The new government must understand: The Negev cannot be bypassed! - Opinion

'The current government was elected by the residents of the Negev. Failure to realize and instead harm the vision and development of the Negev will cause its residents to lose their confidence'.

 Dr. Esther Luzzato  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Esther Luzzato
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The idea of building a railroad for the intelligence soldiers from Tel Aviv to the intelligence bases at a cost of three billion shekels while bypassing the capital of the Negev is an absurdity that undermines the goal of moving the IDF bases to the south. Any investment in civil infrastructure for Kiryat HaModi’in should be made with the promotion and development of the Negev and its residents in mind. The current government was elected by the residents of the Negev. Failure to realize and instead harm the vision and development of the Negev will cause its residents to lose confidence in the government members.

In 2027, the new IDF Intelligence Campus (Kiryat Hamodi’in) will open its gates at the Shoket junction (Likit). Twenty-five years after the decision of its establishment, the new campus, adapted to the needs of the 21st century, will finally be able to accommodate the 15,000 soldiers of the Intelligence Corps, who today operate from bases located in Israel’s central region on precious land. Besides the important operational value, Kiryat Hamodi’in will achieve two important goals: to be an anchor of economic growth for the Negev and to enable the evacuation of the bases in the center of the country and build new residential neighborhoods on them as a response to the housing crisis in Israel.

The road from the government’s decision until the first tractor broke ground was full of obstacles. The intelligence officers and commanders, led by Chief of Staff Kochavi, did everything in their power to torpedo the implementation of the governmental plan on the absurd grounds that the establishment of the Kirya in the Negev would lead to the retirement of intelligence personnel from the army and the destruction of the magnificent Unit 8200. Thanks to the resourcefulness of the residents of the Negev, led by the association headed by this writer, the wall of resistance was demolished, and the project’s implementation began. What finalized the move was a petition to the High Court that the association submitted, which motivated the Minister of Defense to approve the action.

But the Kiryat Hamodi’in saga refuses to die down. It was recently reported that the state is promoting a plan with an investment of three billion shekels for a railway which will bypass Beersheba and lead the soldiers of the intelligence wing straight from Tel Aviv to the new Kirya. The key word here is “bypass.” Someone there is still trying to ignore Beersheba and the needs of the Negev and the State of Israel and create a direct connection between Gush Dan (the central area) and the new Kirya, as if it were a parallel universe.

This plan is absurd. It undermines the objectives and goals of the state in moving the IDF to the Negev, which is the development of the area, and the construction in 66% of the territory of the State of Israel while creating growth engines for this region, in order to save the “Tel Aviv State” from collapsing on itself. All of this is happening very late, which is taking a heavy toll on the development of the Negev. To develop the Negev, it is necessary to create the metropolis, which is the capital of the Negev, Beersheba. The practical meaning is that the intelligence bases, the soldiers, and tens of thousands of workers related to the operation of this massive project must be connected to Beersheba to create a large, strong and vibrant metropolis from which the Negev will draw strength and power for all its residents that are needed and necessary for the development of the region; this means an economic activity of 60 billion shekels for 20 years, and the creation of 50,000 jobs, leading to the prosperity of the city of Beersheba and all the settlements around it.

There is a suspicion that the IDF is once again striving to break away from the national Zionist mission of the development of the Negev and is once again meddling within the planning institutions. The army must remember that the primary goal of the IDF’s move to the Negev was and still is to be an engine for strengthening the Negev, and therefore Kiryat HaModi’in must be tied to Likit, not only to Tel Aviv and the center, but first of all to Beersheba and through it, to Tel Aviv and the center. The basic idea is simple: any investment in civil infrastructure for Kiryat HaModi’in should benefit not only the IDF but also the residents of the Negev.

The right alternative

The solution is two-fold: a high-speed rail from Tel Aviv to Beersheba and a light rail from the Beersheba North/University train station to the new Kiryat HaModi’in. This solution will result in the arrival from Tel Aviv to the new Kiryat HaModi’in in less than an hour. Any other alternative is wrong, not economically nor from a public point of view.

Since the establishment of the high-speed rail is a long and expensive process, we must act now in parallel – immediately build the light rail on a route of a ten-minute drive from the train station to the campus, and work to budget the Tel Aviv-Beersheba rail and advance its implementation in the immediate term.

Arriving by high-speed train to the Beersheba North/University station will allow the IDF a short travel time from Tel Aviv while maintaining the attractiveness of high-quality personnel from all over the country (including from Haifa ), at the same time as shortening the travel time and increasing the frequency of service for the residents of Beersheba and the Negev. This advantage extends to the entire Negev: it will change the Negev and connect the whole northeastern axis - south of Mount Hebron, Meitar, Hiran, Carmit, Hura, Lakia, etc. - to Beersheba.

The Beersheba municipality and the Planning Authority rightly claim that instead of investing three billion shekels in a slow bypass track that will bring the intelligence soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces to their base in an hour and 40 minutes, it is right to invest now in the faster and more efficient permanent solution, the estimated cost of which is ten billion shekels, which will bring the soldiers to their base in only 65 minutes.

The threat is already less relevant

Besides all that, the military and intelligence officers must remember that the cards they hold are no longer as strong as they once were. The tractors are already working in the area, and the decision to establish the new Kirya is irreversible. It is also impossible to threaten too much with a potential abandonment of the army by qualified personnel when the civilian hi-tech situation is not rosy, and as I wrote before, the salary conditions of the intelligence officers are unusually excellent. There are no longer any attractive alternative jobs outside the army, at least not to the extent that they were in the past when the intelligence officers threatened not to come to the Negev, but it is essential to say that IDF soldiers serve where the army sends them and not where they like; the needs of the state come first.

Foolish national planning

The bungled course of affairs of the planning of the rail from Tel Aviv to Beersheba is another painful testimony to the failures of national planning in Israel, which cannot be defined as anything but foolish. The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing; one planning authority collides with another, creating havoc and confusion. There is no inclusion, no pooling of resources, and no priorities. This is how national projects drag on for years; see, as an example, the establishment of another hospital in the Negev, the establishment of a second international airport in Nevatim, the construction of a railroad to Eilat, and other projects that could make the Negev flourish.

This cannot continue. Israel lags behind in developing its physical infrastructure compared to the OECD countries, which affects its economy. A wide range of infrastructure issues is not addressed - the establishment of new cities, especially new settlements in the Galilee and the Negev, the Bedouin problem, new railways and airports, artificial islands in the sea, relocation of IDF bases, preservation of landscape and nature values, historical sites and more.

An entire country should not be dependent on one region

Many and varied issues will land on the new government’s table, some of which are more urgent and some less urgent. But it seems that there is no more fateful question for the country’s future than the Negev’s development. This region is at a historical “to be or not to be” crossroads. If the momentum of construction and development in it continues, it will be able to fulfill its historical destiny, as David Ben-Gurion envisioned. If the process fails, Israel will become the state of the coastal strip, a kind of extended Gaza strip that abandons 75% of its territory in anarchy without governance, as is happening now. According to CBS forecasts, the population of Israel is growing at a rapid rate and is expected to number about 17 million inhabitants by the year 2048. If the current demographic trends continue, about 13 million residents are expected to live in the center of the country (the Tel Aviv - Jerusalem - Haifa area), and only about 25% of the residents will live in the Negev and Galilee. This nightmare is coming true before our eyes.

We, therefore, have a rare opportunity to bring about a transformation in which the Israeli population can be dispersed in the areas of the Negev and the Galilee and offer Israelis a better quality of life, free of traffic jams and saturated with business opportunities, coming from a broad, deep and long-term national vision.

The residents of the Negev are not a “captive audience” of the Likud

The development of the Negev also encompasses a large part of the issues that came up on the public agenda during the last election cycle: governance, solving the Bedouin problem, civil order and security in the center and periphery.

If the new government, which was elected, among other things, thanks to the votes of the residents of the south, thinks that it can continue with business as usual and not deal with this issue with due urgency and seriousness, it is wrong. It will be examined through a magnifying glass according to what it will do in the Negev. It will discover that the approach of the residents of the Negev is changing, and they are no longer ready to play the passive role that has been imposed on them for years.

After four years of intense public struggle to relocate the intelligence bases to the Negev, I can say that the Negev residents have changed the operational concept that characterized them for years. No more indifference and subservience but a robust, assertive and even aggressive approach to promoting the affairs of the Negev. We understand that we have no choice but to save the Negev and the State of Israel with it.

I also suggest to the parties that make up the government not to take the citizens of the Negev for granted. This is an important electorate for any party and government that wants to exist and govern. They have alternatives and may use them if the heads of state, who are also the heads of the party, let them down.

I call on the new government and especially the Minister of the Interior (who is responsible for the planning authority), the Minister of Transportation, the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Defense, to show responsibility for the fate of the Negev and to approve the just alternative of a high-speed train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba with a light railway to the new Kirya.

Above all, the primary responsibility rests with the one who bears the central authority - the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He has already worked in the past to encourage the development of the Negev with his decision to make Beersheba the national cyber capital, a move that resulted in the development of an entire technological ecosystem in the Negev. Now he must continue his work and promote a practical and comprehensive transportation solution from Tel Aviv to the new Kiryat HaModi’in following the broad national interest. If he succeeds in this, it will be the success of all of us. If he fails, Israel will fail, and not just the Negev. In the end, the growth of the Negev and its flourishing is a supreme Israeli national interest, not just a sectorial interest of the residents of the Negev. This is a project that the State of Israel, with its economic capabilities, can and should carry out during the tenure of the current government; otherwise, this government will have no right to exist because the residents of the Negev will not elect it again.

The author is the chairman of the “Israel for the Negev” association