Too Hot a Topic

Israel Lands Administration tenders generally arouse interest only among real estate entrepreneurs and building contractors, who search the back pages of the newspapers for business opportunities. But from time to time, a tender announcement bearing the official state logo will cause agitation of a kind that no one imagined in advance.

That is what is happening now with a tender for the sale of land near Beit Shemesh, which sent shock waves through the town: The municipal coalition has been dismantled and reformed, and noisy demonstrations have been staged outside city hall. And, for different reasons, the storm has engulfed Israel's entire Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population.

When veteran residents of Beit Shemesh talk about the tender, they charge that "the ultra-Orthodox have stolen the town," with assistance from Housing Minister Ariel Atias and Mayor Moshe Abutbul, both of Shas. Many veteran residents believe this tender will complete the process of turning Beit Shemesh into a Haredi town and could even lead to "the banishment of people who are not ultra-Orthodox on ethnic grounds," as Motti Cohen, an opposition city councilman, phrased it.

At the same time, Abutbul, and even more so Atias, are facing their first serious test in the eyes of their electorate. To them, it is obvious that the new neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, must be Haredi; the only question is what the price will be. What worries the ultra-Orthodox community, which suffers from a shortage of thousands of apartments, is the likelihood that the first construction project cooked up by Atias will be marred by high prices, due to the large number of Haredi nonprofit organizations and purchasing groups that are vying for the 2,200 housing units on offer in the tender.

Over the past few weeks, non-Haredi factions have deserted the town's municipal coalition one after the other, and now they are getting ready to petition the High Court of Justice against Abutbul, whose election last year was made possible to some extent by the formation of a "social bloc" that also included the Labor Party. The opposition, together with representatives of the veteran residents, plans to ask the court to halt the tenders for the land on which Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel is supposed to be set up.

It is as if Beit Shemesh were the mirror image of Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox public has been protesting against the "secular" establishment. In Beit Shemesh, especially since Shas' Abutbul won last year's election, the "establishment" is ultra-Orthodox. The opposition is comprised of veteran secular residents plus a large and combative group of religious Zionist residents. Even before Abutbul's election, these two groups had cooperated on a series of issues, and especially against the extremist Haredim who moved into Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.

"It is not merely a matter of this or that minister or mayor," Cohen said. "The government has to decide which way Beit Shemesh is going to go and whether it will turn into a second Bnei Brak."

It is not known what legal grounds the petition will rest on, but the opposition is demanding that Abutbul abide by the municipal council's explicit decision that Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel include housing for all of the town's different communities - ultra-Orthodox, secular and religious Zionist. At the moment, however, it seems that all the groups applying for the tender, which is due to close in early December, are Haredi. That means that when construction of the new neighborhood is completed in a few years' time, the city's non-Haredi residents will become a minority, and Beit Shemesh will have completed the process of becoming one of Israel's largest ultra-Orthodox cities.

The Housing Ministry and the ILA published an open tender, meaning it does not grant any special advantages to contractors or groups seeking to build for the Haredi public; market forces will decide the outcome. But a source familiar with the tender told Haaretz that Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel was planned in advance as a neighborhood suitable for the ultra-Orthodox, since it consists solely of apartment buildings, with no private houses.

"Beit Shemesh welcomed the ultra-Orthodox with love, but it did not expect them to solve all their housing problems on its back," Cohen said. "This has put Beit Shemesh in a very difficult economic situation. The absurd thing is that the town's veteran residents cannot build a neighborhood for their own children today. Nowadays, whatever is built in Beit Shemesh is meant for the ultra-Orthodox. Ariel Atias and the ultra-Orthodox are banishing the secular from Beit Shemesh on ethnic grounds."

Abutbul, whose coalition now is almost completely Haredi, has not retreated from the principle he established of one-third for every sector. However, he phrases his words very cautiously. "I promise we will make every effort according to the one-third, one-third, one-third outline," he said. "It is not possible to stipulate this in the terms of the tender, but what I want is to persuade the contractors who win the tender - to appeal to them to market the homes to all sectors. It is not necessary for the entire town to be rabbis."

Abutbul is furious with his internal opposition, which torpedoed a tour by contractors two weeks ago and is now rocking the coalition boat. "I view this as a political problem against the ultra-Orthodox," he said. "Rosh Ha'ayin was once Yemenite and now, after they built new neighborhoods there, the Yemenites are a minority. Why did they take the changes so well in Rosh Ha'ayin but not in Beit Shemesh?"

For the Haredim, there is no question about whether or not the new neighborhood should be ultra-Orthodox, and headlines in the Haredi press do not address the opposition's arguments or the threat of a court case. Demand for the apartments marketed via the tenders has been huge, demonstrating not only the sector's need for housing, but also just how divided the community is. Dozens of nonprofit groups - including the Hasidic Housing Committee, the Committee for Housing for Large Families, the Housing Commission and A Complete Building, each of which represent a certain segment of the Haredi public - are competing in the tender, a phenomenon that Haredim fear will raise prices.

Last week, the newspaper Hamodia, which caters to the Hasidic portion of the Haredi community, tried to secure cooperation among the various contenders, but failed. Meanwhile, a legal opinion by attorney Jacob Weinroth, who is representing one of the "Lithuanian" (non-Hasidic) Haredi bidding groups, has asserted that it is illegal for the groups to coordinate. Nevertheless, one source told Haaretz, further contacts are being held in an effort to arrange cooperation among the various ultra-Orthodox bidders.

Unlike Abutbul, Atias is making no attempt to pretend that all communities are equal in the contest over apartments in the new neighborhood. He believes in separate neighborhoods for Haredim and non-Haredim and thinks that Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel should be ultra-Orthodox.

However, his aides say, "no one has stolen the town from others. When people talk about democracy and a free market, that can't work only for one side. It is forbidden to discriminate among communities. No one is preventing secular people from applying for the tender. But there is a tremendous housing shortage in the ultra-Orthodox sector, and they [the Haredim] are better able get organized."

A Housing Ministry official added that "the average secular person would not be interested in living in Ramat Beit Shemesh. We are planning to issue tenders shortly for thousands of housing units for the secular population."

Atias and officials in his ministry have no intention of intervening in the battle over the tender among the various ultra-Orthodox bidding groups. "As soon as there is a war over the tenders, that is a sign of success," said one. "Even if an apartment costs more because there is a rush to buy, that is success. It is a sign that we have to issue [tenders for] thousands of additional housing units for the ultra-Orthodox."