KKL-JNF’s project to develop Negev and Galilee into economic oasis

Everyone knows that the Galilee and the Negev should be Israel's economic growth engines in the coming years

DANIEL ATAR, KKL-JNF chairman (photo credit: YISRAEL PERETZ)
(photo credit: YISRAEL PERETZ)
The best word to describe KKL-JNF’s new project is ‘ambitious.’ What other word could be used to express a vision of bringing 1.5 million new settlers to the Negev and Galilee in just two decades? “Undoubtedly, it is a great challenge in building the land, and one of the biggest challenges that has ever been placed before the leadership of the Israeli government and the State of Israel,” says Daniel Atar, KKL-JNF chairman.
The project “KKL-JNF 2040 – Moving to the Land of Tomorrow” (KKL-JNF 2040) offers ways to transform the Negev and Galilee into significant growth engines through high-quality employment in the areas of hi-tech, settlement, education and community.
 “For years we have seen the studies whose results have appeared in the media, about the gaps that exist between Israel’s center and the periphery in the areas of health, education, infrastructure, employment, per capita income and the sense of partnership for economic growth that the state has experienced for many years,” says Atar. “By every measurement, the periphery has been defeated by the ‘state of Tel Aviv.’ We see the eye-rolling and hear the tut-tuts of politicians who have been saying for years that it’s the periphery’s turn for investment. In practice, however, systematically and strategically, there is no overall program which has taken the periphery and placed it on the national list of priorities. The only event in decades was the decision to move the IDF bases to the Negev – but this is not a comprehensive plan, and it is also faltering.”
Atar says that while KKL-JNF has been working for years to strengthen the periphery, it did not begin to work in a systematic fashion until its KKL-JNF 2040 project, which it has been developing over the past two years. According to Atar, the definition of the project “Relocation Israel, KKL-JNF 2040 – Moving to the Land of Tomorrow” conveys the message that this is not just another project.
“This is a very dramatic thing. In order to bring about an in-depth demographic change of an entire country, we need much more than KKL-JNF.”
How can one actually cause one and a half million residents to move to the periphery?
“Israel is one of the leading hi-tech countries in the world and is at the forefront of advanced development and technology. But 93% of Israel’s hi-tech world is in the ‘state of Tel Aviv’ and only 7% is in the Negev and Galilee,” Atar explains, “We decided that we are going to concentrate our effort in the hi-tech world. How? KKL-JNF will proved the planning, motivation and inclusive factors in all of the work and the Israeli government will provide the leadership with its power and ability to carry out the plan.”
In addition to the hi-tech world and the Israeli government, the program is based on a third factor – the Jewish world.
“At every juncture, from when the idea of establishing the State of Israel was born until today, the Jewish world has been attached to Israel, because the vast majority of the Jewish people loves and supports the State and wants to contribute to its development. It must be a partner in this process.”
After utilizing these three factors, KKL-JNF will expand its reach to other circles, including local authorities, industrialists, students, heads of academia, heads of nonprofit organizations, civic organizations and more. “We are putting them all together, and there is great enthusiasm for this vision,” Atar says.
Part of the effort will be invested in education, in informal education programs in high schools in the Galilee and in the Negev, and accompanying graduates who enlist in the IDF, in pre-military academies and in National Service programs.
“We are encouraging them to have aspirations and to fulfill them. Once upon a time this was an important idea in Zionism, but today that has been somewhat forgotten. Their goal is to live in the Galilee and the Negev after they complete their service.”
KKL-JNF is promoting residing in the Galilee and the Negev by distributing scholarships worth millions of shekels for higher education and economics. A pilot project is currently underway in Arad in collaboration with RAD Bynet, in which 42 young men and women are studying engineering or computer science. The RAD Bynet group, led by Yehuda Zisfal, is assisting them with scholarships and – once they have completed their degree – getting jobs within their 20 companies located in the Galilee and the Negev.
“We intend to replicate this successful pilot in other locations in the country, so that thousands of students can do this.”
My conversation with Atar is conducted while he is en route to a meeting with the chairman of a district planning and construction committee that will present him with a plan of industrial zones in the Bar Lev Industrial Area and the Golani Junction.
“We are in the process of establishing four hi-tech-oriented industrial areas,” he says. “One of them will be shared with the Gaza border communities and Sderot, and the other will be built between Dimona, Yeroham and Meitar, with part of the area being allocated for research and development centers. The goal is to bring at least two international centers of the world’s leading companies to this area, and we already are in the midst of advanced contacts with a company from the US.”
Atar is fully committed to the process and talks about the many developments that are taking place concurrently – including consultations with mayors in the periphery – to help create favorable conditions for hi-tech companies to relocate to their areas. There is a plan at an advanced stage to establish innovation centers at colleges located in Tel Hai, Kinneret, Yizre’el and Sapir as well as at the University of Beersheba. “They will be a huge attraction for scientists, researchers, engineers, programmers and other professionals.”
You mentioned that World Jewry is an important part of the program, but the rift between Israel and the Diaspora, especially with the large American community, is only growing.
“The Jewish world is divided into two unequal parts. One group, primarily in the US, is angry with Israel and sees it as being responsible for intensifying the divide and disconnect between it and world Jewry. They are all passionate Zionists, but are angry at the Israeli policies that separate them from the State. The second group ignores the disconnect and the widening gap between world Jewry and the State of Israel.
“We are not looking for donations from world Jewry. I am offering them a business opportunity. Instead of investing in India, Silicon Valley or elsewhere, I urge them to invest in the Galilee and the Negev. Next month we are holding a conference in New York with 70 fund managers and hi-tech industry executives from around the world – companies that invest billions of dollars around the world and haven’t invested in Israel – to show them the map of business opportunities in the Galilee and the Negev. We already have a group of Italian bankers, who manage funds around the world, whose head has expressed readiness to be a part of the presidential group that we are establishing, that will accompany the vision of KKL-JNF 2040.”
The Israeli government has a significant part in the plan. What will happen if the new government will not want to partner with this?
“I am a big believer in this vision, and everyone who has seen the plan is very enthusiastic about it. I believe that the government of Israel, too, will play a role in promoting this issue and will cooperate. If they don’t want to join, I will not give in. Public opinion will not allow them to back out. The heads of the local authorities are members of those parties and everyone sees the plan as an extraordinary opportunity to make the residents of the periphery a partner in productivity. Everyone knows that the Galilee and the Negev should be Israel’s economic growth engines in the coming years.
“I don’t see any problem. We are talking about a program that requires collaboration between all government ministries: education, health, economics, finance and more. Therein is the biggest challenge, and I believe we will meet it.”
Your attempt to help the Negev and the Galilee with the “Buyer’s Price” (Mechir LaMishtaken) program failed. What is your response?
“We have expressed our opposition to the current format with the Israel Land Authority. We are in favor of the plan, but only in the Galilee and the Negev. We want the state to act and encourage young people to move there, and provide the conditions to do so, in order to spread the population more intelligently. It is illogical that someone who wins the ‘Buyer’s Price’ lottery in Herzliya, Netanya or Tel Aviv receives support from the state between NIS 500-800,000 and the same person who lives in Netivot or Dimona [would] receive the support of NIS 80-120,000. If they were to give NIS 400,000 to every family who buys a house in Nahariya, Yeroham, Dimona or the Galilee, you would see many young people running there and many more jobs becoming available. The program currently encourages people to leave the periphery and causes tremendous strategic damage to the State of Israel.
In the meantime, you claim that the Israel Land Authority has been marketing your land without your permission.
“KKL-JNF participated in the ‘Buyer’s Price’ program against its will, and we are investigating the possibilities of getting this money returned. We invested over NIS 2 billion, and all of it went to the country’s center. It’s crazy. We told the state that we will not partner in any venture for the center of the country. It’s important to strengthen the Galilee and the Negev now.”
And that loss was recorded against the backdrop of a NIS 90 million budget cut.
“The 2019 budget was cut, and we recently approved the 2020 budget with a 10% cut as part of our streamlining and focus on our core issues.”
Has the streamlining been because of the recent criticism of KKL-JNF?
“We accept real criticism, because it is a teaching tool. When I took office in 2016-17, we invested in self-monitoring. We brought in the previous head district judge to be our primary legal authority and we established a department headed by Yoram Shapiro, from the State Comptroller’s office. We have recruited ten employees to monitor our system, and they have already issued 20 audit reports, which are useful tools for us.
“We are managing thousands of projects around the country at the same time. An organization that engages in so many things can make mistakes and needs effective control mechanisms. We have control mechanisms and we embrace and strengthen them and work to correct every criticism.
“We needed to correct our past shortcomings and fix them. Thanks to the State Comptroller’s audit that was placed on our desk in 2016, we compiled a book of procedures containing over 300 procedures. Each KKL-JNF operation is defined there and all KKL-JNF employees and managers have a training series, which teaches them what procedures are required, so that everyone adheres to them. On our website you will find all the protocols, decisions, action plans and readers’ opinions. Every shekel that KKL-JNF spends is detailed. The 2020 budget is already there. The auditor commented on our need for transparency and he was right, so we carried out a series of procedures to establish transparency. Everything is transparent. Since then, I must note, the criticism has dropped tremendously.”
This article was written in cooperation with KKL-JNF.