Whose land is it, anyway?

Opponents of Finance Ministry's land reform proposal question budget.

Politicians and representatives from all sides of the political map are showing unprecedented unity in rejecting the Finance Ministry's land reform proposal. The reform, approved by the cabinet in its adoption of the draft Economic Arrangements Bill that will accompany the 2009-10 state budget, touches on one of Israel's most sensitive nerves: ownership of its land. Individual MKs, special interest groups, academic research bodies and non-profit organizations are all trying to use the time they have until the budget goes before the Knesset on June 14 to stir a public debate, in the hope that the proposed reform will be canceled. Since Thursday, three emergency conferences have been held to address the matter and one group has even threatened to take the matter before the High Court of Justice. At the heart of the matter is a plan to privatize state-owned land and transfer it to its current leasers in perpetuity, and along the way reorganize the bureaucratic Israel Lands Administration. The land under discussion is 300,000 dunam (30,000 hectares) of urban residential land, making up roughly 1 percent of Israel. "The Lands Administration is a cumbersome, problematic and corrupting body. I think the word 'macher' [operator] was coined there," opposition leader Tzipi Livni said on Monday at a conference held by the Reut Institute policy group. However, Livni warned against following the current government's "extreme privatization ideology." She spoke about the need for the state to retain ownership of its lands in anticipation of using them to settle possible evacuees from the West Bank in the future. "We must be wary of disowning the country of its assets - we must foresee developments that will force us to control the land in the future," she said. While Livni expressed concern about the future, others are more concerned about history and heritage. Groups like the Dror Israel Movement say that the proposed land reform violates a divine edict, quoting a passage from Leviticus (25:23) that says: "And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me." Others who oppose the reform are environmental groups such as the Land Protection Agency and Adam, Teva, V'din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), which are worried about the ecological implications of private ownership, and social activists who worry that the land will end up in the hands of large-scale developers, thus increasing social gaps. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich has taken to referring to the proposed reform as "The mother of all privatizations." In a conference in Jerusalem on Monday, she warned of a loss of values within the Netanyahu administration, which "is only concerned with bringing in the biggest check." Yacimovich said that the proposed reform was only the beginning of what's to come and predicted a similar move to privatize agricultural land in the future. "The real impetus of the reform rises from every line. The plot is perfectly clear. The State of Israel will become a bank that deals in land. The major problem with this dealing is that eventually the land will run out," she said. For some, like Gilad Barnea, legal counsel for the Campaign Against Land Reform, the biggest problem is not necessarily the reform itself, but the way the government is attempting to pass it. In an open letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Barnea wrote, "The privatization of Israeli lands is the biggest social-economic revolution since the establishment of the state. It is impossible to pass such a motion in a rush and under the cover of darkness as part of the already overburdened Economic Arrangements Bill."