The government will take steps to encourage 300,000 Israelis to move to the Negev and an equal number to the Galilee by 2020, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom announced Monday at a press conference at Jerusalem's Crowne-Plaza Hotel.
Shalom, who was raised in Beersheba and currently lives in Ramat Gan, said his Negev and Galilee Development Ministry would try to persuade Israelis to move by offering tax benefits, discounted land, job fairs for students and incentives for companies that shift their operations.
Information centers would be opened in the Negev and Galilee, he said, adding that the Jewish Agency had agreed to renovate five absorption centers in the two regions to serve as temporary housing for people who moved there. "We want to make the Zionist dream become a reality," Shalom said. "Israel must do everything possible to make it happen."
While Shalom said the benefits would be available for all Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, he singled out young religious Zionists interested in building communities and effective social change.
Shalom was joined at the event by two leading religious Zionist rabbis: Beit El yeshiva head Zalman Melamed and Bnei Akiva yeshivot head Haim Druckman. The rabbis joined Shalom in saying that the periphery could be populated without harming efforts to settle Judea and Samaria.
"We will work together to settle all parts of Israel, including the Negev and Galilee and Judea and Samaria," Shalom said. "Building in the Negev and Galilee should not come at the expense of settling all of Israel. For decades, the Likud raised the banner of settling not just in Judea and Samaria, but also vistas in the North."
Shalom declined to answer questions about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's plans for a settlement freeze in Judea and Samaria and refused to connect his plans to build in the periphery with Netanyahu's to stop building in the West Bank.
Melamed blasted Netanyahu for breaking campaign promises. He said he did not have a problem cooperating with Shalom on settling the periphery despite Shalom's votes in favor of the Gaza Strip disengagement.
"The entire Land of Israel is ours," Melamed said. "Judea and Samaria are the heart of all of Israel, so a freeze should be forbidden. We want the prime minister to show more courage and stick to the ideals he himself declared before the election."
Melamed said religious Zionists had made settling the periphery less of a priority than Judea and Samaria. But he said the mitzvah to settle the Land of Israel applied to all the land, and that it was especially important now to ensure a significant Jewish majority in the Negev and Galilee.
"It is unfortunate that there wasn't enough aliya from the United States before to settle the Negev and Galilee," Druckman said. "We need our youth to rededicate themselves to their Jewish and Zionist values, building the Land of Israel and continuing the Zionist mission."