The government on Sunday unanimously approved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s National Heritage Plan, which aims to reconnect Israelis to their national, cultural and religious history.
The plan was voted on in a special cabinet meeting held at Tel Hai in the Galilee panhandle. The prime minister was lauded from the Right and criticized by the Left for his last-minute decision to include sites heritage located in the West Bank.
Netanyahu first presented the plan during his speech at the Herzliya conference on February 3. The plan proposes a comprehensive renovation effort on more than 150 historic sites and the creation of two new cross-country hiking trails connecting them.
Minutes prior to the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu announced that in response to pressure from Shas, he was adding two places to the provisional list of heritage sites: the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.
Prior to his announcement, no sites that were located on land expected by many to be transferred to the Palestinians in a future peace agreement were included on the list.
“Our existence here in our country depends not only on the IDF’s might and our technological and economic resilience. It is anchored, first and foremost, in the store of knowledge and the national sentiment we will bestow upon the coming generations, in our ability to justify our connection to the land, to ourselves and to others,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting, held on the 90th anniversary of the fall of national hero Joseph Trumpeldor at Tel Hai.
Netanyahu said development of the heritage plan will be coordinated by Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and will involve 12 government ministries. It will be implemented over the next five years at an estimated cost of NIS 600 million. NIS 400m. of this will come from the state and NIS 200m. from external agencies like the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund.
“I believe that this project is of national importance at the highest level and that at least some of the sites are world cultural assets of high international importance,” Netanyahu said.
“A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity. A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, take their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality. Zionism for them lacks charm and vitality,” Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan.
“Success in the values arena begins with the ability to tell the story of the link between the nation and the land.”
Hauser wrote that the plan was meant primarily to address the youth, but that it would also serve new immigrants who often weren’t educated on the nation’s heritage, and to the whole Jewish world, which would be strengthened by the link to the past.
“Many hundreds of heritage sites are neglected, inaccessible and are threatened by development and damage done by time and by people. The proposed projects were chosen among thousands of sites.
“The examination processes were conducted according to a combination of factors that reflect the vision they stand for. When approved, the projects will be funded by the government with matching contributions from non-governmental organization and private donations,” Hauser wrote.
He said that the projects were also chosen for their ability to sustain themselves upon completion, by generating income to ensure their maintenance.
Linking all the landmarks will be two networks of hiking trails, one connecting 37 archeological sites and the other linking 62 sites that have to do with modern Israel’s early history.
All the sites, once renovated, will feature multimedia explanations and exhibits. Each site will also have a mini Web site, which will be linked to a central Web site providing a wealth of information for potential visitors.
The plan also addresses less tangible heritage.
“A film we saw, a book we read, a dance performance we viewed, a concert we listened to, a play we watched are all etched in our memories but have no echo in the physical world. If we do not preserve them they will be lost forever,” the plan’s proposal reads.
The project will include the digitization of footage documenting old plays, dance performances, concerts, poetry readings and lectures, as well as books and films. It will also include a massive archiving project of intangible artifacts and funds earmarked for recreating old plays, reprinting old books and tribute events to artists who have passed away.
In the days leading up to the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu came under mounting pressure from settler groups and right-wing legislators to include the West Bank sites. Deputy Premier Silvan Shalom said the plan would be crippled if it didn’t include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb.
After the prime minister agreed to include them, it was the turn of the Left to attack on the issue.
Their inclusion was “another attempt to blur the lines between the State of Israel and the occupied territories,” Meretz chairman Haim Oron said.
The prime minister buckled to pressure from the Right and “the decision places Netanyahu’s [June 14] Bar-Ilan statement on a two-state solution in a ridiculous light,” Oron said.
“The heritage of Netanyahu and his government is a binational state and the continued development of the settlements,” Peace Now director-general Yariv Oppenheimer said. “In the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, Netanyahu is burying the two-state solution and making negotiations [with the Palestinians] irrelevant.”
Hadash chairman Muhammad Barakei said the decision to include the sites was “extremely dangerous.
“International law forbids an occupying power to change the status quo in the occupied territory. We are dealing with two mosques that have been in existence for hundreds of years in both Hebron and Bethlehem, and this decision of the Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman government indicates that they plan to continue the occupation and the bloodshed in the region,” Barakei said.
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea Samaria and the Gaza Strip, welcomed Netanyahu’s change of heart.
Dayan “congratulated the prime minister” for recognizing that the two sites must be on the national heritage list.
“Their omission was unacceptable. It made the list a political one and not a historical one,” he said.
But while the addition of the two sites was “a good beginning,” he said, there are many more historical sites in Judea and Samaria that should be included.
Dayan said the council plans to continue to lobby to include other sites such as Shilo, Beit El and Joseph’s Tomb on the outskirts of Nablus.
In the past few days the council lobbied the government on behalf of the Cave of the Patriarchs and wrote a letter to Netanyahu.
Parliamentarians such as those in the Lobby for Greater Israel and individual MKs, including Ophir Akunis (Likud), visited Hebron and contacted the Prime Minister’s Office.
Not all West Bank sites were excluded from the initial list, however. Herodian, Qumran and Sussiya were there already.
In an interview on Channel 1, Hauser said the list of proposed sites had not been finalized and that the cabinet decision did not include the precise locations to be renovated. The list presented to the ministers was a work in progress and that attempts to politicize the issue were missing the point, he said.
Hauser said the site at the Cave of the Patriarchs was already
scheduled for renovation with funds from the Jewish Agency, and that
was why it wasn’t included in the original proposal.
“The plan defines new national priorities, and finally, provides a
worthy platform for our cultural heritage,” Antiquities Authority
director-general Shuka Dorfman said.
“Israel is not blessed with natural resources, but it is second to none
as an important center and junction of world history. It is our
responsibility and our right to maintain the sites, enabling a tangible
connection with the past.”