Charges of racism send Israel Land Administration reform plan back to committee

The Israel Lands Administration reform plan is back before the Knesset Finance Committee - after it was already approved for second and third readings and sent to the plenum floor - due to an appeal by MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al), who claims there is a clause in the law that discriminates against Israeli Arabs. The clause in question makes sale of land in kibbutzim and moshavim contingent on the purchaser passing an internal acceptance committee. The agricultural communities were not initially part of the reform plan, but received the right to purchase their land in a last-minute deal involving the top leadership of the Labor Party, hours before the law was passed in the Knesset Finance Committee. Israeli Arabs have long decried the acceptance committees as discriminatory, saying they function as de facto gatekeepers to keep out Arabs and other minorities. Tibi added that the clause was contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that made it illegal to limit the sale of land to Jews alone. Tibi argued that there had been insufficient time to properly address the issue in the all-night session during which the bill was debated and that his request to readdress it had been accepted by Carmel Shama (Likud), who had chaired the special subcommittee that was debating the reform. Moshavim Movement secretary-general Eitan Ben-David came out in defense of the acceptance committees in a letter he sent to the press. "The uniqueness of the moshav is derived from the fact that every member, whether they choose to or not, affects the character and the strength of the community," he wrote. "Therefore, without the ability to form some type of filter, the moshav has no chance of surviving." Ben-David added that studies conducted by the movement had found that those applying for membership were looking to be part of a strong community, one that celebrated holidays together and supported each other in tough times. "There is no point for a person that the community determines - after professional examination, a personal interview and often even a weekend spent in the homes of current members - to be someone who will have difficulties in fitting into the community, to become a member of the moshav. In such a case, the applicant misses out on what he or she wanted in the first place - the community." Since its inception, it has been Israel's policy not to sell land outright to homeowners. Instead, buyers have been given permission to lease the land for a period of 49 years, with an option to extend the lease almost automatically. The rationale for state ownership of 93% of the total land area has always been that this is a key instrument for achieving territorial and demographic stability. The reform, which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised as part of his election platform, is meant to restructure the bureaucracy-laden land-allocating institution and includes a plan to privatize 5 percent of state-owned land and transfer it to its current lessees in perpetuity. The reform plan has come under attack from across the political board by individual MKs, special interest groups, academic research bodies and nonprofit organizations. Groups like the Dror Israel Movement claim that the proposed land reform violates a divine edict given in a passage from Leviticus: "And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me" (23:25). Other opponents of the reform include environmental groups like the Land Protection Agency and Adam Teva V'Din, which are worried about the ecological implications that may arise from private ownership, and social activists who worry that the land will end up in the hands of large-scale developers, thus increasing social gaps. On Sunday evening, roughly 500 people protested the reform in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset. Some of the protesters were wearing business suits and holding up a large cake, representing the state being cut up and handed out to real estate tycoons. Protesters held up signs reading "And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity" and "Bibi, Barak and Yishai are selling Israel."