Right-wingers Shelve Development Plan Because It Doesn't Include West Bank Settlements

Far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich, the new transportation minister, is already making his presence felt by helping stall the plan that covers everything from energy to mining to water use

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

For anyone who wondered what it may mean now that the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich is transportation minister, a hint came Tuesday when right-wing bureaucrats shelved a plan for Israel’s development over the next several decades due to their objections that it didn’t include the West Bank. The move had Smotrich’s backing.

The director general of the Agriculture Ministry, Shlomo Ben Eliyahu, sent a letter to the directors general of other government ministries, asking that the plan – called Tama 1 – not be approved. Smotrich, in his new post as the official responsible for Israel’s transportation infrastructure, backed Ben Eliyahu and called for the plan to be reexamined.

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Tama 1 is the planning authorities’ flagship program for the next several decades, and it was supposed to come up for a vote in the Finance Ministry’s housing cabinet this week. That won’t be happening now, due to Ben Eliyahu’s demand.

The housing cabinet declined to respond for this article.

Ben Eliyahu’s demand raises questions because the Planning and Building Law doesn’t apply to the West Bank, so it’s not clear how a master plan could apply to the region. The West Bank is under special legal status, as the law there is based on Jordanian law and British Mandate-era law, as well as the opinion of the Israeli defense establishment’s Civil Administration in the West Bank.

In his letter, Ben Eliyahu called the draft for Tama 1 “controversial” and said that given that it had been in the works for seven years, it wasn’t urgent.

If Tama 1 isn’t approved, the plan may undergo significant changes. After Israel’s planned September 17 election, it’s not clear who will have oversight over the national planning committee. Before late May, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the election, the entity that would have oversight over the planning committee was the subject of coalition talks. Interior Minister Arye Dery had called for oversight to be returned to his ministry, instead of having the committee answer to the Finance Ministry.

The fact that this initiative comes from the Agriculture Ministry shows this ministry’s unique standing at the moment. Other ministers who didn’t make it into the Knesset after the April election have quit or been fired – including former Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel also didn’t make it back into the Knesset, but he continues to serve.

Opposition from the Agriculture Ministry would seem surprising. The plan seeks to preserve open space, and it includes adding another 500,000 dunams (123,553 acres) to nature reserves, national parks and forests.

While Ben Eliyahu is concerned that Tama 1 doesn’t include the West Bank, the claim in his letter was based on technical reasons because Israel is heading to the new election.

In a letter dated June 11, he said he would call on the finance minister to declare the plan a guideline, not a mandatory plan, meaning the ministries could choose whether to follow it. He said another option was that the plan could be extended to include the land between the Green Line and the Jordanian border. A third suggestion was that the National Planning Bureau cooperate with the planning bureau for the West Bank in order to add a so-called Tama 1 East plan covering the West Bank.

A week later he sent a letter to the Justice Ministry’s legal department warning that approval of Tama 1 would constitute a significant change in policy, thus it should not be passed by a lame-duck government. His latest letter was sent Tuesday.

Tama 1 has been one of the most significant planning steps in Israel in recent years. It pulls together more than 300 planning projects in areas as varied as energy, transportation, water use, waste, beaches and mining with the goal of taking a nationwide view. Currently Israeli development is guided by an abundance of different master plans, many of which don’t take the others into account.

Delays in implementing Tama 1 have also delayed the building of new homes at a time when housing prices have been on a decade-long increase.

The Israel Planning Authority said in response: “The Agriculture Ministry’s right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The ministry’s representative on the National Planning Authority recently voted in favor of the plan, which passed unanimously. Tama 1 is crucial to Israel and its residents.”