Could Better Sewers Turn a Bit of Israel Into Tuscany?

Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, responsible for an area west of Jerusalem, has big plans but faces big obstacles

A field in Mateh Yehuda regional council.
Ilan Assayag

It was 10 P.M. one evening in May, and a meeting of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council was running much later than usual. But Moshe Ohayon, the treasurer, stood and delivered an emotional speech about an issue that is at the heart of the region’s troubles.

“We’re going to embark on a major undertaking with sewerage,” he told the council members. “When a community has sewerage, it’s a growth engine for the community and for the entire region.”

The logic? “A community with proper sewerage can immediately expand — commerce, tourism, hotels. Entrepreneurs are trying to enter our communities, but they can’t do anything without a sewage system. I think this can be a quiet revolution: You don’t see it because it all happens underground, but the change it brings is immense.”

Ohayon went on to explain why the council would need to borrow tens of millions of shekels from banks and impose development fees on residents to fund the sewerage plan.

Mateh Yehuda does need better sewerage. Of its 57 communities, 12 are not connected to the national sewer system; they use septic tanks, whose contents often seep into the soil and contaminate the groundwater. But as an engine for growth?

The area of the council, most of which is in the foothills of the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, is regarded by many as among the beautiful in Israel. Its communities offers short travel times to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for commuters as well as for shopping and entertainment.

But the region has failed to capitalize on its assets. Although many of the communities are bedroom suburbs of single-family houses owned by doctors and businesspeople (there’s even an ersatz American suburb, called Eden Hills), most are poor and underdeveloped. Most were established after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, often on the ruins of Palestinian villages. The council includes 12 kibbutzim and cooperative communities, the Arab villages of Ein Nakuba and Ein Rafa, the international Christian community of Yad Hashmona and the Jewish-Arab intentional community of Neve Shalom – Wahat al Salam.

A jackal in Mateh Yehuda.

The communities closest to Jerusalem, such as Tzur Hadassah, have become prosperous commuter suburbs, but most of the council’s other communities are struggling. Young people tend to leave after high school and many of the older residents are dependent on government benefits.

Some people have created businesses in the chicken coops that had been the agricultural mainstay of the council’s communities in their first decades. Many were converted illegally into warehouses.

Here and there are restaurants near scenic spots, most notably Rama’s Kitchen in Nataf. Some of the kibbutzim operate guesthouses and there are zimmers (bed and breakfasts) in a few communities. At least 40 wineries have been established in the past 35 years (the most famous is Domaine du Castel), as well as three craft breweries.

The regional council has proposed encouraging tourism by allocating 60 dunams (15 acres) to each community for new businesses such as guesthouses and boutique wineries. The plan has yet to win approval.

Niv Vizel, who was elected head of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council in 2018 after his predecessor was convicted for bribery, thinks the area could be capitalizing on its natural beauty much more.

“My plan is for Mateh Yehuda to become the Tuscany of Israel. We will declare the area a wine region. We are also conducting talks about branding the region’s wine, as is the case with Bordeaux wines in France or Italian Chianti wines,” he said.

The region certainly has natural attractions for visitors. The lack of development has left it predominantly rural, with narrow roads winding through hills and mountains and offering an unusual variety of flora and fauna as well as historic and biblical sites.

Until now, the pristine environment has been a draw to hikers, bikers and runners, but not enough to bring in big tourism revenue. But the area’s proximity to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv means visitors have no reason to stay overnight. Without hotels and the spending that comes with them, tourism will add little to regional growth.

In the meantime, however, the Har Tuv Industrial Zone — adjacent to Beit Shemesh — is enjoying something of a boom. For years it languished, as did a second adjacent industrial zone.

But that has changed in recent years as Route 38 was expanded and upgraded, proving an efficient connection to Route 1, the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem highway. The original Har Tuv is thriving and the 600-dunam Har Tuv Bet recently signed up its last tenant.

Further up Route 38, Moshav Eshtaol is due to become the home of Israel’s fifth Ikea store next March, employing 400 people.

“At first they wanted to build the store in Jerusalem, in the Malkha area. But they encountered a lot of red tape there. By us, the approvals were done quickly,” said Vizel. “We’ve been cited by the Economy and Industry Ministry as the most small-business-friendly authority in the country.”

Har Tuv is filled with warehouses and logistical centers, which don’t provide as many jobs as factories or high-tech, but the businesses there do pay a large share of local taxes, accounting for 40% of Mateh Yehuda’s tax revenue.

The Interior Ministry is weighing a proposal to remove Har Tuv from the regional council’s jurisdiction, which it now shares with Beit Shemesh, and give it over in its entirely to the city. If that happens the council will lose tens of millions of shekels in annual revenue and its plans for developing the area’s sewerage and other infrastructure could go down the drain.