Inside Israel: The grand reformer

Netanyahu may be conservative on things like security and diplomacy, but at heart he’s a revolutionary.

February 26, 2010 16:41
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Ariel Jerozolim

Netanyahu spreads arms 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The dominant buzzword among government ministers at the start of 2010 is “reform.” It has become so common that hardly a week goes by without a different minister presenting a reform of one sort or another in their area of responsibility. Last week the transportation minister presented the vehicle import reform. The week before that it was the minister of interior with the reform on illegal foreign workers. This week the reform making headlines was the Israel Broadcasting Authority reform.

With all the talk of reforms, the word has lost some of its weight. When Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced a reform in the management of his ministry this week, he might have been better off choosing a different word. “Reform” ought to be saved for more radical changes.

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When it comes to announcing reforms though, the ministers can only watch and learn from the undisputed reform guru, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu may be conservative on things like security and diplomacy, but at heart he’s a revolutionary. He even used that term when he presented his plans to restructure Israel’s land development system before members of the Foreign Press Association last month.

The “agrarian revolution,” as Netanyahu calls it, is made up of three major reforms: the Israel Land Authority reform, the Transportation network reform and the planning and construction reform. “The combination of these three – making land available, simplifying planning and extending rapid transportation north and south – will change this country and drive the economy up very rapidly,” Netanyahu said.

Less than a year in the job and, on paper at least, Netanyahu is already more than halfway through his revolution. In November the Knesset passed the ILA reform bill and just this week, the cabinet voted in favor of the transportation reform.

Both were passed with difficulty. The ILA reform nearly suffered defeat at the Knesset because of rare cooperation between left- and right-wing opposition forces and ended up being a much watered-down version of the original proposal. The transportation reform proved too costly for the Finance Ministry’s taste and was scaled back substantially on the eve of the vote. It now remains to be seen what will be the fate of the third leg of the revolution.

According to Netanyahu, the reform in planning and construction will lead Israel into the 21st century in the field of planning and permits. The premier often mentions in speeches that Israel is ranked 120th in the world when it comes to permit-issuing speed.

“Now for most Israeli citizens, that spells despair. For me it spells opportunity because all you have to do to change that is to cut bureaucracy. I love cutting bureaucracy. That’s one of the few pleasures I get in public life,” he said at the Foreign Press Association meeting.

TWO WEEKS ago, Interior Minister Eli Yishai released a draft of the proposed planning reform. That was the first time anybody outside of a close circle of the plan’s authors got a glimpse of what’s in store.

So far there has been little in terms of public response to the proposal, nowhere near the levels of resistance witnessed when the ILA reform was proposed. One of the reasons is that, unlike the land reform, the planning reform doesn’t have such a symbolic significance. Opponents of the land reform could quote biblical passages forbidding the transfer of Israeli land into the hands of private individuals, but there’s nothing in the Bible that talks about the makeup of special appeal subcommittees at the provincial level.

Another reason for the laconic response is that the planning reform is far more complex. The land reform had its fair share of complications and nuances, but at least it could be encompassed in a 30-page bill. The planning reform, on the other hand, spans over 250 pages of statutory jargon, making it all but incomprehensible to the layman.

A third reason for the relative calm with which it was received, and the reason that makes the plan’s opponents so nervous, is that it carries benefits for nearly all of the country’s special interests. The military, the business sector, the local authorities, the construction and real estate industry, lawyers and cabinet ministers all look forward to gains following the reform.

As it stands, the main opposition to the reform is from the NGO sector, the bodies concerned with environmental protection, social progress and civil rights.

Wednesday marked the start of their campaign. Having learned lessons from past reforms, the groups decided to work in concert and a coalition of organizations quickly emerged under the banner of the Responsible Planning Command. The new coalition includes 20 organizations that operate under the coordination of Shatil, the social change arm of the New Israel Fund.

On Wednesday, the groups launched their nationwide emergency campaign with conferences taking place simultaneously in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba.

The first goal of the opponents is to extend the time given to study and issue objections to the proposal. When the draft was made public two weeks ago, it was stated that all objections must be submitted within 21 days. Members of the responsible planning command want to see the period extended from three weeks to three months. They claim that it is impossible to properly study such a large and complex plan in such a short time and that the schedule doesn’t allow time for serious appraisal by the elected decision makers and by the public.

Dr. Iris Han, from the Society for Protection of Nature’s Open Landscape Institute (OLI), said on Wednesday that while the reform had many positive elements, there was insufficient time to thoroughly study it and separate the good from the bad.

“It takes someone with unique abilities to fully understand the plan and all its ramifications within such a short time. This is not the transparency and public involvement that has been touted regarding the reform,” said Han.

Architect Dina Rachevsky, a former head of the planning division of the Ministry of the Interior, said that a year ago she was approached by representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office to aid in the task of planning the reform.

“I made suggestions on how they could modify the existing system to provide better service. But they told me the prime minister was looking for something bigger and more comprehensive. He wanted a, dare I say, sexier reform,” said Rachevsky.

Rachevsky said that upon reading the draft, you could find three main goals of the authors: To ensure government control over the planning mechanism, to give the local planning authorities tools with which to hand out favors and benefits and to get rid of the provincial and national planning committees that protect the country’s open spaces.

“What do you do to get those objectives passed? You baffle the enemy. You fill hundreds of pages with regulations, you form endless committees, you make up new definitions, new schedules, you design a proposal that no one will read,” said Rachevsky. “We the public, in this case, are the enemy.”

SOME OF the people who have taken the effort to read and understand the reform package spoke at the conference in Tel Aviv and tried to impress on attendees the issues that may be worth further debate.

According to these opponents, one major problem is that the reform grants extensive responsibilities and authorities to local planning committees. These committees are made up primarily of elected officials from the local level, which leads critics to raise concern over their susceptibility to external pressures by rich and influential parties operating, or interested in operating, in their region.

Another critique which was mentioned is that the committees lack professional and public oversight, and the oversight that exists deals with legal and environmental concerns, but not with social elements of planning.

The critics also said that the reform will widen gaps between the strong and weak local authorities. The strong ones will be able to make the most of their resources and draw in development in a profitable manner. But the weaker ones, usually those in the periphery and those inhabited by minorities, will not have the resources to properly cope with the responsibilities and will either be taken advantage of, or will have their authority taken away from them by external “replacement committees” as the draft specifies.

Another major concern that was highlighted is the consolidation of planning powers in the hands of the central government. On the national level, committees are packed full of government representatives, giving the reigning government unprecedented powers in promoting development, critics say, without sufficient public oversight.

From the environmental perspective critics were most concerned that the reform will lead to a rush of development that will risk the country’s agricultural lands and the remaining open spaces.

The hundred people or so who attended the Tel Aviv conference left feeling dazed and overwhelmed by the onslaught of information, and probably more than a little helpless in face of the challenges to have the reform altered and canceled. But as one of the speakers said, “We have a prime minister who is susceptible to pressure and famous for backtracking on decisions.”

As it played out in the two previous reforms, the end product is far different from the original proposal. Doubtless the plan will see many changes as it goes before the ministers and then through the Knesset committees and plenum. Regardless, the effects of the reform will only really be felt in 10 to 15 years, when everything is in place and running.

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