Sometimes it is difficult to remember why Ariel Sharon was dubbed "the bulldozer." After all, in his entire array of political roles, his real contribution to critical infrastructure projects was close to zero, and usually from the negative side. But Sharon is a stubborn man. And if it appears that his main area of interest is the military, what he really cares about when it comes to running the country are matters of land and zoning. The fact is, the Israel Lands Administration wandered from the Agriculture Ministry to the Housing Ministry, and from the Housing Ministry to the National Infrastructure Ministry - always in Sharon's wake.
And now, with Sharon in the Prime Minister's Office, the ILA will move once again - to the PMO, of course. And if that's not enough, Sharon plans to establish a special department for national planning, using the battered excuse that "everything's stuck" - in other words, national infrastructure projects are not moving forward. If they move, says Sharon, the economy will move, there will be work, growth and salvation.
A number of elements are behind Sharon's vision for rapid growth. At the top of the list are the contractors, real estate developers and investors, justifiably worried about the recession but always trying to speed up the planning process so they can get to the implementation as quickly as possible. The price of that accelerated process can be damage to open areas; new settlements or real estate developments dispersed across the country in ways that contradict national and local planning considerations; too much construction in areas lacking infrastructure (like schools and kindergartens) and jobs; and intolerable overcrowding on roads. All of this leads to irreversible damage to land and water reserves.
What shouldn't, perhaps, bother private contractors should be the top priority for a responsible leadership. Sharon, who takes pride in his ability to get things done, has never shown a smidgen of responsibility. Now, when he finally can fulfill his ambition to be at the top of the national planning pyramid, he could bring down the whole delicate structure.
It's a complicated structure that starts with the ILA and includes the local planning commissions, which are often tainted with corruption, and the district planning commissions, where local authority heads and their officials often represent local interests and are unable to see the broader planning picture that must factor in social and economic considerations. Nonetheless, the claims that the planning system is too centralized, complicated and prone to foot-dragging are sheer nonsense.
The planning system in Israel must be professional, not political, because the country's planning needs are very complex. All the past efforts to move planning into the PMO and turn it into a statutory authority only succeeded in weakening professional planning. The system might need more transparency than exists today, but there has been tremendous improvement in that area in recent years. Planning is complex, not because of the planners, but because - as shown by a recent study by Dr. Eran Feitelson of the National Environmental Affairs Council - government ministries are not capable of coordinating practically anything between them. And the claim the system deliberately drags its feet is baseless.
Every comparison between major national projects in developed countries and similar projects in Israel shows that Israel is not particularly slow. The stage for statutory authorizations, for example, requires preparing the plan and guaranteeing that the land is procurable, as well as hiring planners to examine alternatives, which also need to be planned in detail - all in coordination with the ILA. Moreover, all this must be done in coordination with the Budget Office in the Finance Ministry, including cost-efficiency studies according to the ministry's instructions. At that stage, which most entrepreneurs claim is where things get bogged down, Israel's 5-to-10-year average waiting period is far faster than in Germany, which took 17 years to plan a fourth runway at the Munich airport, or the Netherlands, which took 10 years to approve a fifth runway for the main airport at Schiphol.
As opposed to the outposts, settlements and bypass roads in the West Bank, normal planning isn't measured by the speed with which it is done, but by the quality of the decision making behind it. The more environmental surveys taken, the more alternatives examined and the more public groups that are invited to voice their opinion about planning in its earliest stages, the better the chances for the final plan to meet fewer objections, to avoid court-ordered delays, and to reach the stage of implementation.
That is the conventional planning process in the West - and it takes time. If Sharon ends up as the national planner and these procedures are ruthlessly truncated, the coming generations will get a country whose landscape and infrastructure were destroyed by the bulldozers of overly energetic contractors.
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