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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Not enough is being done to promote Jerusalem as a major center of economic activity, whether by the government or by the business sector, speakers at the "Jerusalem Conference 2006" said Wednesday.
Business should build on Jerusalem's "mosaic" of ethnic and religious communities as economic catalysts, "not just for the city of Jerusalem, but for the country as a whole," said Mayor Uri Lupoliansky.
"This variety has power," said Prime Minister's Office Director-General Raanan Dinur, noting the wide range of educational facilities, research institutions and other resources.
Some speakers stressed the need to enhance educational, cultural and other services to attract young people and retirees to the city, while JVP founder and managing partner Erel Margalit presented a vision of bolstering the city's own creative energies through projects combining fields in which Jerusalemites excel.
Jerusalem could be a center of media industries, such as animation, that would build on high-tech and the arts, he said, adding that Jerusalem-based television stations could be used to strengthen the identity of the city and of Israel.
Margalit said the success of high-tech industry in boosting other sectors of Jerusalem's economy had been "very partial."
Raffi Kesten of NDS Technologies said that not enough high-tech jobs were being created in the city to provide employment for graduates with programming training.
Haredim, who Margalit said deter many investors, could adapt to the unique employment opportunities available and contribute to the changing the image of the city.
Panelists also reacted to reports that the Finance Ministry was reconsidering the express train line to Jerusalem planned to be built within the next five years, due to assessments that the line was "not economic."
"I don't what would not be economic when it comes to advancing such an infrastructure," said RAMET Ltd. managing-director Aliza Jaffa, who numbers the entryways into the city among its most significant infrastructure problems.
Several speakers charged the government was not doing enough to ensure Jerusalem's economic well-being, and should relocate ministries and institutions not already located there to the capital.
"The government support that should be given to Jerusalem as the capital city is still missing," said Lupoliansky.
Lawyer Shraga Biran, who led some of the panel discussions at the conference, said the government must "be pressured to honor its promises and declarations" and called on it to set up a national task force for the economic advancement of Jerusalem. The team should include representatives of the banks, entrepreneurs, the state and city hall, he said.
To bring more companies to the city, "corrective discrimination" was needed, said NDS's Kesten.
Others accused the business community of ignoring the city's potential and existing business opportunities. Benny Gaon of Gaon Holdings called on all Jerusalem natives among the country's business leaders to make doing business in the city of their birth a higher priority.
US-based investor Shaya Boymelgreen told the conference that investing in Jerusalem real-estate projects was easier now than in the past, since - whether from banks, the capital market or other sources - "money is more available and more liquid."
If the government and other bodies take action to facilitate business in Jerusalem, "within just a few years, we'll reach the place that Jerusalem should be in," predicted Jerusalem Development Authority CEO Ezriel Levy.
Toward the end of the conference, Lupoliansky called on the government to turn the Atarot industrial area north of Jerusalem into a free trade zone, allowing the cancelation of VAT and other taxes on products and raw materials destined for export.
"Declaring this area to be a free trade zone will leverage Jerusalem, allow the addition of thousands of jobs and attract new manpower to Jerusalem as a whole," said Lupoliansky, adding that "Jerusalem can be a basis and model for peace and economic cooperation, while improving relations with out Palestinian neighbors and raising the standard of living on the eastern side of the fence as well.
"And the day that happens... the fence will turn into a Good Fence," he said, referring to the Lebanese border back when residents of South Lebanon would come to work and receive medical care in Israel.
"Nothing will leverage Jerusalem more than that. We will be the Hong Kong of the Middle East," he said.
Lupoliansky suggested that the US and Europe would encourage the establishment of a free trade zone at Atarot, and even allow Atarot businesses to export their produce at reduced tariffs.
Lupoliansky said he would "not be deterred" from the project "even if this step forces us to redefine the status of the area.
A duty-free commercial center could also be established at the site, attracting domestic tourism, Lupoliansky said.
Some 140 businesses at the site currently employ nearly 5,000 workers, one-third of them from the Palestinian Authority, one-third from Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and one-third Jewish Israelis, working in what Lupoliansky said was "an atmosphere of cooperation" that allowed the industrial zone to flourish.
Lupoliansky condemned the security establishment's decision to forbid Palestinians with work permits from entering Atarot.