Bibi, urban planner in chief

Jul 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Netanyahu's reforms

Netanyahu is incapable of meeting tent protesters’ demands because he is wedded to a rigid, anti-urban ideology.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a serious problem on his hands. Tens of thousands of angry young people are taking to the streets, yelling things like “the people want social justice” and “the answer to privatization – revolution,” while calling on him to resign.

His proclamations that he “embraces” and “identifies with” the protesters only seem to have further incensed them, and they refuse to buy the stale bill of goods he is trying to sell them as a solution to the housing problem.

Worse still, the people seem to have “lost their fear.” In the context of the Arab Spring revolutions, this phrase was used to describe a collective shaking-off of the mortal fear of the regime harbored by the masses. This fear – of harassment, blacklisting, arrest, persecution, torture or death – is what kept people in line for so many decades under dysfunctional and kleptocratic regimes.

In Israel, the fear is not of the regime, but of external threats: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other bearded bogeymen. Nurtured assiduously by the government, these fears are what have kept the people in line for decades, as the country’s wealth was siphoned off by the army, the settlements, the ultra-Orthodox and the oligarchy. As long as the external threat was  dangled over Israelis’ heads on a weekly or daily basis, the masses didn’t dare to raise their heads.

But now they are, and worse still, they are discovering the hidden lines that connect all of the multitude of small, isolated battles taking place in the country.

It seems an entire new generation has become radicalized practically overnight. In a single week, the population has gone from being docile and indifferent to indignant and irate.

Despite attempts by his loyalists in the media to present them as political puppets of one left-wing conspiracy or another, or spoiled children whining about not getting their lollipop, the demonstrations have only gained strength, forcing Bibi to actually attempt to address their grievances.

This is a problematic situation for both sides. The demonstrators, most of whom had never encountered the intricacies of Israel’s byzantine land planning system before moving into their tents, have thus far failed to put forward a clear set of demands – although in a single week they have developed democratic decision-making mechanisms that put the current Knesset to shame, and have been debating their demands day and night.

Whatever these end up being, Netanyahu will find it hard to address them in any meaningful way. Bibi, whose political and socio-economic positions apparently ossified back when he was still known as Ben Nitay, has been nothing if not consistent in his views. The problem is that those views reflect an outdated and anachronistic approach, and one which is completely at odds not only with the worldview of the protesters, but with Israel’s official planning policy.

Bibi’s American dream

Bibi’s grand vision can be summed up in one tidy word: sprawl. A combination of the classic Zionist “I will cover you in a dress of cement and concrete” zeal with the free-market real estate economics that he learned about in the US, Netanyahu’s grand plan involves turning over vast tracks of virgin land to big developers, so that the latter can construct massive residential projects, while the magic of the free market lowers prices. Supply and demand.

“Undeveloped land is dead land, which doesn’t understand anything. When you develop it, it understands.”

This pearl of wisdom was uttered by none other than Israel’s prime minister, during a visit to the Dead Sea in which he was dazzled by all the “dead” land he found just waiting to be developed.

Bibi’s vision is of an unrestrained real estate market, in which developers buy up (state) land on the edges of the city, develop it, and then buy up more land, further out, and develop it.

The result of this model is always the same: a monotonous, soulless landscape of suburban tract housing zoned for single uses – here residential, there commercial, and so on. Public transportation is neglected in favor of private cars and elevated highways, complete with mammoth interchanges and endless parking lots, all subsidized generously by the state. Picture the suburbs of any American city.

This model, which began to catch on in Israel in the 1970s, was later rejected by the state’s planning institutions in favor of a more compact and sustainable pattern of growth. Planners here realized at some point that, unlike the US, Israel is a tiny country, where unrestrained development could easily overwhelming the country’s remaining open spaces.

The result was National Master Plan 35, a blueprint for the entire country’s future growth, based on limiting sprawl, redirecting construction back into cities, investing in public transportation and preserving what is left of the country’s natural areas. The plan was approved by the government in the early 2000s, and has since been undermined by almost all of the country’s leaders.

None more so than Benjamin Netanyahu, who is one of the world’s last true believers. Along with the Republicans in the US, Chicago School economists and disciples of the late Milton Friedman, Netanyahu remains a market purist. His blind faith in the wisdom of unencumbered markets has withstood even the free-market-induced crash of 2008 and the sharp declines of economies which he touted for years as models for Israel, primarily that of Ireland.

Nowhere is this truer than in the real estate market. In Bibi’s eyes, the market will solve the social problems created by the housing shortage. Deep down, he doesn’t believe in planning or other “outrageous” forms of regulation any more than he believes in ‘two states for two peoples.’

As far as the environmental problems which we now know are created, beyond a shadow of a doubt, by sprawl, as well as the soulless environments which result when contractors are allowed to prioritize quantity over quality, Bibi simply ignores them.

A three-pronged reform

The strategy that he has chosen to implement his vision is three-pronged.

First, privatize state-owned land by passing a law reforming the Israel Lands Administration, which holds 90+ percent of the country’s land. Check.

Second, create emergency planning committees (“national planning committees,” or in Netanyahu parlance, the “supertanker” plan) to fast-track construction on those lands, bypassing the existing planning system, which presumably would never consent to such a thing. Check.

Third, rewrite the country’s planning law such that, among other things, the ability of the public to oppose building plans would be sharply reduced. The Knesset is still working on that one.

These are the “reforms” that Netanyahu has been touting incessantly since the tent protests began on July 14. While they have some merit – the ILA truly is a horrendous dinosaur in need of reform, the planning system is often slow and inefficient and could use more hands on deck, and the country’s planning law is archaic and in need of a few tweaks – the devil is in the details.

Rather than propel the country forward, into the era of sustainability and social equity, Bibi’s grand vision will drag us backward, accelerating massive, uncontrolled (sub)urbanization while degrading the country’s standard of living.

As for the claim that flooding the market with tens of thousands of units will lower prices, most serious economists and planning experts are not buying it.

Wanted: an urban lifestyle

Another thing that Netanyahu’s reforms ignore: young people today are not interested in living in some bland suburban hi-rise.

It’s no accident that the tent city phenomenon began in central Tel Aviv. While a slew of commentators have scolded Tel Aviv’s young people for their desperate attempts to remain in the city, the truth is that no other place in Israel can offer what is, and has always been, Tel Aviv’s major selling point: the cosmopolitan, urban lifestyle it offers.

Nowhere else can young people find so many opportunities, economic as well as cultural and social, to live alternative lifestyles or hold opinions considered alien by middle-of-the-road, suburban Israel, or to live an ecological lifestyle which is not dependent on the automobile.

The protesters don’t want to move to cheap housing out in the middle of nowhere, they want to stay in the city. And, unfortunately, there is only one city in Israel that offers young people a truly urban way of life.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a walking anachronism. His government is detached and useless. Both are shackled to failed ideologies which cannot solve the problems we are facing.

Therefore, it is up to us, the young people, to find solutions to this problem (and possibly others as well) ourselves. Housing protesters need to get proactive, brainstorm, put their heads together with NGOs and academics, come up with a clear, simple list of demands from the government, and refuse to give an inch until they are met.

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  1. What exactly is your proposal to lower housing prices? With an rapidly growing population, the only way to decrease housing prices is to increase the supply of housing. Mandating price controls onto privately owned real estate is equivalent to transfer of housing value from landlord to tenant. If implemented, rental controls will force landlords to stop maintaining properties, and will prevent any development or improvement in areas where price controls exist. This will gradually decrease the quality of entire neighborhoods. Building public housing with taxpayer money and renting it out at below market prices is, first of all, a massive strain on the government budget and will only be another impetus for increasing taxes on an already overtaxed population. Public housing also means, again, entire areas will not be well-maintained, will not be improved, and will generally degrade in quality. Only privately owned real estate has a chance of being well-maintained and can create high quality neighborhoods that are worth living in. And private capital, whether in the hands of real estate developers or individuals, has to earn some kind of a return on their investments, or else they will simply move their money elsewhere. The only solution is to allow private real estate firms to develop as many areas as possible to continue to meet the rising demand of the growing population. Your concern for the environment is admirable, and it can partially be addressed by requiring that more new construction consists of taller buildings as those require less land. Also, public trains and extensive bike lane networks can decrease environmental impact. But, in the end, if you don’t allow greater expansion into green areas in the center of the country, the housing prices will continue to get worse.

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