Analysis: Holyland affair casts shadow on planning reform

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to posit that a reform that calls for reducing oversight in higher institutions may lead to more corruption.

April 29, 2010 05:10
3 minute read.
Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusal

netanyahu arrives at cabinet meeting 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

As police investigations into the Holyland case reveal more and more instances of alleged corruption in Israel’s planning authorities, calls for Prime Minister Netanyahu to hold off with his planning and construction reform have increased. While Netanyahu claims that the reform will cut through the red tape that gives rise to the need to illegally circumvent the system, opponents of the reform say it will only open the door to future Holylands.

Activists demonstrate against ‘Holyland reform’

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The breakout of the Holyland affair couldn’t have come at a better time for the reform’s opponents. The affair and the suspects who have been rounded up by the police in connection with it highlight precisely what the reform’s opponents, mainly social and environmental NGOs, have been warning of since the bill was made public in early February.

While the evidence has yet to be presented to the public, the stink of the allegations alone is enough to suggest deep and unsavory ties between wealthy and determined developers and corruptible elected officials. From there, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to posit that a reform that calls for increasing the powers of local officials and reducing oversight in higher institutions may lead to even more corruption, something the reform’s opponents eagerly point out.

Netanyahu too recognizes the connection between the corruption cases and the proposed reform and has instructed the attorney-general to look into improving some of its oversight mechanisms, but in the prime minister’s eyes, the connection works the other way around.

In an interview with Channel 2 News this week, Netanyahu said that the reform would remove what he considers the root cause of corruption: Israel’s overwhelming bureaucracy in the planning and zoning sector.

According to the prime minister, cutting away at the bureaucracy, shortening waiting times and removing redundant stages in the building permit process will make offering bribes unnecessary. “If we do the opposite and introduce more and more, and more bureaucracy until you can’t move – you’ll get even more corruption,” he said.

So far, the planning and construction reform has seen little opposition in the halls of power. The bill was presented to and authorized by the cabinet with minimal resistance, and quickly got passed in first reading at the Knesset. But now, with the Holyland affair in the background, more people are calling for the reform to be reconsidered.

Wednesday’s protest in Jerusalem saw players who were absent from previous demonstrations, most notably the young guards of nearly all the political parties. Outrage over corruption and the perception that the reform will clear the path for more of the same brought out people from across the political spectrum, from the National Union and the Likud to Meretz and Hadash, to speak out against the reform.

This type of cross-partisan cooperation brings to mind the type of opposition that amassed to block Netanyahu’s previous attempt at major construction reform, the Israel Land Administration restructuring, which took place in November. Back then the joint efforts of MKs and pressure groups from all sides of the political map led the prime minister to radically scale down the scope of the reform after nearly seeing it rejected in the Knesset.

At the moment, none of the groups are calling for a complete cancellation of the planning reform. Everybody seems to agree that there is a problem with too much bureaucracy, and that the system is in dire need of an overhaul. What the reform’s opponents are calling for is that Netanyahu take his foot off the gas pedal and listen to suggestions on how to make the system more effective – but at the same time more transparent.

Netanyahu can now choose: Either he sticks to his guns and depends on coalition loyalty to force the issue through legislation, opening himself up to continuing accusations of working for developers’ interests; or he calls for a time-out, waits patiently for the chips to fall on the Holyland affair and, based on the findings, readjusts the reform so that it will prevent such cases from occurring in the future.

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