Who Needs Building Permits?

Even if it is impossible to completely dismantle all of the many businesses established in violation of the law, the first step is to block the approval of additional businesses.

"Welcome to Israel, you are now entering a nonenforcement zone." This message should be posted on a sign at Ben-Gurion Airport if we want to give tourists a true picture of the country in which they have landed. Who knows, maybe this would encourage more investments from foreign residents who realize how easy it is to establish economic enterprises in Israel, with the support of the authorities and in violation of the law.

The weakness of the reign of law in Israel in various fields is well known and state comptrollers have documented the full details. The current state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, like his predecessors, has addressed the areas of planning and construction (in a report published last month), in which the violation of law is systematic and particularly profitable.

The comptroller examined local authorities, including the Hof Hasharon regional council, whose jurisdiction includes some areas of very popular real estate. This council may have long been the target of criticism by the state comptroller, but this has failed to make an impression on council officials.

Exactly 10 years ago, a state comptroller's report declared that many businesses had been illegally established on agricultural land within the council's jurisdiction. The inventory of building violations in the current study of the state comptroller is very impressive and reveals lively economic activity within the regional council's boundaries. Some 1,426 building violations were documented through the end of 2004. Rishpon led the list of localities with no less than 500 violations. Bnei Zion followed with 181 violations and Batzra with 307.

In almost every locality, agricultural land has been turned into parking lots and commercial centers, without a legal permit. At Kibbutz Ga'ash, an area where zoning regulations prohibit commercial activity was turned into a car rental business. On another area in the kibbutz, agricultural land earmarked for hothouses was turned into a site for commercial activity.

Building inspectors from the Interior Ministry have tried, according to the state comptroller, to stem this flood, but the local planning board, chaired by the head of the regional council, Aharon Bajarano, ignored the findings of the ministry inspectors. The council not only failed to enforce the law, but granted illegal permits itself for the use of buildings that were not constructed in accordance with zoning regulations.

The regional council - which, according to the state comptroller's report, tried to legitimize some of the building violations via a new master plan it prepared - now says that it has already formed a committee to examine the flaws the state comptroller unveiled and that it will act according to his directives. The committee is chaired by the deputy council chief, Meir Dor, who will in effect study his own shortcomings and those of his colleagues. Council officials claim that they wanted to establish an external committee but discovered that they lacked the legal authority to do so.

In my naivety, I thought that the state comptroller had already conducted this kind of investigation and had reached a clear conclusion: The council is not enforcing the law. The state comptroller even went on to say that if the council does not immediately change its ways, it should perhaps be disbanded and replaced with an appointed board.

But it would not be fair to single out the Hof Hasharon regional council. The state comptroller's report mentions other authorities, including the Emek Hefer regional council, which failed in handling the illegal construction of wedding facilities in the heart of open spaces. The Merom Hagalil regional council also recorded a salient achievement: 90 percent of the businesses in its jurisdiction operated without a permit.

One of the main arguments made by the regional councils to justify the illegal construction in their jurisdiction is the deep economic crisis in agriculture, which has compelled the residents of moshavim and kibbutzim to find alternative employment, even without attaining all of the permits from the planning boards. This crisis is real, but it cannot be used to defend such systematic and widespread infringement of the law.

Even if it is impossible to completely dismantle all of the many businesses established in violation of the law, the first step is to block the approval of additional businesses. The next interior minister must quickly disband any regional council that does not enforce the law and does not act according to the planning principles stipulated in master plans. And this should be done without waiting for the study conducted by the state comptroller once every decade.