Selling Off Our Future

Planning in Israel has gone through dramatic changes, from singing of "dressing the land in concrete and cement," to the thrill of the free market in real estate; from worshiping agriculture, to the discussions of land and rights over it, prompted by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow.

Dina Rachevsky, who is completing her long term as head of the Planning Authority in the Interior Ministry, is a rare example of a dedicated, stubborn civil servant. During her entire career, Rachevsky did not compromise her professional principles or world view, and nonetheless managed to perform well, with restraint and wisdom, under the management of six ministers, from right and left. Despite intense disputes and sharp criticism, she led what can can now be called a revolution in planning in Israel.

It's important to sum up her period in office, not because she is looking for glory. Even her critics, who called her "the staff sergeant of planning," never heard from her through the media. Only this week, for the first time, did she give an interview to Mazal Mualem of Ha'aretz, about her views. It's important to note her period in office because there is much to learn from it about the future. The search committee now seeking an appropriate person to head the Planning Authority, must meet a very high standard to find someone of her level of professional integrity and ability to withstand pressure, whether political, economic, or other.

The Planning Authority has been weakened as a result of the Economic Arrangements Laws that circumvent it, and efforts by the finance minister, the housing minister and the national infrastructure minister - and not least by the prime minister - to grasp its authority for themselves. But a strong, professional head of the Planning Authority can at least block the old-new trend of development at any cost, which threatens to destroy the delicate fabric of planning in the country.

Planning in Israel has gone through dramatic changes, from singing of "dressing the land in concrete and cement," to the thrill of the free market in real estate; from worshiping agriculture and a national grip on the land, to the new discussions of land and rights over it, prompted by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow; from the dream of suburbs in the countryside to a modern urban outlook; and from the ethos of paving roads everywhere, to thinking green, taking into account the quality of life, water, and air and making the justifiable demand for land conservation.

All these processes, which are part of the process of a society growing up and the crystallization of a population that passes through the stage of nation building to become a pluralistic society in a properly run country, were incessantly interrupted, by wars that changed borders and territories, by waves of immigration that dramatically changed the demographic balance, and by political upheaval that created profound changes in the approach to planning.

Unfortunately, most of the changes that take place here are only followed by planning, and all are directly connected to the security situation. In the mid-1990s, when there was widespread hope for a peace agreement, sparking growth and a sense of normalization that mostly derived from the expectations the territories would be returned, the settlements dismantled, and national priorities would change, Rachevsky, Prof. Adam Mazur and others managed to draw new maps and set new norms for planning.

The public discourse at the time was about mass transit systems, urban crowding in the major cities and conservation of open green areas, among other things. Since then two major obstacles have arisen - the small window of an opportunity for peace appears to have been slammed shut, and right-wing control of the Interior Ministry has weakened the Planning Authority, bringing back the lexicon of wildcat settlements into the repertoire of national planning.

From that perspective, the Sharon government is most dangerous of all. Sharon's own national perspective has him living in the days of Kfar Malal, or the chases after fedayeen. From his perspective, Israel does not need borders, and "settlement points" are the only way to determine security facts on the ground and shape the character of the state. In that spirit, he has managed - in every public job he has ever held - to cause irreversible damage, with projects like the committee that made sweeping zoning changes to enable housing for new immigrants but instead sprouted dozens of unnecessary cottage suburbs that devoured infrastructure, and his "seven stars" plan, meant to block the spread of the Arab population in the Wadi Ara area, and which has turned become particularly pathetic. Harish, for example, is populated almost entirely by Haredim and Arabs, and could yet turn either into a focal point for the conflict, or just a weird, isolated ghetto.

Another damaging initiative that grew out of the distortion of Zionism, is the plan for 12 new settlements, whose only purpose is to "Judaize" the Negev and Galilee. On the eve of her retirement, Rachevsky struggled against this delusional plan with all her strength. She insists that the major cities should be strengthened, instead of irresponsibly planting political suburbs. There has not been a single echo of support for this view from the Labor Party, which is in the government, though none of its ministers would ever dream of taking an interest in the Planning Authority. How sad, that the remnants of the left, whose forefathers laid the foundations for actively planning for the future, prefer to compete with the right wing over the title Patriot of the Year, leaving Sharon, Avigdor Lieberman, and Effi Eitam to determine the face of the country and the future of its society.