Late next month, some 20,000 young people - mostly Israelis, but with several thousand coming from overseas as well - are set to participate in a three-day walk through the Negev. It's a "symbolic march, taking in religious and historical sites, designed to highlight the opportunities there," says Russell Robinson, chief executive officer of the Jewish National Fund.
The self-proclaimed "caretaker of the land of Israel," the JNF last year unveiled a highly ambitious initiative: to encourage at least 250,000 Jews to make their homes in what Robinson calls the Negev "frontierland" over the next five to 10 years. And crucial to its success is bringing potential residents to the area to see the possibilities for themselves.
Robinson characterizes the "Bluep rint Negev" project as a return to Jewish origins - "our land has always been an integral part of our survival." It's a return to origins for the JNF, too, "which has always been about reclaiming the land."
And it's a return, he adds, that is only feasible in good part because of the JNF's focus in recent years on helping boost the quantity of water at Israel's disposal. "There's now 8.5 percent more water available than 7 years ago," he says. "If that hadn't happened, if there weren't new technological possibilities with water, recycling and so on, our Negev project might have been impossible."
Not that it's smooth and straightforward even now. Although the project is being coordinated with the Israeli government, Robinson is still anxious to see Israe l's political leaders fully internalize the fundamental "change of thinking" required in encouraging the settlement of the south. "The days of putting people onto buses, and telling them 'this is where you'll live,' are long gone. This is the era of choic e" - in Israel, and for potential immigrants.
As Robinson sees it, indeed, we're now living in "the first period since the Second Temple where there are no Jews in enforced exile." So if Israel and its supporters want to achieve a dramatic population gro wth in the Negev, "we can't be thinking ma'abarot [immigrant transit camps]. We need to be thinking Phoenix, Arizona."
Such an influx, he also readily acknowledges, "will also mean a certain amount of displacement for Negev Beduin." But he argues that those who oppose the project out of concern for Beduin welfare are mistaken. "Unemployment among Negev Beduin is over 90 percent," he says. "And there's no way that will change unless we create new infrastructure and industry."
Crucially, too, development must be acutely sensitive to the Negev's unique and fragile ecosystem. Environmentalists bridle at the notion of major construction there, but Robinson insists wise and careful planning and oversight can square the circle.
And then, of course, there's th e fundamental matter of money. To achieve its goal, the JNF is aiming to raise $500 million. Its overall 2005 campaign, Robinson says, has brought in some $50m.
But Robinson is adamant that all the challenges are surmountable, with enough vision, enthusi asm and goodwill. "Of course Beersheba, which has a current population of 200,000, can become a town of 400,000, and a wonderful place to raise children. We're the only ones preventing it."
By way of precedent, he cites the Beit Shemesh and Modi'in exper iences. Plenty of skeptics down the years argued that neither of those towns would flourish, "but look at them now," he notes.
"The fact is that Yeroham was established in the 1950s with a population of 10,000 and that's where it still is now. Arad was e stablished with great hopes and now is poverty stricken. We need to change that. And we can."
In contrast to the heavy emphasis in Diaspora fundraising of recent years on giving money to an Israel battered by terrorism, Robinson stresses that the Negev p roject is an opportunity for a partnership with the Diaspora built "not on blood and tears, but on the positive aspects."
Outside Beersheba, the Negev's Jewish population is about 140,000, and there are some 150,000 to 170,000 Beduin. The JNF's project t o remake those demographics was in the planning stage for five years before it was formally unveiled.
One year on, Robinson says, "we've had detailed enquiries from 15,000 Israelis." Of course, he clarifies, "not all will move there."
But some already h ave - more than two dozen families to Sansana, northeast of Beersheba, for example, where the planning envisages an eventual 400 families. Another small group to Merhav Am, between Sde Boker and Yeroham. "These are young Israelis who are moving down there on a leap of faith."
With time, though, the firm intention is to provide the most concrete reasons for people to move: a desirable quality of life thanks to affordable, available housing, job opportunities and good education. Robinson says this is gradu ally taking shape, via a strategic plan involving "strengthening circles" around Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon and Beersheba, negotiations with businesses and entrepreneurs and partnerships with local councils.
Asked where those 250,000 Negev arrivals are going to come from, Robinson speaks first of Israelis, especially those who might otherwise consider leaving the country because of the high cost of living in the more central areas. "In the Negev, they can have a front yard and a back yard. A law office in Ofakim," he enthuses, "a stockbroker's, an accountant's."
Then there's the immigrant potential. The JNF is working in that area with organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh. "Ra'anana, Modi'in and Beit Shemesh," where many Western olim are making their homes, "are great," he stresses. "But let them go to a new suburb."
He notes that improved transport is bringing the Negev ever closer to the country's center, with Route 6 in place and a double track train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba expected in three to five ye ars.
His fear is that with Beersheba only 35 minutes from Tel Aviv by train people may want to study at Ben-Gurion University but head home each day rather than live there. "That's why we have to turn Beersheba into an oasis, to bring people to school th ere and make sure they'll want to stay afterwards."
Hence the JNF's involvement in a plan for a world-class soccer stadium in the city, and another to turn Beersheba into a San Antonio-style attraction with a live river running through it. In Ofakim, sim ilarly, "we have a $5.5m. project to develop the central park and a lake reservoir."
And if timing is everything, Robinson posits that, psychologically, now might just be the perfect moment. "I think that the Gaza pullout and the building of the [West Bank] fence have given us the feeling that we're shrinking. Well, here's a way to show that we're not shrinking, a way to lead the movement south."