For Netanyahu, Saving Israel's Deserts Is All About Settlements

Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week cleared his calendar, crowded with security-related and political crises, and devoted almost an entire day to the Dead Sea. He toured the area and discussed issues pertaining to conservation of the Dead Sea and tourist development at its southern end.

For a moment, it appeared that Netanyahu was at one with environmental groups and activists, devoting ceaseless efforts to save what is left of the majestic landscapes of the shrinking salty lake. The prime minister even voted with his ministers for the Dead Sea as one of the natural wonders of the world.

But Netanyahu came to his senses very quickly, and turned out to be as solid as a rock not only with regard to the right of the Jewish people to settle their land, but also in his insistance on seeing nature and landscape as no more than an obstacle to the realization of his settlement vision.

Netanyahu briefly shared his doctrine, explaining that undeveloped land was dead land, calling on the theories of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who, Netanyahu said, understood what settling the land was all about.

In the Dead Sea region, the premier plans to revive the land by building new cities in the Arava; exactly where, when and what size remains unclear.

What land exactly in the Dead Sea region is dead? The nature reserves, some of the most beautiful in Israel, or the entire area around the lake, which Netanyahu himself sees as one of the seven wonders of the world? Or perhaps he means all areas in Israel where nature has been preserved, to his regret, leaving him looking at a map covered with patches of land dying from so much flora, fauna and unspoiled landscapes instead of sketches full of the vitality of tarred roads, shopping centers and new communities.

Or perhaps the prime minister ran into a time machine and was sucked into the pre-state period, and then returned to the present all caught up in the old Mapainik vision of settlement and building. Certain aspects of that vision were fine in their day, but have become problematic in a country in which seven million people live.

Netanyahu, who is supposedly abreast of today's latest economic, social and technological developments, has been left completely unimpressed with environmental action of recent years. It seems that he is not aware that the best planning minds in Israel have formulated a national master plan that has been approved by the government. The plan states where construction may take place and where open areas must remain, and calls for streamlining land use and not to establish new communities.

But Netanyahu drops one word and invents new cities; how appropriate that they be named Sodom and Gomorrah, as scholar Dr. Ruth Calderon has suggested.

One can only guess how frustrated Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan must be when faced with Netanyahu's worldview, as he wages rearguard battles with the Israel Lands Administration to save the beaches and promotes national programs to preserve biodiversity, the latter being dependent on, heaven forbid, undeveloped land.

Or we could simply compare Netanyahu to another politician, a former Likudnik, MK Meir Sheetrit. Two weeks ago, Sheetrit took part in an environmental event at the Knesset. He hit the nail on the head in his contemporary description of the whole truth about the importance of preserving undeveloped lands: "There is a logic and a task for every living thing in nature that we do not always understand. We can live without cottage cheese, but there is no life without biodiversity."