Land reform & the national interest

If Netanyahu is correct about any aspect of this debate, it is that the ILA is severely flawed.

forest 224 kkl (photo credit: )
forest 224 kkl
(photo credit: )
Labor MK Shelly Yechimovic characterized last Wednesday's government failure to pass the Israel Lands Authority(ILA) reform as "a victory of idealism over interests." Her claim should not be discounted out of hand. Yechimovic didn't merely contest the ILA reform exclusively from her own left-wing of the political arena. She went so far as to solicit support from Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. She personally met with him and came away with a letter in which he warned against "hasty moves" that might possibly lead to an infringement of the Halachic command that "the land [of Israel] shall not be sold forever." While Yechimovic was motivated by socialist reluctance to surrender a tiny country's most valuable resource to private commercial speculation, she was joined in her campaign by forces from the opposite end of the political spectrum, like some Likudniks (most prominent among them Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon), and the National Union and Jewish Home factions. Their opposition arose from the demand that the Jewish state hold on to national Jewish land, so that it does not end up in the hands of interests inimical to the Zionist enterprise. Moreover, moderate Laborites, who unlike the more ideological Yechimovic espouse coalition membership, also absented themselves from the plenum during Wednesday's vote. The result was a major embarrassment foremost to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had touted the reform as a crucial plank in his economic platform. Netanyahu's stated aim was to lower land values and thereby (land being housing's costliest component) bring down real estate prices. Besides making homes more affordable - a worthy cause in itself - this might spur a construction boom, create more jobs and generate economic growth. Currently 93% of land in Israel is public-owned. Netanyahu argued that this abets obstructionist bureaucracy and that unsnarling red-tape is in everyone's interest. Breaking up the giant ILA monopoly, transferring leased lands to private ownership, decentralizing and giving more say to local planning commissions, would spur greater efficiency and smoother/swifter services for all citizens. Yet Netanyahu's vision wasn't universally shared. Green organizations, social activists, farmers and others warned privatization would spark real estate development anarchy. Greedy contractors would sate their ravenous appetites, without regard to incalculable and irreparable damage to areas where no master plans have yet been finalized. Farm land would become exorbitantly taxed and prohibitively expensive for farmers. Eventually the future of agriculture in Israel might be altogether compromised, succumb to urban sprawl and its consequent drain on the limited national infrastructure, intensify accrued environmental harm and accelerate the disappearance of the last of Israel's green lungs and open spaces. THE FACT that such a unity of otherwise incongruous political forces could be assembled on this issue illustrates more than all else that it was emotive and not just crass political power play. The notion of the Jewish people owning the land - the Jewish national legacy - was deeply ingrained into many generations here, Left and Right, throughout the 20th Century. No matter how sound Netanyahu's business logic, it would necessitate an overhaul in the people's mindset, which obviously had not occurred. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin courageously sought to warn Netanyahu that a political debacle was in the offing and he managed to pull this item from the budget's attendant "arrangements bill." All this, however, doesn't mean that Netanyahu's cause is entirely lost. He is liable to try again and may yet prevail. But it wouldn't be because he will have become more right. Netanyahu may just improve his political gamesmanship and employ steamroller tactics to assure himself a majority. This is hardly an unlikely scenario. Were it to take place, we would know that a profound change had been rammed down the nation's throat. If Netanyahu is correct about any aspect of this debate, it is that the ILA is severely flawed. However, he will still need to persuade the citizenry and its representatives that his good intentions won't pave the road to someplace particularly undesirable. Political intimidation is not the way to do it.