The government decided on Sunday to grant “priority” status to the Negev through a five-year investment program of NIS 5 billion. This is seen as being a civilian counterpart to the massive government injection of funds to move the army to the south during the coming decade. For a change, it actually looks as though this time the army really means business.
Ever since the establishment of the state, successive Israeli governments have attempted to develop the country’s so-called peripheral regions – the Negev and the Galilee – through a series of policies which have given them preferred status in terms of cheaper land, easier mortgages, tax cuts and the so on.
It does raise the question, however, of why it takes the army’s decision to move south for some real infrastructural development to take place and why, for almost 60 years, the slogans and declarations aimed at improving the accessibility, and the quality of life, in the region have come to naught.
The Negev continues to be characterized by net outflow of residents to the center of the country, despite the fact that the new road and rail links mean that it takes no more than an hour to get from the center of Beersheba to the center of Tel Aviv – not a huge commuting distance for employment or even entertainment in global terms.
And given the huge difference in house prices – because of the lower price of land – one would have assumed that living in the northern Negev would have been an attractive proposition for many people, especially young professional families with children, who are unable to get into the overpriced housing markets of Gush Dan and Tel Aviv.
But no. Despite the relatively small distances and regardless of the improved accessibility, Beersheba and the south retain their general image of periphery in the negative sense – a region which does not offer the same opportunities as the center of the country and from which residents and students leave at the first opportunity.
For 60 years, successive governments have defined and re-defined its designation as a Priority Area for Development while during the past decade there have even been special ministries created to deal with the development of the Galilee and Negev. Government ministers Avishai Braverman – and who knew better than him what it was to develop a toprate international university in Beersheba – and Silvan Shalom – born and bred in Beersheba – have not succeeded in significantly changing the situation.
A lot of it is about image. Most people forget that three of the highest quality suburban communities in the country – Omer, Metar and Lehavim – lie within the Beersheba metropolitan region. Instead they continually think of the poorer development towns of Dimonah, Ofakim, Yeruham and Mitzpeh Ramon where, it has to be admitted, there remains much to be done to put them on a par with similar towns elsewhere in the country.
Visitors to Beersheba are either people who come for a meeting during the day before returning to their homes in Gush Dan, or tourists passing through on their way to Eilat. On a good day, some of them may actually stay in Beersheba’s only hotel – a hotel which has changed names so often during the past decade it is sometimes difficult to remember whether it is a Hilton, a Paradise or a Leonardo – but most will pass through with barely an eyeblink.
And this despite the amazing development which has taken place in the city during the past decade. Partly spurred on by the influx of over 60,000 Russian immigrants – who have contributed to a strengthening of the service infrastructure of the region as a whole – and, more recently, by a dynamic young mayor, Rubik Danielowitz, who has freed himself of the oldtime, inefficient politics of the powerful families and the “jobs for the boys” syndrome.
Parts of the city, the commercial complexes, and the newer housing developments are on a par with anything else in the country. But one has to live here to know it – passing through, it escapes the eye.
Planners are divided as to whether the continual designation of a city or a region as a special development area is, in the long term, a good thing. On the one hand it brings about the investment of additional resources – but they are public rather than private sector resources and therefore do not ensure, up front, that there will be continuity once the period of special status has ceased to exist.
If the investment of public resources can not bring about internal dynamism and local investment, then it remains superficial, temporary and artificial. Such investment has to create something which is long-term and selfsustaining and this has never happened in the Israeli context, despite the fact that in reality the entire country is no more than a single city-state, where everything is connected to everything.
Increasingly, people with senior jobs now use the better transportation links to reside in the center of the country and travel to their jobs in Beersheba and the region. This is the fear of the proposed move of the army south – that the people who have no choice will move to the south while the senior personnel, those whose presence could contribute to the region, will simply commute on a daily basis, or return to their family homes in Tel Aviv and Ramat Hasharon for the weekend while living on the army base during the week.
Even at the university, the days when tenure was dependent on living in the area have long since passed. New faculty, the best of whom are sought by all the universities, commute from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many of them preferring to undertake their research activities – particularly those that do not require physical infrastructure such as laboratories – in their home environment.
It makes for a weaker university, where many of the faculty only come to campus two or three days a week to teach and to participate in meetings, while the summer period is often dead – with little evidence of either faculty or students.
Since many of the senior university personnel no longer reside in the region, it would be hypocritical – to say the least – for them to continue to demand that all new faculty are only offered positions if they move with their families to the south of the country. Many do, because of the relocation and rental subsidies that are offered to them and their families, and there is little doubt their contribution to the university community and intellectual atmosphere is far greater, just by virtue of their presence on campus, than that of those who reside in distant locations.
And the designation of a region as a “priority” or “peripheral” area only adds to the negative image of that region, and therein lies a Catch 22.
Without special status there will be no extra investment. With special status the message goes out that is is a region in need of development. It belies the very real changes which have taken place during the past decade – which no amount of good marketing can change unless people visit and see with their own eyes.
It is one of the structural contradictions of Israel’s regional planning and it seems no nearer at being resolved, even after Sunday’s cabinet decision, than it has during the past 60 years.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.