Saturday, March 23, 2013

Uri Ariel - New housing minister, new possibilities.

Nadav Shragai..
Israel Hayom..
22 March '13..

Uri Ariel, the new housing minister from Habayit Hayehudi, has been a constant fixture of the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria. He has two sayings that have stayed with him for many years. One is taken from the animal world: "We have stopped being part of the insect world and have joined the world of the predators."

This metaphor was coined when Ariel and his colleagues decided to move away from extra-parliamentary activity and go into politics and the Knesset. But when they moved from the opposition into the government, the saying was updated in an attempt to show that Ariel and his colleagues mean business. Once they had to crawl for the sake of the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria and play second fiddle to larger interests. They now intend to lead and shape reality as they see fit.

The second saying that has stayed with Ariel is more conventional: "The tribes of Israel gathered together" (Deuteronomy 33:5). Ariel often quotes this biblical verse when he is asked to explain his total commitment to sectors of the population that are not necessarily close to his heart. Ariel helped everyone, including the ultra-Orthodox. He has no intention of doing differently now that he has been appointed a minister.

His fellow travelers throughout Judea and Samaria think highly of him. People's expectations of him are high, perhaps even too high. Among the settlers, successes or failures will be measured according to his ability to narrow the gap between what they would like to see happen — massive construction in the settlements that turns the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria into an irreversible reality — and what is likely to happen: a short political leash that, for the moment, will not allow much construction over the Green Line. The more Ariel narrows this gap, the higher the marks he will get from his associates. The more he is reconciled to the powers that be, the more disappointed they will be in him.

Ariel himself has already sketched a broad outline of his policy. He intends to build 40,000 housing units throughout the country (not including Judea and Samaria), mostly in Israel's north and south. He wants to connect the periphery to the center of the country with an improved network of public transportation to make the outlying areas more attractive. He also promises to lower housing prices — less so in areas that are more in demand, and more on the periphery — and believes that this will happen gradually, starting in 2014. He will try to open the cement market to free competition and also shorten the time period in which opposition to construction plans may be submitted.

In Judea and Samaria, Ariel will try to implement a series of unwritten understandings with Likud and Yesh Atid on significant construction in the existing settlement blocs and also construction to accommodate natural growth in the communities deep inside the territory. His associates say that there will be no construction freeze. Has such a promise been made to the members of Habayit Hayehudi? People say there are understandings, but no promises.

These understandings, which remain unwritten, may be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps that's the reason Ariel said this week that "there would be dialogue." On the other hand, he does not intend to engage in dialogue with the Americans about construction in Judea and Samaria or construction in Jerusalem. He intends to put a stop to the custom by which the U.S. embassy receives early notification of any such construction. While Ariel will not build in illegal outposts, he will help approved outposts become more established. One example is Givat Hayekev, where the residents of Migron went, and which he visited immediately after the elections.

Ariel knows his job. In nearly every position he has held during his many years as a public official, he encountered the Housing Ministry and the housing minister — first as the head of the Beit El council and later as the director-general of the Yesha Council and the director-general of the settlement movement Amana, as the head of the settlement department at the Defense Ministry, as a Knesset member in the coalition and the opposition, and as then Housing Minister Ariel Sharon's assistant.

Now, Ariel is in charge, and with Gideon Sa'ar now the interior minister, Benzi Lieberman (his former colleague on the Yesha Council) now the director of the Israel Lands Administration, and Naftali Bennett now the industry, trade and labor minister, he has better tools to accomplish the goals he has set for himself.

Israel's left wing will watch Uri Ariel with trepidation. There is high potential for political "blowups" over the construction plans that he will try to carry out in Judea and Samaria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau defines construction in Jerusalem, which is a red flag for the U.S., as a sensitive matter. On the other hand, Ariel, who has been keeping a close watch over what has been going on in Jerusalem in recent years, knows that the Jewish majority there is in danger: 18,000 Jews move away from the city every year, while only about half that number come to live there.

While the annual demand in the capital is 4,500 housing units, the annual supply is 1,500. The land reserves for construction there have almost run out, and if something drastic is not done, in 20 years there will be demographic parity between the city's Jewish and Arab residents.

Officials in the Housing Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality do not have many contingency plans. The chance that Ariel will carry out even some of them depends on how much latitude Netanyahu gives him, and also on his own willingness to stretch that latitude with the prime minister and even clash with him if he must.

In the area of Atarot north of Jerusalem, which has been neglected since the Intifada years, there is enough territory for thousands of housing units. United Torah Judaism's Meir Porush tried to move that idea forward when he served as deputy housing minister, but was stopped by the Prime Minister's Bureau.

Will Ariel try to resurrect those plans? Additional plans to promote construction and issue tenders for thousands of housing units in Givat Hamatos, Gilo and Ramat Shlomo are also waiting on the shelf. These neighborhoods are over the Green Line, but the large land reserves in greater Jerusalem are actually outside Jerusalem — in Maaleh Adumim, in the adjacent area of E1 (where, despite the strong declarations, the plan has not yet been deposited), Betar Illit, Gush Etzion and Givat Ze'ev. Over the past few years, construction there has stopped almost completely.

In Maaleh Adumim, where 500 to 600 housing units were constructed every year in the past, only a few dozen units per year have been constructed recently. In the Gush Etzion city of Efrat there was a protracted construction freeze, and only recently did Ehud Barak approve the construction of about 400 housing units (about another 600 units for marketing and tenders in Efrat are waiting to be advertised).

The mayor of Maaleh Adumim, Benny Kashriel, claims that the one who stopped the construction in his city was former housing minister Ariel Atias of Shas, not Ehud Barak. "I would come to him and tell him that there was an option of moving construction forward in existing neighborhoods — for example, 1,000 housing units in Area 07, but he would behave arrogantly toward me and say, 'Go to Bibi.'

"But Uri [Ariel] doesn’t take a person's political party into account. He moved things forward both in the coalition and in the opposition. He knows Judea and Samaria like the back of his hand, and I am certain that he will be able to get things going. He's smart, he understands how things work, and he's a go-getter of the first order. Unlike other people who talked a lot and didn't build much, Uri will talk a little and build a lot," Kashriel says.

Efrat regional council head Oded Ravivi speaks in the same vein. "As long as we've known Uri, we've known of his extraordinary ability to take things that had been stuck in bureaucratic or political red tape and get them moving. His talent and charm have gotten lots of things unstuck. Even when he was in the opposition, he made sure to hold regular meetings with the defense minister and come to him with a list of things that needed fixing on the ground. That says a lot about him. We would get calls from the defense minister's bureau when Uri was there, and we'd get reports about what had been resolved and what hadn't.

"A recent prominent example is a farm we wanted to establish on Givat Ha'eitam, which belongs to Efrat, to prevent the Palestinians from taking over the land there. We went through all the army channels and got permits. We had support from Netanyahu and the ministers, and in the end we got to the defense minister's office. When Barak signed, Ariel was there."

Ariel's influence as housing minister over what happens in these two sensitive areas — Jerusalem on the one hand and Judea and Samaria on the other — is real.

Urban construction in Judea and Samaria is his responsibility, and the Rural Construction Authority, which is responsible for the construction of permanent buildings in the rural communities, is part of his ministry. In the rural communities, in places that have an urban building scheme, Ariel will be able to build without issuing tenders. But in urban areas such as Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, Karnei Shomron and Kiryat Arba, where construction potential is many times greater — the issue of tenders is required, which, of course, reveals that construction is taking place there more quickly.

However, it must be remembered that the defense minister is Ariel's partner in all construction that takes place in Judea and Samaria. Without his signature, there can be no construction there. Those are the rules. They were made during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, when Yitzhak Mordechai was defense minister. Netanyahu did not change the rules during his second term, and it is doubtful that he will change them during his third term despite the recommendations of the Levy Committee (headed by retired Supreme Court justice Edmond Levy) to reduce from five to two the number of permits that the Defense Ministry must issue during the complicated process of obtaining a construction permit in Judea and Samaria.

In Barak's time, obtaining a construction permit was like pulling teeth — lots of teeth. They would like to believe that things will be different during the term of the new defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon. At least until he was appointed defense minister, Ya'alon was in favor of large-scale construction in the settlement blocs, and also in favor of putting the Levy Committee report (published in June 2012), which was one of his projects, into practice.

The report contains many clauses that could remove very significant obstacles imposed on construction in Judea and Samaria during previous governments. Some of them require a decision by the cabinet. There might be opposition from the State Attorney's Office, which will have the support of the new justice minister, Tzipi Livni. But another part depends solely upon the defense minister. For example, if he wished, Ya'alon could instruct OC Central Command Nitzan Alon to abolish the order regarding "disturbing use," which the Levy Committee termed "a draconian order."

This order is an odd legal creature. It allows the Civil Administration to rule that a person's possession of property is illegitimate because it may raise political or security issues. The Civil Administration is not required to provide any documentation to support the "disturbing use" order. The original order stipulates that the claim cannot be invoked if three years have passed since the beginning of the "disturbing use." That term was later increased to five years.

Later, the Civil Administration ruled that the term would begin anew each time a change was made in the way the land was used. For example, when a Jewish farmer begins growing flowers in a field where he had formerly grown lettuce, the count starts anew. This order, which is pending against many Jewish farmers throughout Judea and Samaria, threatens to reduce the amount of farmland they hold today by a great deal. In the past, Ya'alon spoke out sharply against the order. Will he abolish it now?

Uri Ariel's associates believe that the conversation between himself and Ya'alon will be much more real and to the point than it was with Barak, and that there is enough room between the political restrictions and the possibility of working on the ground to allow cooperation and understanding between the two. Tzviki Bar-Hai, the head of southern Hebron hills regional council, says that the moment the conversation becomes practical and attentive, 90 percent of the problems can be solved.

Bar-Hai, whose council area has 7,500 residents, set himself a modest goal: to reach 10,000 people within five years. "Uri will help us," he says confidently, and reports proudly that the revolution has already begun in Telem, Adora, Otniel, Sussia and other communities: "dozens of new housing units in every community."

Pinhas Wallerstein, formerly the head of the Binyamin regional council and director-general of the Yesha Council and now the head of the Negev-Galilee Settlement Administration (a position that was created in cooperation with the Amana settlement movement), has a broader description of his expectations of Ariel: "The name of the game is population dispersion. Uri is very much aware of that, and I'm sure he will work in that direction. The natural expectation is that there will be more construction in the Galilee, the Negev and in Judea and Samaria as well. That's called population dispersion."

What about construction for the ultra-Orthodox? Ariel has good connections with the haredi politicians. Just last December, he helped MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) and former housing minister Ariel Atias (Shas) in a vote to transfer NIS 538 million ($146 million) to subsidize discounts on land in tenders for affordable housing, which contains a clear preference for the haredi population.

Add to that the fact that almost one-third of the settlers are haredi and Ariel’s promise to be "a housing minister for everyone," and we can understand why the haredi parties' outrage at having been left out of the coalition is exaggerated, if not groundless.

Ariel will also put emphasis on construction in mixed cities such as Jaffa, Acre, Ramle, Lod and Upper Nazareth — cities where the Jewish majority is threatened or shrinking. Even when he was in the opposition, Ariel made sure to transfer budgets to groups of religious families who moved to those cities and the hesder yeshivas, the yeshiva high schools, the pre-army academies and the groups of young women performing civilian national service there.

The residents of Upper Nazareth were so enthusiastic over his work on their behalf that they gave him honorary citizenship and named him a Worthy Citizen of the city. Now Ariel will able to work for them not as a lobbyist but as the housing minister and shaper of policy within the government.

There are still plenty of obstacles to overcome, such as the future of Amona and Givat Assaf. But Ariel has no direct connection with that. The defense establishment and the legal establishment are the ones responsible for those places as well as for locations in Jerusalem, such as a 2-dunam (half-acre) lot near Herod's Gate, where Jews want to build, or the Kedmat Zion construction plan close to Abu Dis, on the city's eastern jurisdiction boundary.

If Ariel wishes to, he can push those sensitive plans forward. But by his statements, at least, it seems that he will first deal with the massive work to be done inside the Green Line, in Jerusalem and also in the urban communities in Judea and Samaria.


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