What next for Israel's lands?

People who up until now leased the land their homes rest on will become its outright owners.

Yacimovich Knesset 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Yacimovich Knesset 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
"We're pleased that the law has passed. Now it's time for us to buckle down and get to work," Ortal Tzabari, spokeswoman for the Israel Lands Administration, said shortly after the ILA reform plan was approved in the Knesset on Monday. "The restructuring of the organization will only take place in the end of the year, but as far as passing the land over to its leaseholders, we're already preparing to send letters out, telling people they are now the owners." Over the next few weeks those letters should be arriving in homes all across the country, and people who up until now leased the land their homes rest on, will become its outright owners. For most, the transfer will take place automatically and the announcement letter will be their last interaction with the much maligned ILA. For others, payment will be required to finalize the transaction. According to the plan, all those who own units in apartment buildings, own private homes in the periphery or whose houses rest on less than a quarter of a dunam (250 square meters) in the center of the country, will be exempt from payment. Those who own houses in the center of the country that rest on lots that are larger than a quarter of a dunam, will have to pay 3 percent to 9 percent of their land value, depending on the size of the lot. While ownership of the land will mean having to deal with far less bureaucracy in terms of getting approvals from the ILA for things such as home expansions and additions, mortgages and ownership transfers, the reform will not do away with other government regulations and most of those procedures will still need to be approved by local authorities. The total area of land that will be privatized due to the reform stands at 800,000 dunams (80,000 hectares, or about 200,000 acres), which make up roughly 4% of the total area of the state. Due to a last minute agreement between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor chairman Ehud Barak, the privatization process will take place in two parts, half of the land by 2014 and half afterwards. One of the main concerns expressed by those who opposed the reform plan was that after privatization, the lands will be sold to the highest bidder at prices that average salary-earners won't be able to afford and that the land will be accumulated by wealthy real estate tycoons. The plan's architects in the Finance Ministry have tried to assuage those fears by saying the main function of the new body that will replace the ILA will be to make sure that the land it holds will be marketed at a pace that will allow for competitive prices. The restructuring of the ILA, which is scheduled to take place by the end of the year, will see the Israel Lands Administration replaced by the Land Authority, a more streamlined body, with fewer responsibilities and ostensibly better service. The authority will be overseen by a committee of 14 people - seven government appointees, six Jewish National Fund representatives and chaired by the minister of construction and housing. Currently, a committee of 22 members oversees the ILA. Due to pressure from environmental organizations, one of the committee members will be a representative of the Environmental Protection Ministry. The land-swap agreement between the state and the JNF, which would have come into effect along with the passing of the reform plan, will remain unimplemented for the time being as the JNF assembly's approval of the transfer of 70,000 dunams (7,000 hectares) is being held up in court. A Jerusalem District Court judge has slapped an injunction on the trade, following voting irregularities at the assembly that make it unclear whether the deal was approved or not. Advocacy groups continued attacking the reform after it was approved in the Knesset. The Core of the Fight Against the Privatization of the Land in Israel, a protest group that was formed specifically for the purpose of canceling the reform, sent out a statement that read: "We lost today's battle but the campaign against land privatization is ongoing." The group slammed MKs who voted for the law and promised to continue its struggle in the law courts and in the court of public opinion. The Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, which also opposed the reform, wrote: "Despite moves that were made to improve the law, there remain serious issues that should have been confronted: the legitimacy of transforming state-owned land from a pubic resource to a commodity, the fact that the new authority doesn't include a representative of the public, the authority's total subordination to government decisions, and the possibility of transferring large amounts of land, including beaches, open spaces, tourism areas and employment areas, into private hands."