An Anti-preservation Reform

Should the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) be replaced by a new body called something along the lines of "Israel Lands Authority"?

That's certainly the thrust of the reform Benjamin Netanyahu's government approved last month, part of which would involve a massive transfer of state land to private hands. However, local environmental agencies, planning bodies and academics have begun studying the ramifications of the proposed reform, which still must pass the test of the Knesset. Their preliminary conclusions regarding the reform that is taking shape are not optimistic, to put it mildly.

At the first public conference on the proposed land reform, held by the Association for Distributive Justice at Tel Aviv University last month, most of the participants agreed that the plan is dangerous and anti-democratic. Many warn of the risks of transferring the land to cartels, and of potential environmental damage.

Prof. Yossi Katz of Bar-Ilan University, who is identified with the right, noted that the reform has spawned a broad coalition of detractors from both the left and right. Thus Katz found himself on the same side as left-wing politician Dov Khenin of the Hadash party: Both agree that public pressure must be brought to bear in order to foil this plan. "The chances aren't good," Khenin admits. "But we must not view this as a lost cause."

What the government actually decided is that a state lands authority will be established by the end of the year. The authority will be based on new legislation, which states that ownership of municipal property used for housing and employment purposes will be given outright to the parties that have been leasing the land from the state - for free.

Land zoned for low-rise housing would be given to its lessees in some areas, but not all. In all the other areas, the land developed for such housing would be sold to its lessees for a low price.

The state will also consider changing its policy regarding compensation for lessees of agricultural land, when that land is rezoned for other purposes. Those leasing agricultural land could decide to develop it themselves, in which case they could receive it without undergoing a tender process, in exchange for payment in full.

Advocates of the reform say that it has two main advantages. One is abolishing the bureaucratic mechanism of the ILA. The other is in freeing up a lot of land for development, which will render housing more affordable.

Critics agree that the way the ILA operates needs to be fixed. But at the conference, law professor Daphne Barak-Erez, chair of law and security at the Tel Aviv University faculty of law, raised the dismaying possibility that the cure the government proposes is worse than the disease.

The reform will utterly fail to strike a balance between land development and land preservation, Barak-Erez explained in great detail. The future authority is supposed to have three divisions, she said. Not a single one is supposed to engage in preserving this precious resource, the land.

Back to Katz: He noted that the reform doesn't stop with transferral of urban land to the people who lease it already. Its real purpose is to privatize the agricultural land that the state owns. The reform portends the end of an era - of public ownership of state land, which is the very foundation of a society based on social and distributive justice.

How the reform will affect the availability of farming land can be predicted based on precedent. A few weeks ago, professional planner Itamar Ben-David from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel looked at plans still left unfinished from the last decade. They call for urban development of a great deal of open space, mainly by agricultural communities surrounding the central part of the country.

"Not all the plans proposed in the past were bad, environmentally speaking," Ben-David stresses. But a great number of them did involve building houses (as opposed to apartment buildings) in the suburbs, in complete oppostion to subsequent master-plans for these areas. Today's tendency is to build skyward, with an eye toward preserving open spaces.

What about the possibility that freeing up lots of land for development will wind up depressing housing prices? Another speaker at the conference, geography professor Eran Feitelson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes that if anything, prices of homes will rise. A cartel of land-owners will be created that will keep a cap on price drops by dint of refusing to build, he predicts. When the prices reach appetizing levels - then they'll develop the land.

All the reform's critics point to the anti-democratic way it's being advanced. The proposal to abolish the ILA and created the authority was included the Economic Arrangements Law for 2009. There was no public debate on the merits of the idea and no alternatives were examined.

The result will be an authority lacking any representative of the public. It will consist only representatives of the ministries and two representatives from the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet). The Environmental Affairs Ministry demands that it have a representative in the authority's management council as well, but no such representative is mentioned in the government resolution. The ministry hopes that this problem will be rectified in the final draft of the Economic Arrangements Law.

Recently, claims have been bruited about that business elements in the real estate market were the ones who designed the reform, and dictated it to government, in the hope of harvesting the fruits of privatization. Dov Khenin hinted as much at the conference, and noted that unlike other sections of the Economic Arrangements Law - this one was highly detailed. Its sheer thoroughness gave rise to the suspicion that the content had been prepared in advance by parties with vested interests.

"[The reform] is, in my opinion - a clever move kept shrouded in fog to hide the real intentions underlying it," Khenin hinted broadly at the conference.

Feitelson obliquely concurred, warning that the new authority would be a convenient platform for broad government corruption.

"All it would take is to bribe one entity at the top. There's no area more vulnerable to corruption than land," Feitelson warned. "A single administrative decision can make a man rich. For example, rezoning land. Without a mechanism of checks and balances, it's a wide-open door."