(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a NIS 17 billion plan for Negev development Wednesday, just as contacts with the US resumed over negotiating terms for an estimated $1.2 billion Israeli aid request for Negev and Galilee development.
The Negev development plan unveiled Wednesday, pushed forward by Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, set 2015 as a target date for increasing the Negev population from 535,000 to 900,000. The plan calls for the massive sum to be invested in the Negev over the next decade, with the first billion shekels to be earmarked in 2006.
Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry officials confirmed Wednesday that contacts with the US over a Galilee and Negev aid package had resumed. The package, tied to the Gaza disengagement and intended to help defray the cost of moving military bases from Gaza to the Negev, was put on hold in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With the realization in Jerusalem that the US would have to pump billions of dollars into reconstruction of the devastated city of New Orleans, it was deemed then that the time was not right for a massive aid request.
According to officials in Jerusalem, when the hurricane hit in late August the US had submitted to Israel written questions about plans for Negev and Galilee development. Israel's responses to these questions were only recently passed on to Washington, and technical teams from the Finance Ministry and the US government are currently reading them over.
The Negev development plan that Sharon presented Wednesday with his two vice prime ministers, Peres and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, included massive infrastructure development, as well as plans for investment in the region's industry, education and tourism. Likewise the plan called for the transfer of IDF bases to the region.
"Development of the Negev is one of this government's strategic goals, and there is a vital national need to do this urgently," Sharon said. He said the plan he will present to the government "will turn the Negev into a region that attracts people and improves the standard of living."
In addition to investing in roads and high-tech industry in the region, Peres said that considerable money would be invested for the Bedouin in the region.
However Former Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam termed the project "campaign propaganda," and warned in an Israel Radio interview that the investment would be squandered if the government did not implement the law "with determination and sensitivity" and keep Bedouin from encroaching on state land in the Negev.
The announcement of the development plan turned into a light-hearted affair when Sharon joked that while he may not still be prime minister when the plan is completed, Peres would "still be active."
In what sounded like a parting ceremony for the two elderly politicians, whose time together in a joint coalition seems to be coming to an end, Sharon recalled many memories. Sharon said that he has known Peres since 1953, and that although they have not "always agreed on everything," they have seen eye-to-eye on the "Zionist issues," have done "many things together" and always enjoyed "good relations."
When Olmert joked that every two years it seems as if he and Sharon are parting from Peres, Sharon interceded and - in a reference to Labor's intent to pull out of the coalition - said that this time it looked like "Peres will be separating from us."