For two hours this week, the focus was on Beersheba, as the cabinet held its weekly meeting in the capital of the Negev. Students at Ben-Gurion University could be forgiven for thinking this was intended to mark the end of the academic year, almost a month after all the other universities finished their studies. The reason for the late finish is the longer-term effects of the Gaza war, during which the university was shut down for fear of missile attacks - some actually fell not far from the complex. By the time studies got back to normal, it was too late to try to cram so many additional lectures into the existing time frame and the academic year was put back a month.
Once the academic year in Beersheba comes to an end, the campus empties out. Most of its 17,000 students are not local residents and are only too eager to return north until the next academic year. The bright lights of Tel Aviv and Haifa are more attractive - the night life, the job opportunities and the sea - and nothing that Beersheba does is able to hold more than a small percentage of the students. Come to campus on a Thursday afternoon and there is a line of buses waiting for students who walk straight out of their end-of-week classes, onto the bus and back home for the weekend.
THE IMPACT of the university on the surrounding neighborhood is significant. Many students live in renovated apartments in the city's poorest neighborhoods. A large percentage are involved in Perach and other social assistance plans, in which they contribute knowledge and skills to disadvantaged families and children with learning problems, and in return part of their tuition fees are covered. The economic impact of 17,000 students, faculty and administrative staff cannot be overstated, and the university is the second largest employer in town.
And yet despite the international standing of its university and the Soroka Medical Center, the headquarters of major industrial concerns such as the Dead Sea Works, Machteshim and other chemical plants, Beersheba retains its negative image as a place for transience. Last week, the university held graduation ceremonies for the thousands of students who finished their degrees a year ago. The roads into Beersheba from the north were momentarily crowded as the students and their families came back to visit the city where they had spent upwards of three years.
PLANNERS USED to believe that easier accessibility to peripheral regions, where land and housing is cheaper, would bring new populations. But the vastly improved transportation links to the city have had only a limited impact. The rehabilitated train service enables you to travel from the heart of Beersheba to the heart of Tel Aviv in a little over an hour, or to Haifa (on a good day) in just over two hours. The extension of the Trans-Israel Highway (Route 6) as far south as Beit Kama has made the car journey to the center of the country little more than a short commute.
But ironically this has created a situation where an increasing number of people who hold down high-power jobs in the South now opt to commute into Beersheba on a daily basis while continuing to reside in Herzliya and Kfar Shmaryahu. After all, what's an hour's commute in global terms?
In its early days, the university insisted that all faculty reside within the Beersheba region. There was a time when faculty's home address and the school registration of their children would be checked before tenure was awarded. But this demand was eventually found to be unlawful. There is now an attempt to enforce a rule which demands faculty be present on campus five days a week - even if they arrive every morning by helicopter from Kiryat Shmona. This too will be almost impossible to enforce, given the fact that for many - especially in the humanities and social sciences - the real research laboratories are to be found in the libraries and archives of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, while the best conditions for writing books and research articles are usually the comfort and silence of their homes, well away from the tumult and cramped conditions of the university corridors.
The opportunities exist: a university and hospital of international caliber, relatively cheap land for suburban development. A tourist who has not visited this part of the country for a long time would not recognize the development which has taken place during the past two decades. Three of the country's highest quality middle-class residential communities - Omer, Meitar and Lehavim - where many of the university and hospital staff reside and where land prices are but a fraction of those in the center of the country, are just a 15-minute drive from the city. And yet the negative image remains.
It will take a lot more than a two-hour visit of the cabinet to change that image. A new, young mayor, a local resident, may yet change what previous incumbents have failed to do. But images - especially self-images - are strong and it will require a lot of hard work and economic investment to influence the thousands of bright graduates that their long-term future beckons them south - what David Ben-Gurion failed to do, despite his own personal example of going to live in Sde Boker, no one else has yet succeeded in doing.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the international journal Geopolitics.
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