Photo by Jesse Fox.
Should land be held as a public asset, or traded as a private commodity? In Israel, where 93% of the country’s land is publicly owned, state ownership of land is anchored in legislation, and even in the Bible. However, a new plan to transfer a massive amount of state land to private ownership is afloat, provoking plenty of opposition among environmentalists. The reform is the centerpiece of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's economic plan. By transferring land to private ownership, while "streamlining" land use planning procedures, Netanyahu hopes to lower housing costs, reduce bureaucracy and spur economic growth.
No Public Debate
However, instead of initiating a broad public debate on the pros and cons of public land ownership, Netanyahu's government initially tried to fast-track land reform legislation, bundling it up with various other pieces of legislation. Though later submitted as an independent bill in response to public pressure, the land reform was discussed in a lightning parliamentary session, which did not allow for much substantive debate.
Environmentalists have vehemently opposed the plan, arguing that its free-market logic contradicts land management principles in place in Israel which encourage urban growth while conserving open space. Until now, land ownership in Israel has been based on 49 year leases, a concept derived from the Biblical Jubilee year.
Veteran Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal has described the proposed reform as a "clash over the very soul" of the country. Public land ownership, he argued in a recent editorial, was designed to prevent the appearance of a landed aristocracy in Israel. Selling it off to real estate interests could hinder efforts to preserve open space and unique natural areas.
Lawmakers Reluctant to Support Reform
Opponents of the plan in the Knesset have managed to introduce some fundamental changes into the bill. These include limiting the sell-off to 4% of the country's land, excluding land not zoned for construction from the reform, and channeling 1% of the proceeds from land sales to a fund for preserving open landscapes. The government body that manages state land is also to be reformed, and its leadership will now include at least one representative of the environmental movement.
Even after all of these changes were introduced, a large number of legislators still couldn't bring themselves to vote for the reform. Last week, the government, unable to rally enough votes to pass the bill, was forced to withdraw it. Prime Minister Netanyahu, embarrassed by the debacle, threatened to punish opponents of the bill by kicking them out of his coalition.
While its progress has been stalled for the moment, Israel's first major land reform in decades is expected to pass eventually, perhaps in another week or so. As for its effects on land preservation, development patterns and social equity - these remain to be seen.