Snobbism With a Loss for All

Before the recent initiative to rezone agricultural land, 14 percent of the state's population lived in non-urban regional councils (comprised mostly of kibbutz and moshav communities), whereas 37 percent of the country's construction was to be found in them.

So far, the government's and the Israel Lands Administration's attempts to rezone agricultural lands for construction purposes have been successfully opposed by the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow (Keshet Hamizrahi), the advocacy group demanding the lands be distributed fairly between different population sectors, and by environmentalists and Environment Ministry officials concerned about the destruction of green, open spaces through rezoning.

Recently, mayors from large cities have also raised their voice in protest, since their towns are the big losers whenever affluent residential neighborhoods crop up in moshav and kibbutz settlements, and when shopping malls and factories are built on the rezoned land. The mayors' mobilization in the campaign is significant: their protest relates not only to the damage caused to the lost open spaces themselves, but also to how reassigning land influences Israel's cities. The mayors' protests have been heard primarily on various local planning committees; the mayors have articulated their opposition to the land rezoning trend in these committees.

Quite some time passed before the mayors woke up and grasped the connection between the spread of suburban/residential village building and the plight of their own cities. The realization came when they noticed that well-established population groups have been leaving their cities, and that urban economic centers are vanishing. Israel's large cities have no hope of strengthening, and of attracting strong socio-economic groups, the mayors came to understand, as long as citizens can leave and build houses and own land on kibbutzim or in other communal-village settlements, and as long as contractors and entrepreneurs can exploit loopholes and build shopping malls, factories and public facilities on land that was once earmarked for farming.

Many of the new communal village settlements are unwilling to sponsor schools in which their children learn together with youngsters from the cities. And many such communities are unwilling to take in single-parent families, elderly residents, new immigrants or other applicants whose worldviews and social status do not suit their fancy. Their ability to exclude applicants is anomalous, since towns and cities remain open to anyone who wants to live in them.

Before the recent initiative to rezone agricultural land, 14 percent of the state's population lived in non-urban regional councils (comprised mostly of kibbutz and moshav communities), whereas 37 percent of the country's construction was to be found in them. The new initiative, it's believed, will allow the ILA to set aside more than one million square meters of land for trade and industry in small communities near Haifa. Near Netanya, contractors will be able to build another 10,000 housing units, and set aside close to two million square meters for trade and industry.

Such vast construction means the dwindling of Israel's open spaces, areas that benefit the general population and city dwellers alike. The need to preserve the public designation of these open spaces over the long term was underscored eloquently by planner Moti Kaplan, who recently drafted a research paper about urban sprawl in Israel: "We cannot continue with a situation in which more and more open space is wasted on a small number of persons," declared Kaplan.

Recently, mayors from 15 large cities established a forum to lobby against giving land zoning rights to agricultural interests. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said at the last forum meeting that the ILA does not need to maximize its profits via the earmarking of agricultural lands; instead, Huldai argued, the ILA ought to defend the public's interest by ensuring that giving land designation rights to farmers be contingent upon a large amount of land being set aside as park and forest areas.

What Netanya Mayor Miriam Feinberg said at that meeting should be quoted: "Agricultural settlements are turning into a closed, exclusive club for the well-to-do population, which can purchase houses built on land and which demands segregated education. This is happening at a time when the cities confront a number of social problems. Employment problems faced by farmers should not be resolved by giving each of them a factory. The cities, too, have dire problems of their own, such as the collapse of tourism and the diamond industry in Netanya."

Such remarks, and the genuine feeling of anger harbored by many mayors, should form the foundation of a united front of social advocacy groups like the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, environmentalists, mayors, and politicians such as Environment Minister Yehudit Naot, who recently proposed that instead of subsidizing construction on rezoned land, public funds ought to be allocated to urban renewal. The constellation of such a broad-based front should preclude charges that the lobby only cares about butterflies and flowers, even though many members of this united front can justifiably claim that butterflies and flowers also have a basic right to exist.