Greens Get Bulldozed as Reforms Look to End Israeli Housing Crisis

New bill, which Netanyahu considers one of the most important of his term, is meant to allow government to advance construction plans more quickly.

Many suggestions by environmental experts have been dropped from the latest version of the reform bill meant to solve Israel's housing crisis.

Last Thursday, a battery of planning experts, headed by the Interior Ministry's Planning Administration director Binat Schwartz, marched into the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the planning and building reform bill, which is being prepared for its two final readings.

Givatayim, Israel's most expensive city
Dan Kleinan

The bill, which Netanyahu considers one of the most important of his term, is meant to allow the government to advance construction plans more quickly.

Schwartz told him there were still changes that had to be made to make the planning process more efficient, among them giving more power to the local planning committees and doing away with the obligation to conduct environmental impact studies on construction plans.

Those present agreed to include Schwartz's changes, and the rush was on to rewrite the bill to include them. Officials of the Environmental Protection Ministry, who were not invited to the meeting, suddenly found themselves having to respond to major changes to the bill with only a few hours' notice.

"That's what staff work in this government looks like," a government environment expert said bitterly. "We're debating this bill for almost two years and suddenly, in one day, they insert changes that could have a significant impact on Israel's landscape."

This little coup by the Planning Administration intensified the frustration of environmental experts who have been testifying for months before a joint panel of the Knesset Interior and Environment, and Economics committees, which is preparing the bill for its second and third readings.

The "green" representatives tried to insert changes to the bill that they claim would better balance between the needs to preserve nature and the right of the public to file objections, and the desire of the government to advance housing and infrastructure plans.

It seemed to be working. After hearing all the environmentalists testify, the head of the joint Knesset panel, MK Amnon Cohen, declared that "after all the changes we make based on what we've heard in committee, this bill's mother won't even recognize it."

But when the updated version of the law was distributed earlier this week, it emerged that not only had the government ignored almost all the suggestions made by the environmental experts, the bill included changes not debated by the committee at all, including those suggested by Schwartz.

The new law is aimed at helping bridge the increasing gap between housing demand and supply by speeding up planning procedures, which often stymie construction for years. It is hoped that increasing the housing stock will lower home prices, though no government entity can say by how much, and when.

The law calls for including "accessible housing" - that is, smaller, more affordable apartments, in every building project, but does not specify how such housing would be funded.

Under the proposal, housing plans would only go through one planning committee - the local planning committee - which would get considerable authority to prepare "general plans" for their locales that could replace existing regional master plans.

The bill also establishes a number of subcommittees and special infrastructure committees that could approve plans speedily, and restricts the ability of the public to appeal or object to them.

Public and environmental groups say that the regional master plans the bill wants to emasculate have already allocated enough land to build many years' worth of housing.

Green groups say the bill would enable local planning committees to rezone open areas or cut down forests for housing. It could also lead to the revival of various plans that had already been dropped after long battles by environmentalists, such as the "Safdie plan" to build over 20,000 homes on the ridges west of Jerusalem.

Iris Hann, a planner with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI ), pointed out that the bill would remove the obligation of planning committees to publish their protocols or the opinions of experts they receive within a week. Planning panels could thus delay the release of information and deny the public enough time to respond to plans that could affect their property values or their quality of life.

"Instead of trying to repair the damage wrought by such an aggressive bill," said Hann, "the government is continuing as it pleases and has submitted for a vote a version that not only totally ignores the thousands of comments made, but integrates, in an underhanded fashion, even more destructive proposals."

The Interior Ministry responded by saying, "The bill on the planning and building reform is in the process of being legislated in accordance with the regular Knesset procedures. The updates inserted in the bill will be debated in the Knesset in accordance with accepted procedures."

The Prime Minister's Office said the reform would "save Israeli citizens from the current convoluted process of obtaining building permits and will fight corruption."