By JPOST.COM STAFF, HERB KEINON
Labor ministers on Thursday voiced harsh criticism over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's new map of "priority areas" that includes dozens of settlements housing some 110,000 people.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog all criticized the decision, while demanding the prime minister allocate more funds to the development of the Negev and the Galilee.
The Prime Minister's Office briefed reporters on the plan on Wednesday evening and sent ministers the map ahead of a vote set for Sunday's cabinet meeting.
Those inside the map would receive preferential governmental treatment and incentives for education, housing, infrastructure and employment.
MK Ophir Paz-Pines called upon Labor ministers to decide that preferential treatment for isolated settlements constitutes a red line for Labor participation in the government.
"The time has come to back up their words with actions. It is hard for me to believe that Barak is isolated from the topic, and was not a partner in drawing up the map, especially when it is known that ministers and MKs were involved in the consultations."
"What are 10 months of freeze compared to the giant multi-year benefits plan?! It is clear now tha thte decision on the settlement freeze was simply a smoke grenade in order to distract public attention away from the map of national preference, which prioritizes the settlements. The flow of budget funds to the settlements according to the map, has a strategic impact on the building and development of settlements."
"Beyond spitting in the face of the periphery, approval of the map will bring about the final end for the chances for peace, will cause an unprecedented breakdown of Israeli-American relations and will isolate Israel as the ultimate anti-peace state. If this map is approved by the government, the Labor Party must immediately resign.
Labor 'rebel' MK Eitan Cabel sent a letter to the Labor ministerial meeting Thursday ahead of an internal vote on the plan, saying "[Defense Minister Ehud] Barak has lost touch with reality and he proves it time after time. Are you also like him?"
Barak and other Labor ministers are expected to endorse the decision.
Cabel also attacked the ministers for not responding to the PMO briefing already on Wednesday. Expressing frustration that they did not hurry to criticize the prioritization of settlers instead of residents of the periphery, Cabel asked, "Who exactly are you rescuing? employees of Tefron [a textile factory in danger of closing down]? the crashing economy? The city of Ashkelon that gets no benefits? Do the settlers really need this money when so much is needed in so many corners of the country?"
"Are you so strongly welded to your seats of power that your eyes have become blinded to the disgraces that you, also, are responsible for as ministers of this government?" Cabel wrote to the ministers.
The settlements are part of the larger map delineating the country's priority areas that takes in about 1.9 million people, or some 25 percent of the population, including some 40% of Israeli Arabs.
Prime Minister's Office Director-General Eyal Gabai stressed on Thursday that the message of the plan was one of joining the periphery to the center and giving Arab citizens equal rights, Israel Radio reported.
On Wednesday, Gabai had pointed out that the housing incentives would not be available to the settlements during the moratorium period.
The settlements on the map - including those in the Jordan Valley as well as Ariel, Nili, Betar Illit, Itamar and others - were selected because of security considerations. Many of the communities, but not all of them, are outside the large settlement blocs.
The criteria for determining which settlements were to get preferential treatment included the security situation in the area, economic strength, the quality of the municipal services, distance from the center of the country and the degree to which the communities absorbed new immigrants.
The primary significance of being designated a preferred area is that the various ministers will have the authority to direct additional funds there.
MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima), chairman of the State Control Committee, called on the prime minister to notify the committee on the exact criteria that were used to create the map.
"After getting all the answers from the prime minister, I intend to conduct a committee debate in order to establish whether the proper considerations went in to drawing the new priority areas map or whether there were other considerations," Hasson said in a press statement.
Meanwhile, according to a Peace Now report published Thursday, the socioeconomic status of those residing in settlements is higher than the national average. Peace Now concluded that in light of the statistics, there were no grounds for West Bank settlements to be included in the priority areas map.
The report stated that the unemployment rate in the settlements of Judea and Samaria stands at 6.5 percent, while the national unemployment rate is 7%. According to the statistics, the average income in Efrat - one of the settlements marked as a "priority area" - is NIS 7,790 per capita, NIS 3,000 higher than the average income in Ashdod.
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