Opinion

Fixated With the West Bank, They Forgot About the Negev

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in Beer Sheva, March 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left Habayit Hayehudi before April’s election and started Hayamin Hehadash (the New Right), they were looking for a story to bring to the voter. They cooked up something about a party that brings together religious and secular people, promised that they would attack the Supreme Court and Hamas, and recruited Alona Barkat, owner of the Hapoel Be’er Sheva soccer team, identified with Be’er Sheva and the Negev, as a reinforcement player.

Bennett presented her as someone who “complements me and Ayelet. She brings the side of the social periphery.” The platform of Hayamin Hehadash was adapted to the addition of Barkat and gave a central place to the problems of the south: from the Qassam rockets fired at Gaza border communities to the need to connect with the periphery and provide tax benefits to residents of the south.

Already then the connection seemed artificial and hollow, merely tailored to suit election campaign needs. And in fact, the voters had their say, left Hayamin Hehadash out of the Knesset and caused Shaked and Bennett to return to Habayit Hayehudi and turn it into the right-wing Yamina party. This time around – without Barkat, who has returned to soccer – the Negev is less of attraction for them.

What does hold attraction for them? The settlements. Last week they presented a plan for building 113 housing units over five years in Samaria, which will enable half a million people to move there. The plan is meant to provide a solution to the steep housing costs in Gush Dan, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, and its high population density, and to promote the idea of annexing the settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria. But it is mainly designed to strengthen the status of Yamina and prevent it from losing Knesset seats to Likud in the mid-September election.

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Now interim Justice Minister Bezalel Smotrich is joining them and completing their new vision. He has declared that the route of the light rail in Tel Aviv will be extended to the Tapuah Junction (about 1,200 people live in the settlement of Tapuah) in Samaria, which will become a regional transportation center. Yamina’s plan is doubly dangerous: It increases the potential for high Israeli population density and friction in Judea and Samaria, and also signals that the deep and ideological right has given up on the Negev.

Bennet and Shaked, and in effect most of the right, have no interest in the Negev. It’s ours in any case, without involving any struggle, and therefore it’s not exciting. It’s boring. One of Shaked’s claims regarding the building plans in Judea and Samaria is the population density in the Tel Aviv area. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2048 the population of Israel will be 15 million, compared to a current 9 million.

But the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria will also grow during that time, and perhaps at even higher rates. Instead of channeling half a million people to the Negev – where there are huge open spaces, total international legitimacy and unrealized potential, Shaked and Bennett prefer another hilltop and another outpost and more friction in Judea and Samaria. They thrive on a rhetoric of struggle, which is anchored in “our right to the land,” and the greater the friction that involves, the more fuel and right to exist it provides for them.

The Negev is less exciting to them, although it makes up 60 percent of the land area of the State of Israel, and most of it is uninhabited. And it’s not for lack of challenges in the Negev. The density in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area requires the strengthening of metropolitan areas in the north and the south. That will happen in the Negev if ideas such as the construction of a second international airport in Nevatim, and plans to transfer Intelligence Corps bases to the south and construction some version of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal are implemented.

It involves a battle with the Israel Defense Forces (mainly the air force), which is opposed to building an international airport in Nevatim and prefers leaving the skies of the Negev open for its training missions. Transferring the intelligence bases and connecting them to the high-tech center that has been built in Be’er Sheva require the army’s consent, as well as a project to provide train service to the area. Instead of seeking construction of a train to the eastern Negev, to facilitate a new airport and transfer of intelligence bases there, Smotrich is talking about a train to the Tapuah Junction. The vision of Bennett, Shaked and Smotrich will destroy the Negev’s potential, leaving it solely to be used as a training space, while increasing friction in Judea and Samaria - a vision that is non-Zionist, unethical and economically unviable as well.