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Borderline Views: Rethinking the peripheral regions
By DAVID NEWMAN
01/11/2011
Middle-class professionals commute from their homes in Tel Aviv to jobs elsewhere without contributing to the cultural landscape in outlying regions.
 
This week’s conference at Ben-Gurion University, organized by the Negev Center for Regional Development to honor the retirement of its founder, geographer and regional planner Prof.

Yehudah Gradus, examines the changing nature of the relations between the Center of the country and the periphery. Ever since the establishment of the state, successive governments have paid lip service to the need to develop the peripheral regions – the Galilee and the Negev – through a range of policies aimed at creating cheap housing, lower taxes, employment opportunities and improved transportation and access links to the Center.

But 60 years on and the periphery remains relatively undeveloped compared to the continued growth and expansion of the metropolitan center of Gush Dan, stretching from Hadera in the north to Gedera in the south, with Tel Aviv at its core. The population has voted with its feet and opted to live in densely populated, high-rise residential complexes in Tel Aviv and the neighboring cities, rather than in the less crowded and cheaper apartment prices of the south and the north.

Government intervention in providing cheap land and tax concessions has, at best, stemmed the flow, but has never really succeeded in putting the country’s peripheral regions on equal footing with the metropolitan Center. This is all the more surprising given that, with the exception of the far south of the Negev, the description of the Negev and the Galilee as a periphery is a bit of an oxymoron, since almost no region in Israel today is more than two hours’ travel from Tel Aviv and Gush Dan.

The Trans-Israel Highway (Route 6) and the continued improvement of the rail system has made it even easier and quicker for people to travel from their homes in the outlying regions into Tel Aviv.

This has enabled people to commute daily into Tel Aviv to seek those employment opportunities that are lacking in their own locale; yet in many cases, it has facilitated a reverse commuter flow, whereby many middle-class professionals – such as hospital doctors, university professors and government officials – are able to commute from their homes in the Center to their jobs in Beersheba, Nazareth or Safed. These people also enjoy the cultural and social benefits of living in the center of the country without contributing to the creation of a viable cultural community in the outlying regions.

It has left behind the weaker populations, many of them unemployed, unable to pay local taxes for the upkeep of their cities and development towns, resulting in a vicious cycle of lower standards of living and poorer urban infrastructures that, in turn, prove unattractive to would-be newcomers who may initially have been prepared to consider moving and setting up homes in these areas.

Even in an era of reduced travel time and access, it remains difficult to persuade young professionals to remain in the south when they complete their studies at Ben-Gurion University, Sappir College and other institutes of higher education in the region.

The country’s peripheral regions do not enjoy a political lobby of their own. The lack of constituencies within the political and electoral system means that there is no real lobby on behalf of the Negev or the Galilee in the Knesset. The appointment of a government minister, currently Silvan Shalom, to represent these regions has had no impact whatsoever.

It was just another of those ministries created, along with numerous ministries-without-portfolios, to satisfy the many coalition partners and to provide “jobs for the boys” so the government would have a majority.

And despite the platitudes and slogans that are often heard concerning the need for population dispersal away from the Center, and the need to settle the entire country, the overall situation has gotten worse over the past two decades. David Ben-Gurion’s dream that the country’s population would follow his own personal example – he went to live in the desert kibbutz of Sde Boker and is buried there along with his wife Paula – has never materialized.

Nor has the development of the West Bank settlement network during the past 30 years contributed to the situation. The pouring of government resources into middle-class suburban communities that, to all effect, are located within the Tel Aviv commuter belt, have created unfair competition for both the Negev and the Galilee. If a young family can receive cheap land, tax concessions and other government benefits by building their homes just 20 minutes away from the country’s major employment centers why, indeed, should they consider moving further afield? For those who have no political qualms about living beyond the Green Line, this has become the preferred option, even when faced with an unclear political future. At best, there will be no political resolution of the conflict and they will continue to enjoy their high quality of life in prime locations between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; at worst, there will be a political solution necessitating settlement evacuation, in which case they will receive high levels of compensation that will enable them to relocate within the central, metropolitan area of the country.

The problem with the development of peripheral regions is not as much about housing as it is about long-term, high quality employment opportunities.

The construction of houses and apartment blocks requires a one-off investment that can often be recouped through the sale of the properties. But the long-term creation of employment is far more difficult, especially for highly qualified and educated people. Hi-tech and sophisticated factories prefer to set up in close proximity to their main competitors in the Center, even if it means they will not benefit from government investment and cheaper establishment costs. In many cases, factories have been set up with government assistance in peripheral regions, but as soon as the initial period of repayment has passed – often five to 10 years – the factories close and relocate elsewhere, arguing that they are no longer competitive with the factories in the Center of the country.

But we also have to be careful how we portray the periphery. By continually crying out that the Negev and the Galilee are discriminated against, we strengthen the image of the periphery as an unattractive place to live and work. We don’t do enough to show the many positive attributes of regions with cheaper land prices, open spaces and other obvious benefits for young, qualified couples seeking to create new communities and build a future for their children. It is as much about quality of life and economic opportunities as it is about the ideological messages that the Ben-Gurion generation used, with limited success – and without which it is unlikely that there would even be a Ben-Gurion University today.

For that to happen, the regions require visionary and capable leaders, especially in local and municipal politics, who are able to inject enthusiasm and originality into local development projects, rather than local politicians who spend their time complaining about the poor status of their towns and settlements.

There is still much hope for the periphery, especially as the Center becomes even more congested and polluted. But to move forward in the right direction, we need a new generation of young, politically astute leaders who are able to translate the challenges facing both the Negev and the Galilee into the realities of the 21st century, rather than regurgitate the outdated messages of the 1950s and ’60s.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.
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