How to Build Corruption

Perhaps someone will be found in the Finance Committee who will notice a breach in the arrangements law that creates a mechanism meant to bypass the planning system in Israel.

Last Monday, the Knesset Finance Committee was supposed to discuss a clause in the arrangements law that creates a mechanism meant to bypass the planning system in Israel. The clause says a special committee of lower level officials, who report to ministry directors general, is to be the sole government arbiter in matters concerning national infrastructures. The committee is to replace the National Planning and Building Council, whose members include public figures and professional experts. For this purpose "any project financed directly or indirectly by the government or an entrepreneur appointed by the government, including plans for residential buildings of over 1,000 units" is defined as "national infrastructure."

This new mechanism is meant to accelerate the implementation of national projects, with the excuse that planning procedures in Israel are overly complicated. But it likely to destroy professionalism and independence in the planning system, undermine the transparency of planning decisions, and open a dangerous bridgehead to corruption.

Let's see - who is likely to gain from the unbearable lightness of granting building rights without public or professional supervision, and completely ignoring national and other master plans, especially the indispensable division of land into built-up areas as opposed to open spaces? This would be a limited group of large contractors, who will get large reservoirs of land with building rights, will be able to wait and realize these rights at a time in the real estate market suitable to themselves. It's not clear why Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman are pressing to have this clause passed - Lieberman even warned that his National Union-Yisrael Beitenu party will not vote for the state budget if the clause does not pass.

But the Finance Committee has not yet discussed the clause. Committee chair, MK Yaakov Litzman [United Torah Judaism] was ill, and the various reservations and questions raised by some of the Knesset members in anticipation of the discussion have not yet been heard. One can hope that Litzman, when he recovers, will not join some of his colleagues in being misled by the seeming efficiency of the problematic clause.

If he is told that there is a lack of residential units, he shouldn't believe it. During a visit organized this week by the mayor of Ashkelon for one of the planning teams of National Master Plan (NMP 35), a plan whose approval has already been postponed by three governments, he said he has no problem preserving the open spaces in his city, because Ashkelon already has reserves of 20,000 residences.

The situation is similar in most cities, and the claim of the finance minister that more building rights should be released in order to "arouse the market," has no basis in reality. In the middle of the term of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the monitoring team of NMP 31 (which preceded NMP 35) presented him with a picture of the situation in the residential market. At that time of peak demand and rapid growth, the system balanced itself.

Economists explained to Rabin that despite pressure from contractors on the housing minister and the Israel Lands Administration [ILA] to change the designation of land for building, the unofficial inventory of apartments (rented out second apartments, apartments from inheritances, and those acquired as investments) starts to enter the market when prices rise.

As a result - to the chagrin of the contractors - the Rabin government canceled the special committees for residences and for industry, which had shortened planning procedures and brought about massive "thawing" of land for construction. A few years later, the State Comptroller sharply criticized these committees, and claimed that the ILA and the housing minister in prime minister Shamir's government had misled the government, and that there was no shortage of residential units.

The special committee established - not surprisingly - on the initiative of then housing minister Ariel Sharon in Shamir's government, caused irreversible damage to the social fabric, to infrastructures and to the environment, and benefited a number of entrepreneurs. But this damage is dwarfed by the new clause. Sharon's committee allowed representation of local interests, often balancing out greed and benefiting the environment and the community, and was subject to NMP 31. The new clause will enclose everything in a hidden committee that will even be able to set up a subcommittee of delegates of three ministers - the prime minister, the finance minister and the national infrastructure minister or housing minister, for example - without the national planning administration or the environment minister, and without professionals and public representatives.

As in the case of the constitutional court and the Council for Higher Education, behind the magic words "efficiency" and "the public good" hides a suspicious alliance between politicians who flout the structures basic to any developed country, and interested parties who are power-hungry, money-hungry, or both. These are procedures precisely of the type being carried out by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, and the left there is calling him a gangster and an enemy of democracy.

The left in Israel is represented by Weizman Shiri MK (Labor), an enthusiastic supporter of the problematic clause. Perhaps someone can still be found in the Finance Committee who will notice the breach, and will remove the undemocratic threat from Israel's national planning.