Israel's Interior Minister Admits Failure to Populate Periphery

'Reality has dealt a blow to the vision' of making outlying regions more attractive, National Master Plan committee says. 'A large portion of Israel’s population continues to aspire [to live in] the center.'

The government’s dream of encouraging residential construction in outlying areas by restricting it in the center of the country has been defeated by the forces of market demand. As a result, the Interior Ministry’s planning administration has recommended amending the National Master Plan to meet this demand by allowing massive construction in the central region.

This in turn has upset environmental organizations, which fear the new construction will come at the expense of the area’s remaining open spaces.

Next week, a subcommittee of the National Planning and Building Council is due to discuss the Interior Ministry’s proposal.

The National Master Plan’s vision of widespread building in outlying areas was supposed to be supported by government activity to encourage the creation of centers of employment in these areas, improve their transportation and education systems and grant them tax breaks. But in the eight years since this plan was approved, the ministry proposal said, none of these goals have been realized.

“Reality has dealt a blow to the vision,” it said. “A large portion of Israel’s population continues to aspire [to live in] the center.”

The proposal doesn’t call for abandoning the vision entirely, but suggests postponing its realization from 2020 to 2030. Meanwhile, it said, a solution must be found for the high demand in the central region, mainly by high-rise construction near existing cities on what is now zoned as agricultural land. Residential housing can also be built within cities on land vacated by army bases ‏(some of which are already slated to move to the Negev‏) or zoned for industrial parks or other centers of employment.

At the same time, it said, the government should continue to develop infrastructure in the periphery. Yet it acknowledged that allowing massive new construction in the central region was liable to further widen the development gap between center and periphery.

The proposal listed 17 open areas that could be used for construction now and suggested that others be rezoned as “special open areas” where building could be permitted in the future.

It also proposed significantly expanding residential construction on kibbutz and moshav lands now zoned as agricultural and allowing a 20 percent increase in residential construction in rural villages.

But green groups are deeply worried by the plan to build tens of thousands of new housing units in open areas.

“This will weaken cities in the periphery, such as Kiryat Shmona, Beit She’an and Afula,” said Itamar Ben David of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which, together with the Israel Union for Environmental Defense ‏(Adam Teva V’Din‏), has already written to the ministry to voice its concerns. “They won’t have a chance of attracting a strong population when they’re competing with rural villages. In the central region, too, there will be a trend toward suburbanization, which will weaken the cities and strengthen trends such as depending on private cars instead of using public transportation.”

Tomer Appelbaum