(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Being all too familiar in these parts with the nexus of politics and business, it is likely that few Israelis were terribly surprised to discover this week that the construction monstrosity perched on a hill overlooking Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood was allegedly built with the help of graft, bribery and local government corruption.
Apparently cynicism knows no bounds: The huge building project – which includes apartments with striking panoramic views selling for NIS 6 million – was called “Holyland,” as if there was anything sacred about the illegal devices allegedly used to bulldozer the unpopular high-rise through the strict building codes designed to preserve the city’s special ambiance.
If the allegations are true, narrow business interests of a select few, well-connected insiders trampled the rights of the many. Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court Judge Avraham Haiman described it as “one of the most severe instances of public corruption in Israel’s history, which will send shock waves throughout the country and which has caused irreversible damage to the public interest.”
The project was first approved in 1999 at a time when former prime minister Ehud Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem. It called for the construction of the Holyland Tower apartment building on the southern part of the site. The northern part was to have featured two hotel towers and a model of ancient Jerusalem.
But in 2003, after the second intifada ruined tourism and the hotel business became unprofitable, businessmen behind the scheme requested and received permission to build four residential towers.
In an attempt to block the project, residents filed more than 300 objections, arguing in part that it would cause traffic and parking problems and monstrously scar the landscape. It is now alleged that businessmen such as Hillel Charni, head of the Holyland initiative, bribed their way through opposition.
Olmert’s then-confidant Uri Messer allegedly
facilitated the transfer of bribes to key members of the Jerusalem Municipality such as Uri Sheetrit, who served as city engineer at the time. Police have raided the offices of Polar Investments, which is headed by Uri Shani, former head of the Prime Minister’s Office under Ariel Sharon. (Shani has only held the post since 2009, several years after Polar finished construction of what ended up being six 30-story residential towers.)
Illustrate once again the uncomfortably close ties between money and politics, and arouse further serious questions. Among them: Is the land reform backed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu likely to make it even easier for greedy businessmen with political connections to push through real estate projects? Can grassroots movements representing broad coalitions stop big business from ruining our landscapes?
The answer to the second question appears to be a resounding yes. While the Holyland project was pushed through, the activism of Jerusalem’s residents has managed to block several other real estate initiatives backed by big business. This grassroots activism saved the Katamon neighborhood’s Gazelle Valley, it got the Safdie plan revoked, as well as a plan to build an observation tower in Armon Hanatziv, and helped ensure that a park was established alongside the old railroad tracks in the south of the city.
Activists continue to fight to save a public pool in the Germany Colony and the Smadar Cinema.
Meanwhile, the election of Nir Barkat as mayor of Jerusalem can also be partly seen as a resurgence of civic involvement in the capital after years of indifference among the non-haredi Jewish population.
The phenomenon is not limited to Jerusalem. Looking around the world,
signs abound that the common folk are fed up with big business run
amok. Whether it is the Tea Party in the US, the violent uprising in
Kyrgyzstan or mass demonstrations in Thailand, people will not tolerate
corruption or the unbridled greed of fat cats oblivious to the needs of
their fellow citizens.
Free markets are important. But a balance must be struck between
business interests and the need to protect our environment. And for
economies to function properly, a basic level of law and order must be
maintained to foster trust.
If nepotism is rewarded over merit, if bribery overrides checks and
balances, cynicism and fatalism are liable to crush motivation and
dampen private initiative, which is the cornerstone of capitalism.
The eyesore ironically known as Holyland now stands as a landmark –
testifying to the need to prevent business interests from mixing
illicitly with politics, and as a reminder of what happens when they do.
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