You can imagine the delight of the campaign strategists at the Yamina alliance's headquarters this week.
The alliance is little more than a lobby for West Bank settlers, which means it’s going to struggle to break out of the 9-to-12 seats that opinion polls ahead of the September election predict for it. But the hard-right alliance thought of a way to look like it takes an interest in those poor souls still living inside the Green Line and bring a smile to the alliance’s base all at the same time.
On Wednesday, Ayelet Shaked & Company offered up a plan to solve Israel’s housing crisis: build 113,000 new homes over five years to house 500,000 people, all in the West Bank. A special government body will be set up to oversee it, the government will spend billions developing the needed infrastructure and approvals will be fast-tracked through the planning bureaucracy.
If it ever comes about, the Yamina plan is so enormous that it would tip the supply-demand balance in the housing market strongly in favor of supply. These days, when housing starts in Israel are well under 50,000 units annually nationwide, the Yamina program would add an average of more than 22,000 a year. But it would change the complexion of the territories, and that’s what it’s really about. At the end of five years, it would more than double the number of settlers living in the West Bank, not counting East Jerusalem.
Shaked and Naftali Bennett did their best on Wednesday to pretend that the plan was about solving the housing problem rather than cementing Israel’s hold on the West Bank.
“A young couple does everything they should -- serve in the army, pay their taxes, do reserve duty and work hard -- and they can’t make it financially in the State of Israel. This isn’t Zionist. We need to do something -- it isn’t fate. The economy depends on brave political decisions made by the government,” Bennett explained at the news conference.
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Even a Democratic Union voter could support that. Except that’s not really what it’s all about. True, there isn’t much room to build in the Tel Aviv area, but there certainly is space in Israel’s north and south. The only reason to propose building over the Green Line is because it serves the goal of annexation.
Short on grassroots support
Israel's hard right has a problem. After half a century of occupation, it understands that they’ll never win the demographic war with the Palestinians if it has to rely on ideologically motivated settlers moving out to remote settlements. A recent Haaretz poll put support for annexation it at just 42%. When you consider the implications of such a move (worldwide censure, insurmountable demographic and legal problems, perhaps even a Third Intifada), that’s nowhere near the kind of grassroots support it needs.
Therefore, the only solution is to count on the sheep-like response of the great majority of Israelis to creeping annexation by enticing them over the Green Line with affordable homes, since none are to be had anywhere else. That will turn them into settlers and maybe one day even Yamina voters.
To achieve this, the Yamina plan confines the housing to a small section of the West Bank closest to greater Tel Aviv, which is where people want to live because that’s where the jobs are. And, to make sure they can get to the city quickly and easily, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich promised that the Greater Tel Aviv suburban rail line would go deep in the West Bank and that Route 5, aka the Trans-Samaria Highway, would be widened into a four-lane freeway.
Crucially, Yamina promised that the average apartment would cost 935,000 shekels ($265,000), about 45% less than in greater Tel Aviv.
Fortunately, the Yamina plan has two obstacles.
The first is political. Housing was a big issue in 2015 when buyers were piling into the market in a panic after years of soaring prices and government inaction.
But that panic has more or less subsided. Housing starts rose to a level close to demand and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon took a series of steps to lower prices. Home prices peaked in the third quarter of 2016 and had been slowly falling until the start of this year. Since then, they have begun gently rising, but they are still below their peak. Right now, housing anxiety isn’t a vote-getter.
Later is another thing, because housing starts have been in decline since the third quarter of 2016. If the 2019 first quarter is any indication, starts will end this year at about 45,000 units, about 20% down from their peak three years ago and well below demand of 60,000. Thus, it seems inevitable that prices are headed for another sharp increase, but to Yamina’s misfortune, not before September 17.
The other obstacle is that the Yamina plan is pure fantasy. It’s tempting to talk about cutting red tape, allocating big budgets and naming “czars” to consolidate control, but bureaucracy and special interests are inevitably too powerful. Kahlon, who made housing a top priority, was more proactive than any finance minister in recent history but his achievements were modest.
Yamina might have more luck with the general population if it addressed addressing the problems of income inequality, the sorry state of the schools or the problems of the healthcare system. But those aren’t things that the settlers care about.