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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MKs from across the political spectrum blasted Tuesday's decision by the directors of the Jewish National Fund to approve a land swap that would allow JNF-held lands in the center of the country to be sold for private development.
The plan is a first step toward Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's proposal to privatize the Israel Lands Administration and to allocate more state land for sale.
The JNF directorate gave the go-ahead for a swap whereby JNF land in the center of the country - where property prices are highest - would be traded for land in the Galilee and the Negev.
"The land that we are passing on to the state are currently leased via private tenders. In exchange, we are receiving and will develop land in the Negev and the Galilee. This is the new Zionism," JNF World Chairman Effi Stenzler said. "Developing the Negev and the Galilee is the Zionism of the 21st century. The center of the country is already developed."
The JNF's strategic plan, approved in 2008, calls to redirect the organization's focus to developing the periphery.
Legislators from both sides of the aisle remained unconvinced that the deal - and especially the land sell-off - was really in the interest of Zionism or the State of Israel.
"This is a regrettable decision, through which the JNF has lost its goal of preserving and developing land for the Jewish nation," MK Danny Danon (Likud) said minutes after the vote. "We should not allow foreign investors to buy land. Who knows what could happen - in the end the developer could turn out to be working with Saudi funds."
"The JNF is not meant to serve Arabs - that's what they have the wakf [Islamic trust] for. It is not a government ministry that is required to serve all Israelis, it is an organization that is meant to help Jews. This decision serves the interest of [former Meretz chairman] Yossi Beilin, it is a triumph of post-Zionism," Danon said.
He promised to fight the decision, starting with a Knesset Economic Affairs Committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday and through to meetings with the Prime Minister's Office and Interior Minister Ariel Attias. The decision was a hot topic during Monday's Likud faction meeting in which a number of other MKs, including Limor Livnat and Moshe Ya'alon, agreed with Danon's arguments.
And he is not alone. MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) blasted the privatization as transferring public land to private interests and promised that she would make the struggle against the ILA reform the linchpin of her coming battle against the 2009-10 state budget and its accompanying economic arrangements bill.
Danon said that he hopes that he and Yacimovich will be able to find common ground and join forces to block the turnover.
MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) also voiced opposition to the JNF decision, but on a religious basis, citing tracts forbidding the sale of the Land of Israel.
"The members of the directorate are sending the JNF to the wilderness and are violating their role as preservers of the Jewish people's land," he said.
Also on Tuesday, the Finance Ministry responded to reports that the land reform had been removed from the economic arrangements bill, emphasizing that there was no intention.
"This is the central reform of the government's economic program to fight unemployment and to create vehicles for growth, and as such it is important that it be carried out as soon as possible, and it will not be separated from the economic arrangements bill.
A month ago, the Knesset Social-Environmental Lobby declared that while reforming the Israel Lands Administration is necessary, the elements of the reform as it stands now constitute a clear threat to the country's open spaces.
The reform is set to be passed as part of the economic arrangements bill, which will arrive at the Knesset for its first vote on June 14.
Lobby chairman MK Ophir Paz-Pines decided that the coalition would send a letter to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, asking him to remove the ILA reform from the economic arrangements bill and to give the reform its own longer timeframe.