The Jerusalem Conference on National Land Policy

A proposal for national land reform was presented at the sixth conference on national land policy held in Jerusalem on 12th December, 2007

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December 19, 2007 14:39
The Jerusalem Conference on National Land Policy

Jerusalem Conf 224-88. (photo credit: )

 
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At the conclusion of a day of fascinating debate on trends in the State of Israel's land policy in the coming years, hundreds of participants who had attended the Sixth Conference on National Land Policy at Binyenei HaUma - initiated by KKL-JNF's Institute for the Study of Land Policy & Use - were left with the shared feeling that the real debate was only just beginning. The main issue at this year's conference was how the leading bodies involved in managing State Lands would continue to function against a background of calls for privatization on the one hand and the High Court of Justice's precedent-setting decisions on the other. At its core was a document of recommendations for land reform prepared by a heterogeneous think tank, headed by Professor Shlomo Hasson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Reviewing the first document of recommendations laid before the 300 participants in the conference, Professor Hasson noted that whenever land policy recommendations are proposed, the first question that has to be asked is, how all the various bodies connected with such reform are liable to be influenced by it. Can they be made to work together? "We believe that it is possible to promote growth by means of a combination of fairness on the one hand and environmental conservation on the other, to create a situation in which everyone wins. What holds us back in Israel is the fact that, instead of working towards cooperative endeavor, we tend to divisiveness. There are those who talk of privatizing the Israel Lands Authority in order to remove impediments that stifle development, while voices at the other end of the spectrum regard centralized planning as the appropriate response. Some are opposed to non-agricultural use of farmland because of the adverse effect on urban communities. Each pulls in his own direction, and each does so for the very best of reasons. It seems that we no longer possess the solidarity we had in the 1950's. Our team dealt with precisely this issue: how can a solution be reached under circumstances such as these?" The main recommendations include the establishment of a special administrative framework that will determine land policy, coordinate between the ministries and authorities concerned and oversee policy implementation. The overall planning would remain in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior's Planning Authority, while local zoning plans would be dealt with in accordance with the proposed new framework. The think-tank team recommended continuing privatization of State lands, provided this is done after due consideration and under proper supervision, with the regulatory body adjusting levels of free-market intervention to suit the differing needs of the different areas of the country. The team recommends that the government establish a new body that will combine the use of both public and private capital for purposes of development, growth, social fairness and the conservation of open spaces. The team also recommends using land tax rezoning monies to set up a fund to promote reasonably priced housing, preservation of open spaces and farming. The money will be allocated on a socially just and egalitarian basis. At the beginning of the conference Minister of Housing & Construction, Zeev Boim - who is also Chairman of the Board of the ILA - described the tasks incumbent upon his ministry as "determining the policy of the Israel Lands Authority and the Ministry of Housing & Construction with a view to strengthening peripheral areas - which have been in a state of decline in recent years; speeding the process of settlement solutions for the Gush Katif evacuees; reaching an agreement with the Bedouin in the Negev; regularizing land use in the Galilee Arab sector; and dealing with urban renewal necessary in the center of the country." Boim severely criticized the conduct of the bodies that are supposed to deal with these issues: "We have all become expert at complicating procedures, rather than moving things along. I am extremely concerned by the lack of efficiency, the ever-increasing bureaucracy and the red tape that impedes the wheels of planning and development." The Minister turned to the issue of land policy in the context of the status of KKL-JNF owned land: "The State of Israel and the ILA must act with complete impartiality towards every citizen where land policy is concerned. This is a basic right. This is how we want to see the State of Israel. While it is true that this is not always the case and it is not always a simple matter, we strive to maintain this impartial equality. On the other hand, we cannot ignore KKL-JNF. We cannot disregard it as an institution or forget the circumstances of its founding and the land-acquisition objectives that this nation and Zionism's founding fathers set for themselves. These are things that cannot be erased in the name of the right to equality. This is the State of the entire Jewish People, and it is no coincidence that the Jewish People continues to donate funds to be used for the implementation of KKL-JNF principles." Adi Niv, Chairman of KKL-JNF Institute for the Study of Land Policy and the conference's initiator and MC, chaired the first session, whose topic was: Is Land Reform Necessary? "Today's land policy is a conglomeration of unrelated decisions. Agrarian land reform must be implemented at once, with the country being divided into regions in accordance with which the rights and obligations of land users will be allocated. Efficient land management does not necessarily mean land ownership; despite steps towards privatization, research carried out by the Land Policy Institute shows that continued public ownership of land is vital." Former Minister of Finance and Planning Professor Shimon Sheetrit dealt with the question of Just Apportionment and Israel's Lands, and attacked the increasing recourse to the justice system where solutions to disagreements over land status and policy were concerned: "Sometimes people have to make concessions to avoid court decisions that create a damaging legal precedent," he said. "Since the attack on the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, we must stick to a position that defends our existence as a Jewish and democratic state. A verdict like that given in the case of the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow movement was a mistake from an economic, settlement, Zionist and democratic point of view." In his talk on Settlement Land, Shmuel Rifman Chairman of the Israel Regional Councils' Forum and head of Ramat HaNegev Regional Council demanded that the ILA be separated from KKL-JNF, and severely criticized existing government land policy. "The State of Israel treats the Galilee and Negev regions as if they were part of the center of the country, despite all the declarations of preferential treatment for the Negev and Galilee. It is the inhabitants of the periphery who are the main sufferers from the decision to freeze expansion of agricultural communities. In most communities in central Israel such expansion has already taken place. The State of Israel has long since lost control of land in the Negev, and let no one tell me that the new Negev Development Authority will be able to solve these problems. Our parents bought the Kibbutz Revivim land, and now we have to re-acquire everything, because everywhere has been occupied by Bedouin while the State stood by and did nothing. Do not stop us from holding onto the land. A state without land has no right to exist in the new Middle East." Lawyer Rachel Zakai, legal advisor to the ILA, said that the Authority had become the national punching bag, and was under attack not only for its own mistakes, but also because of those made by other land administration bodies. She rejected claims that dismantling the ILA and privatizing land would provide a remedy for Israel's real estate market, but expressed her support for a certain measure of reform: "The ILA is under the direction of the Israel Lands Council and the Israeli government. It is embroiled in complex decisions on the one hand, and hampered by the limitations imposed by the Finance Ministry and the Civil Service Commission on the other. If there is a subject that has not yet been thoroughly thought out, it's the issue of agricultural land." Barry Holzman, Chairman of the Admati Association and a member of Kibbutz Ein Harod, added his voice to criticism of legal decisions that allowed conflicting interpretations, which constitute, in his view, an impossible contradiction. He does not believe that separating KKL-JNF from the ILA will relieve the former of its obligation to observe the norms of impartiality: "We can change the attitude and the spirit of things. But we won't get far unless we do so without recourse to the courts and mutual recrimination. We must not wait until kibbutz members conflict with residents of peripheral townships. This debate has to start from above." Holzman, like other speakers at the conference, expressed his criticism of the fact that no representative of the Finance Ministry had seen fit to take part in the event. Despite the division of the conference into three sessions, each focusing on a different subject, the speakers did not stick to their designated topics, but digressed to other issues as well, thereby providing a practical demonstration of the complexity of land policy. Professor Yitzhak Shanel of Tel Aviv University, who chaired the debate on KKL-JNF Lands and State Land called for a change in the "dunam-here-dunam-there" ideal. "Zionism is capable of conducting a fair and reasonable dialogue. Jewish communities in Galilee should be asking themselves what happens to Galilee Arab communities. Today we are confronted with the question of the Negev Bedouin in all its gravity. Can planning alone provide socio-democratic solutions, or should we combine all the policy-making bodies? Can public ecological interests be protected in the absence of a land policy?" KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler was at pains to emphasize the efficacy of the land exchange mechanism in operation between KKL-JNF and the State of Israel (by means of the ILA) as a solution to the conflict of interests that stems from KKL-JNF's insistence that it does not actually own the lands that it administers: "We do not own the land. We are trustees on behalf of the Jewish People for land that was acquired by the Jewish People with funds provided by the Jewish People for the benefit of the Jewish People. KKL-JNF will never sell this land." "No certificate or deed of ownership is of any use to people who do not cling to the land and thereby prove their right to possess it. KKL-JNF has never intended to deprive any of the residents of the State of Israel of their rights. We developed the land-swap mechanism, and every year there are 5 - 10 cases in which a land exchange is necessary in order to enable citizens to exercise their rights. The land-exchange arrangement is now no longer in force, through no fault of KKL-JNF, but we reiterate our conviction that use of this mechanism should continue. With good will, all problems can be solved, but we cannot accede to demands that can cause only damage to the Jewish People." Professor Rasem Khumaysi of Haifa University raised the view of neglect of Arab communities' needs: "There is no universal application of decisions, because Arab communities remain outside the sectarian land-market framework. If we're talking about land possession rights, why not support giving land rights to the Bedouin? Land policy must provide equal opportunity and access for all. It must be a policy of social justice and just apportionment, in which Arab citizens of Israel are legitimately represented in all matters relating to management, entitlement, and benefit from public land." Dr. Alexander Kedar of Haifa University also spoke of this "just apportionment," and said that the tendency towards privatization of land is related to the Judaization agenda on the one hand and the provision of private land rights (which only increase the gap between the various sectors of the population) on the other. KKL-JNF's legal advisor, lawyer Meir Alfia, spoke of the legal aspect of the status of KKL-JNF land as opposed to that of State lands administered by the ILA. At the final session of the conference, before the delightful musical performance provided by the Givatron - winners of the Israel Prize - there was a debate on the relationship between planning policy and land policy. Former Director of the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies Professor Amiram Gonen of the Hebrew University, who chaired the session, defined Tel Aviv as the "locomotive" that drives the Israeli economy: "We have to breathe life into three faltering locomotives - Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba - to reduce to a minimum the degree to which they lose out to Tel Aviv on a daily basis. They hemorrhage daily!" Architect Shamai Asif, Director of the Interior Ministry's Planning Authority, voiced the general feeling shared by participants at the conference: "My feeling is that there are lots of questions, lot of disagreements and little sense of having come together with a shared aim. We are living in a dynamic world and from a developmental point of view we double every twenty years. We have to take action to implement an overall policy and define each role precisely. I should like to see the Israeli budget divided on a regional basis so that decisions can be taken ahead of time as to exactly what and how much will be allocated to every sphere in each region. Zoning plans and detailed planning exist in every sphere and it is unreasonable to complain that planning interferes with development." Lawyer Gideon Vitkon, formerly Director of the Israel Lands Authority, and Yaakov Efrati, the organization's present director, discussed the relationship between planning policy and land policy. Vitkon put his finger on the weak point in this relationship: "In my opinion, the present situation, in which one body vetoes the decisions of another, is completely untenable. The ILA has no right to veto planning decisions, which should be left to the planning committees." Summing up the conference's crowded day of debate, KKL-JNF Co-Chairman Avraham Duvdevani said: "If we go back to the two initial sessions, we can see that there were overlaps. We took a research issue, we heard professional approaches to it, and very soon, it became clear that there would be no convincing others who did not belong to the same school of thought. KKL-JNF is an ideological Zionist organization with clearly defined policies on the subject of land, and it is also a company. Land is one of the components of national identity, but it seems that not everyone agrees with this - not even in the Supreme Court. What links us to this country, rather than to Uganda, is the land. There are a great many different views on the privatization of land. KKL-JNF finds itself in a serious dilemma with regard to the decisions of the Gadish Commission, because KKL-JNF land cannot be transferred to other ownership. Nor, when people talk of a separation between KKL-JNF and the ILA, is it clear whether or not such a move would provide a solution to the discrimination issue. It would, however, most certainly solve the problem in that we would not be obliged to sell land. But we should not declare ourselves in favor of separation until we have all the necessary data, down to the very last detail. In the meantime, even if no major reform takes place, there is still a great deal we can do to improve the situation within the existing framework." For more information, please visit our website at www.kkl.org.il/eng or e-mail ahuvab@kkl.org.il Sponsored content

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