The public has always supported the need to prevent corruption, but the real challenge is for decision-makers to understand that they manage public land.
By Zafrir Rinat

Police probes into real estate deals in Atlit, the Holyland complex in Jerusalem and areas near the Hiriya waste facility raise concerns about systemic corruption. But an analysis of the historical background of these deals brings to mind the old saying that the mouse is not to blame for stealing the cheese – it’s the fault of the hole that allowed him to get in.

In recent years, politicians and decision-makers at planning institutions and the Israel Lands Administration have worked in a convenient environment for cutting deals that benefit developers at the expense of the public. Many deals for zoning changes have been done legally, but at a severe cost to sustainable planning. The results can be seen in shopping centers built on farmland, which hurt businesses in city centers; construction that damaged beaches slated for protection; and new communities built in the heart of open spaces, where according to official planning policy, no such communities were to go up.

Using market forces to build communities with private homes for the middle and upper classes, and the agricultural crisis that required a solution for kibbutzim and moshavim’s debts, enabled a policy of wastefulness in utilizing land reserves. The trend conveyed a clear message to the lessees of the land that they can strike deals and make plenty of money. A series of decisions by the ILA enshrined this message as official policy.

This spirit can be seen in the minutes of meetings of the ILA Council and information obtained by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V’Din). The information was received during the group’s campaign against permits issued by the ILA for planning and construction in an area zoned as a park near Hiriya.

The ILA gave Hazera (1939) Ltd. (not to be confused with another company, Hazera Genetics), which had leased the land near the Hiriya waste facility, a permit to plan for construction in the area, with generous building rights. The ILA was so used to promoting such deals that according to the IUED, it ignored the High Court ruling against granting such rights. It ignored that the area was intended to be a major park in the metropolitan area. The ILA thus continued steps it had taken to recognize Hazera’s rights and give an incentive to unfreeze the land for construction.

Many of the decision-makers were uninterested in the environmental importance of the area and its landscape, like the salt pools at Atlit or, in other deals, the need to use land sparingly and efficiently. They identified the developers’ interests with the good of the economy because they saw this as proper economic and social development. To this must be added Israeli leaders’ belief that planning processes are not efficient enough. And, in a kind of new version of the ethos of Zionist industrialization, they think construction plans should be expedited.

The public has always supported the need to prevent corruption, but the real challenge is for decision-makers to understand that they manage public land, which is a rare commodity both in quantity and importance to the environment. That requires a clear and necessary policy of efficient use of land and protection of open spaces.

The Hazera case shows that this is possible. In that affair, the Tel Aviv District planning authorities courageously and determinedly withstood pressure to free up the land. That office also finally persuaded the government that a park for the entire public is preferable to enriching Hazera’s owners.