The Never Ending Folly

The initiators of the Safdie Plan hope that the residents will come from all over the country, but experience teaches us otherwise, and in the end, Jerusalem will lose out.

If, God forbid, the National Planning and Building Council ever approves the Safdie Plan for building 20,000 residential units in the Jerusalem hills, we will regret it forever. Not only because it will lead to the destruction of the environment, nature and landscape of the Jerusalem hills, but also because its implementation will result in a severe financial and social blow to the Israeli capital. And Jerusalem, in any case, is suffering from poverty and fighting high rates of negative migration and social and demographic changes.

It is hard to understand why such a plan was ever hatched, since its consequences are predictable. In terms of the environment, it will harm the Jerusalem hills, pooling basin of the mountain aquifer, and unique sites such as Sataf, and will lead to a reduction in the open spaces that serve Jerusalem residents and those in the country's center. The plan's urban consequences are even more severe. Construction of thousands of residential units in the hills surrounding Jerusalem, far from its center, will lead to a decline of the capital itself, the desertion of a strong population that will move to the new neighborhoods, and an increase in the financial burden involved in infrastructure maintenance due to the great distances in reaching the mountainous area.

Social and environmental organizations and activists and the Sustainable Jerusalem coalition, which are fighting to save Jerusalem from the plan, have already presented planning alternatives enabling construction of thousands of residential units inside Jerusalem by increasing urban density, recycling apartments and implementing existing plans - all of that without destroying the surrounding hills and the city center's fabric.

That being the case, why was the Safdie Plan created in the first place? The immediate explanation apparently can be found, as in other cases here, in a built-in desire to promote large real estate projects and satisfy the interests of real estate agents, contractors and land leasers.

However, the plan's deep roots can be found in a fiction called "United Jerusalem." In 1967, the Israeli government decided on the city's "unification" and the annexation of large areas to its east. Not only the Old City and holy sites were included within the borders of the united city, but also the huge area in East Jerusalem that included 28 villages and 70,000 Palestinians was annexed. The Palestinians received permanent resident status, which includes the opportunity to work in Israel and the right to National Insurance Institute payments and health services. They are considered city residents with equal rights who receive municipality services.

The Palestinians constituted about one-quarter of the city's residents in 1967. Today they are about one-third of the population. According to the demographic goal posited by the Jerusalem Municipality, the ratio between Jews and Arabs should be about 70:30. And according to forecasts, Jerusalem will have about 300,000 Palestinians in 2020. In other words, to maintain the goal, there is a need for about 700,000 Jewish residents. That is a very difficult goal to achieve in a city that suffers from as high a negative migration as does Jerusalem. (Today there are fewer than 500,000 Jews in Jerusalem.)

But the initiators of the Safdie Plan have found a solution: They will increase the area of Jerusalem westward, and build tens of thousands of apartments for Jews in the new areas. They hope that the residents will come from all over the country. But experience teaches us that it will be the residents of Jerusalem who will move from the city center to the new and spacious neighborhoods in the suburbs. The number of residents will not increase, and Jerusalem will lose out.

Apparently the folly of annexing the areas in East Jerusalem, which is called United Jerusalem, continues to give rise to one folly after another. The Safdie Plan is one of them.

The writer is the chair of Meretz-Yahad.