A new bill, aims to cancel out a vital tool in assessing the long-term effect of building plans.
By Zafrir Rinat

Almost every week members of the Knesset gather to promote the funeral of the natural landscape in Israel. In a joint forum of the Economic Affairs Committee and Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, they review the clauses of the new planning and building bill (the “balconies reform” ), comment and criticize, demand corrections, but until now no real amendments have been made.

If it is not significantly changed, the new bill, which is being prepared for its second and third reading, will pave the way for the government to speedily approve plans for constructing housing and infrastructures on an unprecedented scale. These will wipe out a significant part of the little open space remaining in Israel, especially in the area north of the Negev where most of the country’s population lives.

Dozens of environmental struggles waged by green organizations and residents groups ended successfully in recent years. This happened to a large extent because of the support of the planning committees, who took an approach that prefers careful planning based on building in existing communities and not at the expense of open spaces. An analysis conducted recently by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel shows that if the new bill were in force, many of those campaigns would have failed.

Take, for example, plans that were blocked to build new communities in unique landscape areas in the Negev and the Judean foothills. The new bill would grant the interior minister the right to declare a “special planning zone” in which a committee will be established that will be able to approve, among other things, the establishment of new communities. The minister will also be able to promote building plans through a local master plan which he will define as having “national importance,” and shorten its approval procedure.

As part of the new bill, district master plans in which a great deal of thought was invested in recent years, and which have become a vital tool in assessing the long-term effect of building plans, will be canceled. They helped prevent the approval of projects such as paving a road on the edge of the Carmel, which would have seriously damaged the landscape. Instead of the district master plans there will be a new means, which has been given the appropriate name of “comprehensive plan,” because it will likely include a range of possibilities to approve more construction.

Perhaps the most draconian tool is the establishment of a series of subcommittees for planning and building, which will have broad authority to approve various infrastructure plans, with virtually no possibility of appealing their decisions. If such committees existed today, it is reasonable to assume that they would have approved plans such as quarrying in the Natuf river bed and building the Nof Ayalon road – two projects in the Modi’in area that were ultimately not approved, and would have seriously damaged the open landscape that still exists in the area.

Add to that the fact that a large part of the planning committees will be under the almost complete control of representatives of government ministries, and it becomes clear that representatives of the public will have almost zero influence on the decision-makers. You don’t need a developed imagination to estimate what short-sighted and narrow-minded Israeli governments will do with the tools of tremendous authority given them by the new bill.

The citizens of Israel can only put their trust in the handful of legislators who are holding the discussions in the Knesset. It is flimsy, but that’s all there is. Perhaps public pressure, combined with a bit of wisdom and fairness that some Knesset members still have, will cause them to recognize that they must introduce many amendments to this bill that will neutralize its damaging effect as much as possible.