownership can easily be demonstrated by comparing the results of two major past development controversies. In Haifa, developers linked up with private landowners to push through approval of the seven seaside Carmel Towers. Because of litigation, only two of these monstrosities now block the view and the breeze of the adjacent neighborhoods, so that a few wealthy landowners can enjoy their private beach-front perches. But it is just a question of time before a political constellation revives the original plan and a new wall of concrete neutralizes more than a kilometer of beach.

The results were different in Nes Tziona, where a vast apartment complex was proposed for the Iris Hills, one of the last calcareous sandstone (kurkar) hillsides in Israel's center, and home to a remarkable diversity of disappearing flora. Last year the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by private landowners to break a stalemate with the Jewish National Fund, which owned much of the land, and force through their building program.

People around the world, desperately watching their homeland being parceled off, speak wistfully about the ancient, traditional "land ethic." For six decades, Israel was one of the few countries with the wisdom to integrate such an axiom into its modern real estate policies. Next week, the elected representatives of the Third Jewish Commonwealth will be asked to sell out. Ideologically the country will be poorer. The public, too, will undoubtedly be poorer, enjoying far less of the proceeds from future development and gentrification on the newly privatized lands. And the Land of Israel - surely it will suffer most of all.

Prof. Alon Tal, of the Blaustein Institutes of Desert Studies at Ben-Gurion University, is a member of the KKL board and deputy chair of the Green Movement in Israel.