The Quiet Grab

A wall-to-wall coalition has formed to allow kibbutzim and moshavim to lease lands to the wealthy.

Usually ministers don't bother to attend meetings of the ministerial committee on legislation and send their deputy or a senior bureaucrat. Often Justice Minister Tzipi Livni finds herself alone at the table and easily passes proposals for laws that have been formulated by her ministry. Last Sunday the committee room was full to bursting.

On the agenda was a law proposed by Labor MK Ephraim Sneh, which is, in effect, a replica of Decision 979 by the Israel Lands Administration that proposes releasing agr

icultural lands in kibbutzim and moshavim and allowing their lease to business owners and wealthy people who desire a home in the countryside, which is often nothing more than a suburb of the big city.

Ministers who have never set foot in a meeting of the committee rose one after another and made fiery speeches in favor of the proposal by the chairman of the Labor faction.

Livni tried to persuade the ministers not to support the proposal because the issue is pending at the High Court of Justice, following a petition by 15 mayors who argue that releasing the lands would be a mortal blow to urban locales, which are inhabited by 90 percent of the country's population. She reported that in a few days hence, at most after the primaries in the Labor Party, a professional committee chaired by the head of the Budget Division in the Finance Ministry, Kobi Haber, which was established in the wake of the petition under instructions from the attorney general, will submit its recommendations.

Livni remained alone, even though Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz of the Likud and the Environment Minister from Labor, Shalom Simhon (both of them have agricultural estates in moshavim and interests), did not participate in the voting and made do with words of praise for Sneh's proposal. Their colleagues, from both of the large parties, did the work. To the greater glory of the coming primaries.

Though the kibbutzim and the moshavim are a marginal group in the population, they do have a lot of members in the party central committees. A letter that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz sent at the beginning of the year to Benjamin Netanyahu, who was finance minister at the time, and to Ehud Olmert, then only the minister of industry and trade and responsible for the ILA, is indicative of the seriousness of the matter. Mazuz cites a letter that his predecessor Elyakim Rubinstein, today a Supreme Court Justice, sent to Olmert more than two years ago concerning ILA Decision 070: "I have no doubt that this is a proposed resolution that deviates significantly and fundamentally from the existing practical and normative reality," wrote Rubinstein, adding that it entailed "irreversible processes at a national level" that harm the balance between the cities and the suburbs and the planning reality.

Mazuz informed the two ministers that after a thorough examination of issue he endorses the position of his predecessor. He reported that the Interior Ministry, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and other public bodies that deal with the issue have expressed opposition and reservations for planning, ecological and social reasons. [Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz did not attend the meeting of the ministerial committee on legislation that discussed the law. Although he is not a member of the committee, every minister has the right to take part in discussions that have implications for issues that are the responsibility of his ministry. - A.E.] Mazuz did not neglect to mention the mayors' petition to the High Court of Justice. The attorney general noted that the ILA decision does not concord with the government's decision to adopt the recommendation of the inter-ministerial committee headed by David Milgrom, formerly the head of the Budget Division, which was formulated after lengthy discussion. "No wonder, then, that the decision leaves quite a number of questions unresolved, especially concerning the instructions that relate to the kibbutzim and with regard to the rates of return that were established for the various rights and the possibility of trade in those rights."

The attorney general ended his letter with the following clear words: "In its current, incomplete version 979 is full of flaws and various imperfections and therefore the finance minister is not entitled to approve a decision in this formulation.... There is no alternative but a return to the instructions of the previous attorney general - the establishment of a professional team for the thorough and systematic examination of all the arguments, reservations and question marks that have been brought up and the formulation of an orderly professional recommendation."

The attorney general notes that the decision constitutes a "breach" of the Kadmon report, the aim of which is to enable the moshavnik or kibbutznik to have land for his own business and not to create a new stock of salable employment properties. The report was approved by the government and the planning institutions. Insofar as is known, the professional team took into account the needs of the rural sector, which is finding it difficult to earn a living from agriculture, but the ministers are in a hurry. Politicians cannot allow themselves to disappoint the very powerful lobby.

It is very doubtful that the members of the new parliamentary investigation committee on the issue of corruption will take an interest in the matter. Thirty-six Knesset members, from the right and the left, voted last Wednesday at the preliminary reading in favor of the proposal by Labor's Sneh, which is an exact copy of the revolutionary ILA decision. One MK voted against. Sneh went up to the speakers' podium and thanked coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar of the Likud and all the members who helped him advance the law.

Channel 2 ambassador

Apparently this is the first time that the delegates to the General Assembly (GA) of the American Jewish Federations will not have the privilege of enjoying the presence of a prime minister or senior government minister from Jerusalem. Not even a junior minister will arrive next week for the large meeting in Toronto. The sole representative of the government will be Deputy Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, who is responsible for ties with the Diaspora, and even he will not be honored with a speech before all the attendees of the conference. Melchior has been slotted into the panel on the disengagement, alongside economist Leora Meridor and the Jerusalem Post's David Horovitz. The only Israeli VIPs who will appear at the conference plenum will be Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski and "Ambassador" Eitan Schwartz - the one from the Channel 2 reality show, not from the Foreign Ministry. American Jewry has been smitten by his charms and has invited him to moderate one of the forums in the main hall.

After it became clear that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was compelled to remain in Israel to host the VIPs who are coming to the memorial events for Yitzhak Rabin, the organizers asked him to send his speech on a cassette and invited Construction and Housing Minister Isaac Herzog to participate in one of the panels that will be held simultaneously outside the plenum. Herzog declined and decided to remain in Israel. He has said that the organizers refused his request to speak about Yitzhak Rabin for two minutes in the plenum.

Melchior agrees that it is not fitting that no Israeli minister will appear before all the participants at the important conference. Nachman Shai, the representative in Israel of the Jewish Federations, says that apart from a very brief speech by Bielski, no public figure will be speaking in the plenum and that the date of the GA and its agenda were set long before the Rabin memorial events were decided upon.

Strawberries or guns

Basil Jaber, the director general of the Palestine Economic Development Company (PED), the company that is operating the greenhouses in Gush Katif, fires the figures in rapid sequence: the harvest season for the strawberries, tomatoes and peppers from the greenhouses in the Gaza Strip (a total of 17,300 dunams, of which 3,300 are the legacy of the Jewish settlements) starts in two weeks' time; the total expected value of the produce - approximately $100 million; the number employed in the greenhouses - 35,000 and another 4,000 drivers, maintenance people and other professionals. All of them together support about 300,000 souls; 75 percent of the produce is intended for export to Israel and abroad; the number of trucks needed to haul the goods to markets in Israel and to the ports starting on November 25 - about 130 trucks a day; the number of trucks that currently pass through the Karni crossing point - 12 (as compared to 150 before the disengagement); income from vegetables for export - up to NIS 10 per kilogram; income from vegetables that will end their career in a market in Gaza - up to NIS 1 for 10 kilos. Because of the shortage, this year Israeli consumers will pay more for a portion of strawberries and cream; the investment in the rehabilitation of the Gush Katif greenhouses: $22 million, of which $14 million is a donation from the world. Jaber is not an incendiary.

He does not even forget to mention that not only settlers but also certain Palestinian punks took care to leave behind some scorched greenhouses. Usually he is an indefatigable optimist. Jaber says that even though he sounds like Shimon Peres and his new Middle East, he hasn't the shadow of a doubt that the day is not far when Israeli and Palestinian farmers will cooperate in the cultivation of out-of-season vegetables in the Jordan Valley and the Gaza Strip for the large Iraqi market and for the Gulf states. He sees export potential to the extent of $2 billion a year. No less. His company has already found rabbis who are prepared to give kashrut certification to the vegetable produce, and, if all goes as planned, the religious public will soon be able to find in supermarkets lettuces without worms, produce of Palestinian Gush Katif. Only once during the course of the conversation does he choose to use harsh language. "A catastrophe" is how Jaber defines the result of the continued Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. "Strawberries and vegetables have a very short shelf life," he explains. "If they don't let us send the trucks out to the markets, we'll dump all the produce at the Karni crossing point or throw it into the sea." Moreover, the first harvest season since the disengagement is a test of the reliability of the agricultural industry in the "liberated" Gaza Strip. He fears that if the produce does not reach its destination as promised, next year the European and American importers, and perhaps also the Israelis, will look for other sources of supply. "In these deals you have to commit to a certain quantity of produce," he says. "If you don't supply the goods, you have to pay a fine and expect that you will never hear from the buyer again." It is hard for him to comprehend why it is hard for the Israelis to comprehend this. After all, what is he asking for? That in the strawberry season the workers at the Karni crossing point won't shut up shop at three o'clock.