Don’t label us a periphery

The time has come for a genuine national plan that will offer those living in “the periphery” something more than just shortening the time they are stuck in traffic.

Overhead view of Beersheba (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Overhead view of Beersheba
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Among the important things Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz said in his speech after receiving the mandate to form a government, you could easily miss the only sentence about the periphery, namely that “the periphery needs to be brought closer to the center.” This common and habitual statement, which has been made by decision-makers for many years, may sound legitimate or obvious to many, yet it embodies a fundamentally erroneous idée fixe.
The “periphery,” which began with the founding of the state in order to defend the borders, settle the population in towns and villages and develop agriculture, has changed its character and nature over the years.
Technological advancement, transportation, roads and trains have shortened distances and ranges, and now it is time to change the term “periphery.” Anyone who has driven for hours on highways in the US understands that when we call the Negev area the periphery, we are for the most part insulting ourselves. A one hour drive from Tel Aviv is not the periphery.
Data published by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics point to a continuing trend of immigration from “the periphery” to the center of the country, particularly of a young and college-educated population. A marked gap in the quality of services and an insufficient response in many areas of life will continue to perpetuate the unacceptable vicious circle in the periphery of lacking economic growth and development, which in turn leads to relocation to the center, thus further weakening the fabric of life in the periphery.
For example, the Communication and Finance ministries recently submitted a plan to deploy an optic fiber infrastructure. This is a vital infrastructure that communication companies will have to deploy throughout the country. Not surprisingly, the “periphery” will only be able to enjoy this infrastructure in another decade! This has enormous implications for the ability to attract companies to operate in these areas and to develop a vital infrastructure for business, companies, hi-tech, start-ups and others.
The time has come to dispose of routine thinking patterns; to replace the premise that the center of the country, and Gush Dan in particular, are the focal point; to stop treating all other areas as “the periphery”; that steps must be taken to bring it closer to the center. We must recognize that every area has its own way of life, character and uniqueness. Therefore, there is no need to bring the geographically distant areas closer to the center, but rather to strengthen them in and of themselves, each area with its distinctiveness.
The time has come for a genuine national plan that will offer those living in “the periphery” something more than just shortening the time they are stuck in traffic.
Such a plan must include anchoring tax benefits in law combined with a policy to foster the drivers of culture, education, health, employment, recreation and the economy. This will change the current reality, empower residents of areas far from the center and encourage them to develop themselves and their localities, not only dream of moving to, or closer to, the center.
BEERSHEBA IS intended to serve as the central anchor of the southern periphery – the capital of the South. Yet the state encounters difficulty developing the city as a significant metropolitan. The Light Rail in Tel Aviv is already under construction, as are the metro lines in Gush Dan (Tel Aviv metropolitan area) and in Jerusalem. However in Beersheba, time has stopped, the Light Rail is not even in the planning stage.
Public discourse currently centers on the housing crisis, with solutions focused on the center of the country. However, the solutions must center on metropolitan Beersheba. Furthermore, the state must encourage complementary investment in culture and education, public transportation infrastructures and all the other areas of life.
Beersheba has the potential to develop into a metropolitan area, and not only in terms of land reserves. The city has academic centers, hospitals and a hi-tech park, as well as elements to become independent, not dependent on services provided in other areas.
At the same time however, increased public investment is needed, first and foremost to create employment opportunities in the city that will, combined with suitable transportation infrastructures, attract all residents of the nearby localities, and even residents from the center who will relocate to the South.
The center of the country has become congested, and investment in the periphery will undoubtedly yield a profit (in more than one meaning), including population dispersion.
It is important to remember that the problem does not only center on transportation, and that there is also a need to develop employment, industry and commerce by offering incentives to industry. When speaking about industry, this does not only refer to manual labor or work on the production line, but also to workplaces that offer engineering jobs and high salaries.
In fact, many plants that relocate from the center of the country to the South in fact upgrade themselves. Moreover, there is also a relative advantage in building manufacturing plants in the South where industry enjoys favorable conditions.
The next government should not invest in bringing “the periphery” closer to the center, but in strengthening Beersheba as a metropolitan hub. This means significantly improving education and health services and formulating plans to help the periphery develop advanced industry and transportation. This will increase the standard of living in the North and the South, empower the residents, foster economic growth and improve overall quality of life in these areas.
Changing the old way of thinking does not mean investing budgets in roads, but rather investing in education infrastructures, with leading schools and leading teachers, culture and sport centers, major theaters that will hold premieres in Beersheba or Haifa, first-rate medical infrastructures and physical infrastructures that will enable the development of a local economy, among them optic fibers, development centers, hi-tech centers and training centers.
By doing so, the residents of the North and the South will live in leading, advanced and innovative cities, instead of wasting time in traffic on the way to work in the center of the country.
The writer is president of the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Ashdod.