Trouble in paradise

Why are environmentalists opposing Eden Hills, if it is planned to be an eco-friendly luxury community?

house sketch eden 88 (photo credit: )
house sketch eden 88
(photo credit: )
he conflicts surrounding Eden Hills have as much to do with Zionism and the personalities of the protagonists as with ecology and the environment. Eden Hills is planned as a luxury gated community located southeast of Beit Shemesh, marketed to Diaspora (mainly Anglo) Jews as eco-friendly with recycled gray water and solar energy. It sounds like an environmentalist's dream. Yet, at the November 24 meeting of the Interior Ministry's Jerusalem Regional Planning and Building Committee, the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din), the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and other "green" groups filed objections to the project, claiming that it will cause severe ecological damage to the area. Earlier this year, in May, the State Comptroller's Report criticized some of the decision-making processes that led to the approval of Eden Hills. And these are just some of the difficulties. Eden Hills, a private initiative known as building plan Mem Yod 990 or Roglit Bet, has been planned as a 500-unit residential development on 800 dunams of land located in the Eila Valley's Adulam region, between Moshav Roglit (Neveh Michael) and the old Green Line. Its establishment was approved by government decision in 1998. The original plan called for 1,400 residential units and an industrial area over 3,890 dunams but this was scaled back and the industrial area was eliminated. A tender for the project was issued by the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) in March 2002 and awarded in June 2002 to the only bidder, New York-based entrepreneur and builder Jake Leibowitz. The project has been approved by the National Planning and Building Committee and all other relevant planning authorities. The plan was depositedin 2005, opening it up for public opposition. And opposition it received. The "greens," spearheaded by the SPNI, object to the establishment of Eden Hills in its present location, claiming that it will do irreparable damage to the environment, damage the biosphere by creating an ecological "bottleneck" and adversely affect efforts by Beit Shemesh and the surrounding moshavim to improve their standing and image. "This community is very controversial," states SPNI regional coordinator for environmental matters in the Judean Hills, Avraham Shaked. "Everyone knows that the resource in least supply in the country is land. We have to preserve nature - our biodiversity. The location of Eden Hills is a disaster and constitutes a real threat to preserving nature in Israel. Our struggle against Eden Hills is linked to this. "We [the environmentalists] warned the government about this while Eden Hills was still in the planning stages but no one listened," Shaked argues. The heart of the controversy lies in the fact that Eden Hills is located in an ecological corridor, which runs from the hills of Samaria down through the Eila Valley, through which animals and plants need to flow freely to preserve biological genetic material for species diversity. The National Planning and Building Committee commissioned a biospheric study in cooperation with the Interior Ministry, the Environment Ministry, the ILA, the Jewish National Fund and Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Published in March 2004, this study laid out what can and can't be done with land in Israel. Although not an approved statutory document, the study is, according to Shaked, supposed to be the basis for land policy. The study defined three types of areas: totally preserved areas in which no building whatsoever is allowed; controlled areas in which limited building is allowed, and areas where unrestricted building is allowed. The area where Eden Hills is to be built is defined as a totally preserved or wilderness area. "The National Planning and Building Committee said in 1998 that no community should be approved until the biospheric study is done," Shaked notes. "This held for everyone except Leibowitz and Eden Hills. Progress was allowed to go ahead before the study was completed. Eden Hills will create a bottleneck, an ecological plug. The free flow of animals and plants will be boxed in by the existing moshavim on one side and the quarry on the other. This is a long-term threat to nature and biodiversity in this area." In his report, the state comptroller wrote, "An additional study (biosphere) explicitly defined the area designated for Roglit as an area where no construction of any kind should be done. This means that the decision to establish Roglit (southeast of Moshav Neveh Michael) is not in line with updated regional examinations of the ILA." At one time, Shaked goes on, it may have been possible to claim that animals and plants could go around Eden Hills through the area beyond the Green Line. But with the building of the security fence right up against the southern end of Eden Hills, this will no longer be true. Leibowitz counters that he has hired a team of some of the most respected ecologists in the country, headed by Dr. Ron Leshem, who have conducted environmental impact studies and presented them to the Environment Ministry. "Let's get something straight," he responds. "It was a government decision to build this community on this site. Every single committee that this plan went through approved it with flying colors. "And every single committee knew about these environmental studies. The biosphere study came out after the government decision but there were a number of committees that took place after that, and they also approved the project. "We invited them [green groups] to see our plans at every step along the way," his continues. "We have given them every opportunity to cooperate and sit down with us but they are not interested. They have a different agenda - a socialist mentality. They don't want to see successful Americans. They resent us." Shaked further notes that a government decision from the mid-1990s calls for the strengthening of existing yishuvim (communities) and not the building of new ones in the middle of the country. The comptroller's report states, "In opposition to government decision, the ILA did not act to increase the population of the existing yishuvim (Neveh Michael, Aviezer and Aderet). Possibly, implementation of this plan would have made the need for this yishuv unnecessary." "Who needs an exclusive yishuv to attract a quality population?" Shaked asks. "Bring these people to Beit Shemesh. He [Leibowitz] could have gotten land in Beit Shemesh for villas." "Let me explain something," says Leibowitz, whose Eden Hills will be a well-landscaped community with housing units ranging from $200,000 upwards. "American Jews don't need Israel. American Jews can live anywhere they want. If Israel wants to attract them, Israel will have to offer something great. This is not the days of old, of the ma'abarot (transit camps.) "American Jews ...can't just be plucked down in the middle of nowhere. They are entitled to the best and are willing to pay for it. And this is what our project offers." In addition, he notes, Eden Hills has the support of local residents. "In 1998, Moshav Roglit was in debt and struggling to survive. Now, its real estate values have climbed. They are thrilled," Leibowitz says. Roglit was established in the early days of the state, explains Yirmiyahu David, head of the Roglit local committee. "People came here from Morocco, Persia, Kurdistan, India and Iraq. Today, we have 70 families. Eden Hills is the light at the end of the tunnel for us. It will give us a tremendous boost. This is the kind of quality population - educated business people - who will contribute to our region. "We will do all we can so that this project succeeds. And by the way, all those greens who claim to speak in our name have never helped us. They live near us and their homes have ruined the pristine nature of the land. But for them, it is all right. They are against a project that can help us tremendously." Meir Viezel, head of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, is also a firm supporter of Eden Hills. "It can lift up the entire region. I am in favor of 500 upper-middle-class families moving here. They can only give our region a boost. They will contribute a lot. The Eden Hills plan has passed all the hurdles expect one - the greens. "But these are the same people who are against everything we try to build here, every road, every building, etc," he contends. The State Comptroller's Report also criticizes the ILA for the manner in which the tender was issued and approved, claiming that the winner did not meet minimal requirements written in the tender which included providing information on the developer's capabilities and expertise to build such a project. "The comptroller's report attacks the ILA, not me," Leibowitz answers. "But I responded to his request for information in a six-page letter before his report was issued. I sent him a report from 1992 in which the Israeli trade attache in the US investigated our experience, financing and so forth. For some reason, he chose to ignore this." The ILA responded to the comptroller by saying that a tender such as the one for Roglit does not need to meet all these requirements, and therefore the ILA did not request such information. In Jerusalem tried to contact the ILA but repeated messages to the spokesperson went unanswered. Shaked admits that at this point the plan for Eden Hills cannot be canceled, only amended. In his objections, he asked the Regional Committee to move Eden Hills away from the fence in order to leave some passage. In its November 24 meeting, the Regional Committee decided that, "In light of the importance of preserving open areas and ecological corridors in the area and in light of the possible difficulties in marketing residential plots next to the security fence, the committee is examining the possibility of reducing the area of the proposed yishuv." The committee then asked Leibowitz to present a proposal in line with this decision. Leibowitz says that he fully intends to comply with this decision, which will mean rerouting or eliminating some homes. "We intend to comply because it will only raise the value of the project. What we do not want to do is limit the number of units to the point where this has a negative effect," he notes. He anticipates that the objections will be over in two or three months and that building will begin immediately, with the first homes being completed in two or three years. Yet to really understand the controversy surrounding Eden Hills, it is necessary to go beyond the ecological and procedural issues to the background behind the project and to the lives of the two men who are squaring off over it. Both Shaked and Leibowitz are passionate Zionists, and each of them views the other's vision as a total anathema to his own. Both the secular Shaked and the religious Leibowitz are the middle-aged sons of Hungarian Holocaust survivors who came to Israel with literally little more than the clothes on their backs in the early days of the state. Shaked's parents were sent to a ma'abara and Shaked grew up there amidst extremely trying physical conditions. He imbibed the Zionist ethos of those times - a deep love of the land and an all-abiding socialism. When Shaked utters the words "rich capitalist," you get the feeling that these are the two most foul words in the language. "Leibowitz disgusts me and his Zionism disgusts me," Shaked says. "Who needs an exclusive yishuv? If these people [wealthy Diaspora Jews] don't want to come to Israel [as it is], then they don't have to come. We don't have to give someone [referring to Leibowitz - G.L.] our best land to bring them here." And while Shaked repeatedly insists "the struggle is not a personal one," he has called Leibowitz a "sarsur nadlan" on a number of occasions, a term which he claims means nothing more than a "real-estate broker" according to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. For those less proficient in Hebrew, the term translates as a "real-estate pimp." He also has brought up the ma'abarot experience on a number of occasions when relating to Leibowitz, Eden Hills and its "pampered" Diaspora Jews. Leibowitz's parents went to live in Kfar Saba, in a proper apartment, he says. Leibowitz retorts, "My parents were destroyed in Europe and came to Israel with nothing." He recounts that when reparations from Germany began, his mother, an Auschwitz survivor who lost nearly her entire family, refused to apply. She felt money could not compensate for her loss. A government representative came to see her and convinced her that for her children's sake she should apply. So she did. But after the money began to arrive, she found out she was getting far less than her sister, who had not been in Auschwitz. She concluded that the State of Israel was taking her money. She felt betrayed. Leibowitz claims that for his parents, survivors who had witnessed the state institutions in Hungary turn against them, this fostered a terrible sense of fear. His parents took their children and left their Kfar Saba apartment in the middle of the night, leaving the lights on. They hid out in Jerusalem for a while and then left the country for the US. Leibowitz was nine at the time. This trauma colors his view of Shaked. "Shaked is a throwback to the old Mapai [predecessor of today's Labor Party and the ruling party in the early days of Israel]," Leibowitz insists. "He is the embodiment of those people [who drove my mother out of this country]. Every one that I take down is just one more notch for my mother." So Eden Hills is more than just a real estate development for Leibowitz. It is the culmination of a 17-year odyssey by the developer/builder to realize his dream of building a high-quality community in Israel that will attract successful American and other Western Jews to make aliya. "This is the new Zionism - a combination of capitalism and democracy," he states. To that end, Leibowitz, who heads Jelco Construction in the US and Eden Hills Ltd. in Israel, has invested his own savings and dedicated his life. He has endured endless bureaucratic red tape along the way, including changing the site of Eden Hills three times and numerous redesigning of the project. Together with his family, Leibowitz made aliya 10 years ago and now lives in Jerusalem. "Prime Minister Sharon's life-long dream is to bring one million Jews from the West," he explains. "The Jewish Agency has not had great success. My wife and I, who are a little dinky mom-and-pop shop, working out of our apartment, have succeeded in signing up hundreds of people. They have put down cash money - $25,000. We are talking about the cream of Western society, who would love to make aliya to a project like this." Both Shaked and Leibowitz vow to fight on. Says Shaked, "He [Leibowitz] can't have Eden Hills as currently planned. If he doesn't meet our criteria, we will continue until satisfied. "It will only cost him more. We will damage him. He will never build until he meets our demands. Our opposition is totally professional, based on the opinions of renowned experts in ecology." Says Leibowitz, "Shaked is just one more bureaucrat in a long line. I don't care what hat he puts on. We will survive him. He will fall by the wayside and we will establish this community. History will judge him like all the others. "No developer has gotten this far in a private initiative. It is going to be a fabulous community based on quality and excellence." As IJ goes to press, Viezel is trying to set up a meeting with all the parties in order to reach an agreement, hopefully for the best for all.