(photo credit: Knesset Website)
"Netanyahu won't divide Jerusalem, he'll merely sell it off to the highest bidder," warned MK Shelly Yacimovich during a Wednesday morning hearing on the proposed reform to the Israel Lands Authority held under the auspices of the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee.
"This is a dramatic moment in the history of Zionism. You are privatizing the country itself," added Yacimovich, who has sworn to fight the measure as the cornerstone of her struggle against the Economic Arrangements Law.
The ILA reform - and particularly the sale of state-held lands to private investors - has become the largest bone in the government's throat as it attempts to bring the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill to a vote on the Knesset floor later this month.
MKs from parties as varied as Hadash on the Left and the National Union on the Right blasted the reform - a series of moves aimed at reducing bureaucracy within the ILA and streamlining its activities, which are seen by some as controversial for making it easier to sell off state assets - during a committee hearing so stormy that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin gave the hearing special permission to continue a half-hour after the opening buzzer of the Knesset plenum.
The committee appointed MK Carmel Shama (Likud) as the chairman of a subcommittee to discuss the reform. The very existence of the newly-founded subcommittee pointed to the difficulty that the government is likely to face pushing the most controversial clauses of the Economic Arrangement Bill through the parliament.
Rivlin, who has repeatedly voiced his discomfort with the law as a way to bypass the legislative process, has announced that rather than advancing the bill through the Knesset by way of a single committee - usually the Finance Committee - he will permit the bill to be divided up by clauses and redirected toward relevant committees.
This decision will allow coalition opponents of troublesome clauses to oppose the specific item, without entirely breaking party ranks with regard to the budget as a whole. There is opposition to the reform within half of the coalition parties, including vocal opponents within Labor, the Jewish Home and Likud itself.
Likud opponent MK Danny Danon said that his next step would be to turn to ILA heads as well as to senior government ministers including Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias in an effort to remove the land swap approved by the JNF directorate on Tuesday from being included as part of the ILA reform.
Through the swap, the JNF would exchange prime real estate in the center of the country for undeveloped areas in the Negev and the Galilee. The ILA would then be able to sell off the urban areas, parceled out into five dunam swaths, to private investors. Opponents of the bill argued that the land received as part of the exchange had extremely low value, and that parts of it were used as IDF training grounds.
"Should we now replace the blue-and-white JNF charity boxes that are currently in schools with a bill of sale, or an address of a real estate magnate?" asked MK Otniel Schneller, another opponent of the JNF swap.
Schneller emphasized that in addition to violating biblical precepts against selling off the Land of Israel in perpetuity, the swap also conveyed a negative educational message that ideology and values of Zionism and of the redemption of the land of Israel were secondary to financial gain.
Furthermore, he added, selling off state land in perpetuity is akin to selling off other exhaustable national resources. "Would we allow someone to buy the Kinneret?" he asked. "Of course not, because it is a national asset and should be preserved for the nation."
The reform - which the Treasury defended as a cornerstone of the government's economic recovery policy - was a key clause of Shas's coalition agreement. That agreement granted Shas control over the troubled body, adding it to the portfolio held by Attias, who will serve as the Israel Lands Council's chairman until the end of 2010 and will appoint his successor.
According to the timetable set forth in the coalition agreement, the next six months will be the crucial ones for the ILA, as the agreement calls for all of the reforms to be completed by the end of the calendar year.
In addition to the JNF land swap, the reform would lower the number of JNF members sitting on the Israel Lands Council "in accordance with the reduction of JNF authority over public lands."
Among the other steps included in the overall ILA reform are outsourcing maintenance services, canceling the need for an ILA signature on building permits in any case where a payment is not due to the ILA, and the outsourcing of marketing land sales.
The ILA would be downgraded to a non-independent governmental body, and its mandate reduced to three divisions: business, which will market and sell land; maintenance, which will preserve the land and maintain the state's rights on the land; and service, which will maintain existing leases and will maintain services through outsourcing. The ILA's personnel will also be significantly reduced.
Most significant for Shas signatories, who were trying to ensure more building opportunities for investors as well as new housing opportunities for constituents, the coalition agreement maintained that any new marketing of lands will be directed toward sale and not toward lease, and that the ILA will no longer be involved in initiating detailed planning and infrastructure development. Responsibility for planning and development will be turned over to local government and to private interests.