Israel to announce 5,000 new settler homes


Israel will announce construction plans for about 5,000 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The plans include the 1,500 housing units announced Tuesday night to be constructed in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, Haaretz reported Thursday, as well as 2,500 new units throughout the West Bank in major settlement blocs and isolated settlements.

Lots for some 860 housing units will be sold to contractors for immediate construction in Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, Givat Zeev, Betar Ilit, Karnei Shomron and Elkana, which are part of the major settlement blocs.

Plans for the construction of 1,400 new units throughout the West Bank will be submitted to the Civil Administration’s planning committee. Construction would take several years.

Another 1,100 units, which had already been submitted to the Civil Administration’s planning committee, will be advanced, though it will take at least a year before construction begins, according to Haaretz.

Plans also were announced Tuesday to build a national park in areas east of the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Isawiyah and A-Tur; and the Kedem Center, a tourism and archaeological center in the Palestinian village of Silwan opposite the entrance to the City of David.

Ophir Akunis, the Likud deputy minister for liaison with the Knesset, provided details of the settlement plans in a government meeting Wednesday that was picked up by the Israeli media.

The construction projects are meant to appease those who were against the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The freed prisoners had participated in terror attacks that killed Jews.

The plans were condemned by the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. State Department, as well as by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and the European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

Building plan for eastern Jerusalem’s Gilo advances


A plan to build nearly 900 apartments in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was approved on the eve of scheduled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The final approval by the Interior Ministry came late Monday. The plan now goes to the Housing Ministry and the Israel Lands Administration for approval.

The plan was approved by the ministry’s regional planning and building committee in December, according to Haaretz, but ministry approval was delayed by changes to the plan.

Monday’s announcement came a day after the announcement that Israel would issue tenders for construction companies to build 1,200 apartments in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiators have threatened to boycott the opening of the first new peace negotiations in three years, scheduled for Wednesday in Jerusalem, over the issue of the new settlement construction announcements.

“Settlement expansion goes against the U.S. administration’s pledges and threatens to cause the negotiations’ collapse,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told the French news agency AFP following the announcement. “This settlement expansion is unprecedented. It threatens to make talks fail even before they’ve started.”

Israel approves 1,500 more settler homes in East Jerusalem


Israel approved plans to build 1,500 more Jewish settler homes in East Jerusalem on Monday, an official said, days after provoking international protests against a project for another 3,000 such homes.

Washington had condemned the latest plans, for Orthodox neighborhood Ramat Shlomo, when they were published during a 2010 visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Palestinians see the settlements as obstacles to achieving independent statehood. The settlements have been condemned by many countries, and the latest project is slated to be built on a portion of West Bank land Israel annexed as part of Jerusalem, in a move never recognized internationally.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms these Israeli actions and the determination of Israel to continue expanding settlements and in the process undermining the two-state solution,” said senior Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat.

“These are very dangerous and alarming steps. The Israeli government is showing its determination to contravene the will of the international community,” the top peace negotiator said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged last week to build at least 3,000 more settler homes on West Bank land as an expression of Israel's objections to a United Nations vote last month recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Those plans led to a string of Israeli diplomats summoned for reprimands across Europe.

Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman, Efrat Orbach, said on Monday a district planning commission “gave preliminary approval for” the Ramat Shlomo project which must pass a series of bureaucratic decisions before construction may actually begin.

Israeli, Palestinian Authority peace talks have been frozen since late 2010, largely due to a dispute over the settlements, which the International Court of Justice in The Hague has ruled as illegal, a decision Israel disputes.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Louise Ireland

Palestinians evicted from eastern Jerusalem homes, Jews move in


Jewish families moved into two homes in an eastern Jerusalem neighborhood following the eviction of its Palestinian residents.

The families who moved into the homes on Thursday in Beit Hanina, a well-off Arab neighborhood in the northern quadrant of eastern Jerusalem, are the first Jewish residential presence in the neighborhood.

An Israeli court ruled recently that Jews had legally purchased the properties.

Fourteen members of the Natshe family had lived in the two homes. Some were evicted from one of the homes on Wednesday. The home next door had been evacuated several weeks ago; police were required to remove the residents and their property on Wednesday, according to reports.

The settler-run Israel Land Fund took over the fight for the properties from a man who said he purchased the homes more than three decades ago. The properties also were owned by Jews before 1948, according to the fund. The organization plans to establish a Jewish enclave of 50 apartments in the Arab neighborhood.

United Nations humanitarian coordinator Maxwell Gaylard said Thursday in a statement that the “Evictions of Palestinians from their homes and properties in occupied territory contravene international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, and should cease.”

Some see Beit Hanina becoming like the Shimon Hatzadik enclave in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, which must be protected by private security and has touched off several controversies. In that case as well, a court ruled in favor of Jewish ownership and three Palestinian families were evicted.

Israeli delegation dedicates housing in eastern Turkey


A delegation from Israel’s Defense Ministry visited eastern Turkey to dedicate a student village built with Israeli assistance.

The student village in Turkey’s Van district was built from 130 prefabricated buildings sent by Israel as a humanitarian gesture following an earthquake three months ago that left some six hundred dead and thousands homeless.

More than 800 students will live in the structures.

“After the harsh quake that occurred here, you came, you the Israelis, with a lot of material and a lot of willingness to help. And for this I thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart,” said district Vice-Governor Ahmet Kazankyeh, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. “You are our true friends, and the proof is what we see here. Only true friends can help so quickly and with such concern for their partners.”

In the immediate aftermath of the 7.2 earthquake, Turkey refused Israel’s assistance and turned down aid from other countries. But Ankara later changed its mind and accepted international help in housing the thousands of Turks who were without shelter. In addition to the housing units, Israel sent inflatable mattresses and blankets

Relations between the former allies have been nearly nonexistent now following an Israeli naval commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010 that left nine Turkish nationals dead, including one dual Turkish-American citizen.

Turkey has demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths and compensation to the victims’ families. Israel has offered its “regret” for the deaths, and has said that its naval commandos fired in self-defense. Relations had been deteriorating since the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Agreement will prevent outpost razing


The Israeli government and residents of the Ramat Gilad outpost in the West Bank reportedly have reached an agreement that will prevent the destruction of the illegal outpost.

Under the agreement, the outpost in the northern West Bank would become part of the Karnei Shomron municipality, and five of its 10 caravans and several warehouses will be relocated to areas on the hill that are not considered private Palestinian property, the settlers’ Yesha Council announced Wednesday.

“I’m definitely satisfied with the agreement, which has prevented unnecessary clashes and will strengthen Ramat Gilad and the settlement enterprise in general,” Yesha Council chairman Danny Dayan told Ynet.

The parts of the outpost on private land were scheduled to be razed by the end of the year by order of the Supreme Court.

Rioting broke out earlier this month after area settlers believed that an army and security convoy was on its way to raze the outpost. The riot included an attack on a nearby army base. At least five youths, including two from Karnei Shomron and three from Jerusalem, are currently being held in connection with the attack.

Ten families live on Ramat Gilad, which was established in 2001 in memory of Gilad Zar, who was killed by Palestinians in a drive-by shooting. Zar’s father, Moshe, claims to own the property on which the outpost is constructed.

U.N. Security Council states condemn Israel over housing


Members of the U.N. Security Council criticized Israel’s decision to construct additional housing in the settlements and the United States for blocking a vote to condemn the action.

The four European Union nations on the council—Britain, France, Germany and Portugal—issued a joint statement slamming Israel for settlement building. They cited a briefing by the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who said such construction is preventing the restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“One of the themes that emerged was the severely damaging effect that increased settlement construction and settler violence is having on the ground and on the prospects of a return to negotiations,” the EU council members said in their joint statement, Reuters reported.

The president of the Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, indirectly blamed the United States for its role in the stalled negotiations.

“There is one delegation which would not want to hear anything about it, any kind of a statement, which believes that somehow things will sort of settle themselves somehow miraculously out of their own,” Churkin said.

Statements from the Nonaligned Movement, the Arab group and the group of emerging powers that includes India, Brazil and South Africa also condemned Israel and the United States, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement expressing her “strong disapproval” of Israel’s announcement earlier this week issuing a tender to build more than 1,000 housing units in the West Bank, including in eastern Jerusalem.

“I urge them not to proceed with this publication,” Ashton said in the statement. “The EU’s position is clear: Settlement construction is illegal under international law and further complicates efforts to find a solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By ensuring the suspension of the publication of these tenders, the Israeli government can contribute positively to these efforts.”

Israel publishes tenders for West Bank housing


Israel’s Construction and Housing Ministry published tenders for more than 1,000 housing units in communities located in the West Bank near Jerusalem.

The communities, which include Beitar Illit, Har Homa and Givat Ze’ev, are part of 6,000 tenders for across the country.

Construction Minister Ariel Atias of the Shas party said his ministry decided to offer the tenders in light of the Palestinians being accepted into UNESCO, the United Nations scientific and cultural organization.

Construction reportedly will start at most of the sites within a year, Haaretz reported.

Also Sunday, a ministerial committee rejected a bill that would retroactively legalize West Bank outposts built on Palestinian land. The bill would have legalized the outposts if they were not challenged by the alleged Palestinian landowner within four years.

In September, more than 1,000 new housing units were approved in eastern Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. The proposal brought condemnation from around the world.

Israel provides housing aid to Turkey


Israel sent housing assistance for up to 1,000 people in Turkey afected by two earthquakes that hit the country in October.

The mobile homes, which were requested by the government in Ankara, were delivered by the Defense Ministry on Friday morning, the Jerusalem Post reported.

In October, a 7.2 magnitude quake killed 600 people in Turkey’s eastern region, leaving thousands homeless. Less than three weeks later, another 5.7 earthquake hit the same region, killing five and burying scores under rubble.

After the first quake, Israel sent a civilian aircraft to Turkey carrying prefabricated homes, warm blankets and mattresses.

Gilo building plan gets go-ahead


Jerusalem’s district planning committee has approved a construction plan to build 1,100 housing units in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood of 40,000 in eastern Jerusalem.

The plan also includes public buildings, a school and an industrial zone, Ynet reported. The public has 60 days to express opposition to the plan.

The committee had previously approved a motion to expand the neighborhood with additional housing. The plan allots 20 percent of the new housing for young couples..

The approval comes as the international community, including the United States and the Mideast Quartet, are attempting to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks until Israel halts settlement construction, including in Jerusalem.

Gilo was annexed by Israel after being captured in 1967.

Israel social protesters arrested in first violence


Israeli police arrested some 40 demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, police said, after the first violence seen during weeks of social protests that have called for lower living and housing costs.

Protesters held up traffic on a main street and broke into city hall after municipal workers dismantled some makeshift huts and tents and removed furniture from two locations where tent protests had been set up.

The grassroots movement has swollen since July from a cluster of student tent-squatters into a countrywide mobilisation of Israel’s middle class. Until Wednesday’s clash, none of the protests had been violent.

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands marched for lower living costs in the largest such rally in Israel’s history, bolstering a social change movement and mounting pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take on economic reform.

Social media also played a role in the Israeli protests, inspired partly by the impact of Arab Spring demonstrations and it has posed the greatest challenge yet to Netanyahu halfway into his term.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition faces no immediate threat, but the protests have underscored the potential electoral impact of a middle class rallying under a banner of social justice.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Mideast Quartet ‘greatly concerned’ by Israel’s recent settlement plans


The Middle East Quartet said Tuesday that they were alarmed by Israel’s latest announcements about new settlement plans in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The so-called quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, released a statement expressing deep concern regarding Israel’s recent announcement to build 277 homes in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, as well as more than 900 housing units in Har Homa in East Jerusalem.

“The Quartet is greatly concerned by Israel’s recent announcements to advance planning for new housing units in Ariel and East Jerusalem,” the mediating group said in a joint statement.

On Monday, the U.S. said it found reports of fresh Israeli settlement building plans deeply troubling and counterproductive to the U.S. effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Barak approves 277 apartments in Ariel settlement


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved a plan to build 277 apartments in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, including 100 for families evacuated from the Gaza Strip.

Barak approved the marketing of the apartments last week, the Defense Ministry announced Monday. Building permits for the apartments had been awarded previously, but marketing of the apartments had been delayed due to diplomatic concerns, Haaretz reported.

Construction of the units in Ariel, which is home to about 20,000 Jewish settlers, is expected to take three years.

More than one-third of the apartments will go to Jewish families removed from their homes in the Netzarim settlement in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The announcement comes a week after Israel’s interior minister gave final approval to a project to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, and two weeks after 930 housing units in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa were given final approval by the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee.

President Obama is among the world leaders who has denounced the building in eastern Jerusalem.

Israeli protesters for a month have been calling for more available and affordable housing.

Israeli plan set to provide more affordable housing


The Israel Lands Administration Council has approved a plan to offer more affordable housing to some Israelis.

The plan, which comes after four weeks of protests throughout Israel calling for affordable housing, would provide discounts to developers building more affordable housing units. It also would give precedence to those who served in the army or national service, which would hurt the haredi Orthodox and Arab sectors, according to reports.

In the past, preference for less expensive housing was given to families with more than three children, which disproportionately helped the haredim.

The plan also calls for building student housing.

Israel approves more eastern Jerusalem housing


Israel’s interior minister gave final approval to a project to build 1,600 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem.

Eli Yishai late Wednesday night approved the housing plan for Ramat Shlomo. In March 2010, the Jerusalem municipality’s approval of the project came during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, causing a diplomatic uproar.

The Ramat Shlomo announcement comes a week after 930 housing units in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa were given final approval by the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee. President Obama is among the world leaders who have criticized the approval of the Ramat Shlomo building and new Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem in general.

The announcement also comes during the fourth week of protests in Israel calling for more available and affordable housing.

Two other plans for more than 2,000 more housing units in eastern Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods are also slated for approval in the near future, according to reports.

Reform movement backing Israeli protests


The Reform movement’s international arm is supporting social justice protesters in Israel.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism in a statement Monday said it “stands with all in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and every tent city established to say that the Israel for which we have all fought and sacrificed must be an Israel that treats its citizens with dignity and respect, and offers the most basic of needs: housing, food, child-care and education, to all in an affordable way.”

Reform becomes the largest Diaspora movement to back the protesters. Its statement marked the eve of the 9th of Av, the fast day commemorating numerous Jewish tragedies.

The protest movement, dubbed J14 for demonstrations that started July 14, brought some 300,000 people into the streets of Israel on Saturday night, the biggest turnout so far.

“Jews are supportive of social justice everywhere in the world including israel, and this is one of the great social justice events in israel’s history,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set up a commission to consider protesters’ demands.

Other U.S. groups to express support for the movement include the New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu.

Meanwhile, Israelis in the United States are pitching tents in public spaces, taking up the protests crisscrossing Israel. Small tent cities have sprung up in New York’s Times Square, across the street from the White House and at a park in Los Angeles, Ynet reported.

About 200 ex-Israelis and supporters of Israel’s housing protesters demonstrated Sunday in Los Angeles’ Woodley Park in a protest organized on Facebook, according to Ynet. The Israeli protesters said they would return to the country of their birth if the cost of living was less and the financial pressures were not as great.

Knesset to meet during recess over protests


Israel’s Knesset will meet in a special session on the rash of protests sweeping the nation despite being on summer recess.

The debate scheduled for next week was announced Monday, after 50 opposition lawmakers signed a petition calling for the session titled “Netanyahu’s tax government is disconnected from the people and ignoring the public protest.” Only 25 signatures were necessary to call the meeting during a recess.

The signatures were collected by the Kadima and National Union parties.

On Monday, hundreds of senior citizens protested in Tel Aviv against the high cost of living, calling for lower medicine costs, a cancellation of the value-added tax on basic necessities and safeguards on the value of their pensions.

Committee to review protesters’ demands set up after mass demonstration


Israel’s prime minister established a committee to examine the demands of leaders of the social justice protest movement following one of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history.

An estimated 300,000 demonstrators protesting the rising costs of living gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday night, with another 20,000 protesting in Jerusalem, and several thousand others in cities throughout the country. It was the third such demonstration – and the largest –  since the protests began more than three weeks ago. Protesters chanted, among other slogans,  “The people demand social justice” and “An entire generation demands a future.”

Israeli musicians Shlomo Artzi, Rita and Yehudit Ravitz entertained the demonstrators, who also heard speeches from Daphne Leef, founder of the movement, and Rabbi Benny Lau, founder of the Beit Morasha social justice institute.

“If I could I would show you how people have demanded social justice since the origin of Judaism,” Lau told the crowd Saturday night.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning announced the formation of a 15-member professional committee to review the demands of the social justice movement and to submit proposals for social and economic reform in the next month. The committee is headed by Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, chairman of the National Economic Council, and made up of Cabinet ministers, observers and economic experts.

Protest leaders have already decried the committee, saying that they are looking for direct dialogue with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu announced the formation of the committee on Sunday, at the start of the regular weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We are aware of the fact that working couples with children are finding it difficult to finish the month. We recognize the plight of students who cannot pay their rent. We are aware of the distress of the residents of neighborhoods, of discharged soldiers and others. We want to provide genuine solutions,” Netanyahu said.

He acknowledged that the committee’s proposals will not please everybody but pledged: “We will listen to everyone. We will speak with everyone. We will hold a genuine dialogue, not pressured and perfunctory, but we will really listen both to the distress and to the proposals for solutions. In the end, we will consider practical solutions. Practical solutions require choices. They also require balance.”

With protests, Israelis are seeking the revival of welfare state


The wave of protests sweeping Israel is about much more than the lack of affordable housing: It’s a grass-roots demand for the major redistribution of the nation’s wealth.

In social terms, protesters are calling for a more caring government attuned to the needs of young, middle-class citizens who serve in the army, pay heavy taxes and provide the engine driving the country’s burgeoning economy.

In economic terms, it is a call for the reversal of nearly three decades of fiscal conservativism at the expense of social services such as education, health and welfare, as well as an appeal against eroding salaries and rising prices.

In other words, the protesters are demanding that today’s thriving free-market Israel use its wealth to create conditions for a restoration of at least some elements of the long-defunct Israeli welfare state.

As an estimated 150,000 people demonstrated Saturday night in 12 locations across the country, the central theme was a demand for “social justice.” To some, it was reminiscent of the students’ revolt in Paris in the late 1960s: an alliance of students, workers and, in the Israeli case, a large, financially strapped middle class of people mostly in their 20s and 30s demanding a new economic order.

But there were key differences: In the Israeli case, there was no violence. Instead, there was a veiled, largely unspoken threat: that if the government fails to act and middle-class people continue to struggle to make ends meet, many more of the best and brightest would leave for countries where there is no defense burden and it’s easier to make a living.

As the protests entered their third week, the great Israeli paradox loomed large: Never has the country been economically stronger, yet never have so many of its young people felt so frustrated at their own personal financial status.

The current situation is partly a result of a constitutional lacuna.

In the mid-1990s, a number of basic laws were passed—together they are eventually meant to form the basis of a constitution for Israel. One of the laws, on the dignity and freedom of man, enshrined property rights, but a balancing companion act on social rights continues to be held up. It would deal with issues like the right to housing, education, health and welfare, and set parameters of state responsibility for their provision.

The bill again is on the agenda, promoted by Meretz Knesset member Zahava Gal-On.

But the country’s current socioeconomic predicament goes much deeper than any law. It is the result of more than two decades of a virtually consistent small government economic policy.

The turning point came in 1985, with inflation running at over 450 percent per annum. It became clear that Israel could no longer afford to maintain the old-style, government-subsidized welfare state.

The economic stability plan introduced by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and then Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai entailed stringent cuts in government spending. With its dramatic success in saving the economy, the small government approach quickly became economic orthodoxy.

The economic buzzword in the 1990s was privatization, started by the Likud, taken on board by Labor and then accelerated by Benjamin Netanyahu. When he first became prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu spoke of a thin man, the private sector, tottering under the weight of a fat man, the public sector, and vowed to turn things around. Netanyahu had a strong ideological commitment to free market forces, privatizing government companies and outsourcing social services.

This meant the accelerated handover of services to the private sector that once were the sole preserve of government. It was accompanied by a weakening of trade unions and an overall erosion of working conditions and salaries.

The result? Owners and a select few mega-salaried executives became richer and the middle class relatively poorer. It also led to the rise of the Israeli tycoons, who controlled a great deal of the country’s wealth and power. Banks, energy companies, supermarket chains and media properties all were concentrated in the hands of a dozen or so billionaire families.

Netanyahu’s economic philosophy also entailed a reduction of corporate taxes. Big companies paid 5 percent to 20 percent income tax, while the middle class saw the prices of everything from food to cars to apartments rise considerably. The system produced impressive economic growth but left wealth in the hands of the few. The trickle-down effect, middle-class Israelis said, had failed to materialize.

The upshot was that by May 2010, Israel’s economy was robust enough for Israel to be admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—the exclusive club of the world’s strongest economies known as the OECD. But Israel also was the OECD member with the biggest gaps between rich and poor.

Some blame preferential spending on settlements in the West Bank for the lack of funds for social services in Israel. Others focus on welfare for the growing haredi Orthodox population in Israel. Still others point to the limited taxation of the tycoons—tax concessions nationwide are estimated at approximately $11 billion per year, about 11 percent of the national budget.

For years, middle-class discontent simmered under the surface, always eclipsed by security concerns or peacemaking moves. For embattled Israel, peace and security inevitably took top priority.

Until now. With terrorism virtually nonexistent and the peace process deadlocked, young Israelis have turned their attention toward generating a mass movement against the socioeconomic system.

Their anti-establishment energy took the form of street protests because there is a strong sense that none of the traditional parties represents their interests, and Israel has a long history of street protests, encompassing everything from Ethiopian immigration to the campaign to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

For the most part, the protests have not been focused. But now the leaders of the protest movement are formulating a list of concrete demands and general principles for change. These are expected to include demands for public housing on a large scale; major tax reforms that would increase taxation of the super-rich and lower indirect taxes on the general public; a shift in budgetary priorities, transferring part of the defense budget and the increased tax money from the rich to fund social services; and demands for Israel to comply with OECD averages when it comes to the numbers of doctors, policemen and firemen per thousand citizens, and the number of children in classrooms.

Netanyahu has set up committees to examine all the relevant economic issues and to negotiate with the protesters, who are likely to be backed by trade union boss Ofer Eini. The prime minister almost certainly will produce a new economic plan, but it may not be enough. What the people are demanding is a new social contract.

The political question is whether this could have an impact on the next election, scheduled for 2013, and the agenda over which it will be fought. That depends on how pressing security issues are around that time and whether these protesters can sustain enough momentum to translate their street movement into real political power.

Housing protests roil Israel as tent cities pop up


On Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv’s version of Park Avenue, a burgeoning tent city has sprung up amid crowded cafes and its canopy of ficus trees.

The squatters are protesting soaring housing prices in the country, and they have galvanized a sudden full-scale national protest, from Kiryat Shemona in the North to Beersheva in the South, that has plunged the government into crisis mode.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to Poland this week and the interior minister has called for the Knesset to cancel its summer recess. Tent cities are swelling in cities across Israel, protesters are blocking roads and activists have practically besieged the Knesset. On Saturday evening, an estimated 20,000 marchers filled the streets of Tel Aviv calling for affordable housing.

“For years, Israelis have been like zombies because of the security situation and did not speak out when other areas were ignored, like education and the economy,” said Amir Ben-Cohen, a 30-year-old graduate student camping out on Rothschild Boulevard. “Enough. We are a new generation.”

Some are hailing the protests as Israel’s version of the Arab Spring. This Israeli Summer movement is being led by university students and young professionals in their 20s and 30s who until now have shown little interest in demonstrations or activism. One sign strung between tents in Tel Aviv read, “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir,” a reference to the Egyptian uprising that centered in Tahrir Square.

With a recent Haaretz poll showing 87 percent of Israelis supporting the housing protesters, their grievances appear to be striking a chord nationwide.

Like much of the world, Israelis recently have seen cost-of-living metrics rise across the board, especially for food and gas. But unlike in the United States, where real estate prices are in retreat, housing prices in Israel have skyrocketed, on average doubling since 2002.

With the average Israeli salary at $2,500 a month and modest-sized apartments in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area selling for $600,000, many Israelis feel priced out of their own neighborhoods, particularly young people who live in places where there is a dearth of rental properties.

“What is very troubling for Netanyahu is that this is not a left wing versus right wing protest. It’s one of the few issues that cuts across all political spectrums,” said Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist.

He noted that in Israel it’s unusual for socioeconomic issues to take priority over political-security issues.

Netanyahu “is definitely nervous,” Lehman-Wilzig said, “and he should be nervous.”

Netanyahu, who had identified the shortage of affordable housing as a potential crisis when he came to power in 2009, has been busy scolding his own ministers for not doing enough.

“Give me ideas for a solution,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Israeli media telling his Cabinet ministers.

The prime minister announced Tuesday that his government was preparing a battery of solutions, among them plans to reduce bureaucratic hurdles to building new housing projects and measures that would help young people make their first real estate purchases.

He also promised construction of new student dormitories and the construction of 10,000 two- and three-bedroom units, mostly in central Israel, to be earmarked for young couples, large families and students. Half would be available as rentals.

Hours after Netanyahu’s news conference unveiling his plan, the protest’s leaders held their own news conference dismissing the plan as a piece-meal attempt to divide students from other protesters.

“When he talks about students and discharged soldiers, what about our grandparents? What about the disabled?” said Yigal Rambam. “Every section in Israeli society suffers from the housing problem and there isn’t a general solution here. Any real solution must deal with rental prices, the prices of buying land, public housing and housing assistance.”

Itzik Shmueli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, said at the news conference that although Netanyahu’s plan was “unprecedented” and “historic,” it remained insufficient and that the union would continue participating in the protest.

Experts attribute the vertiginous rise in real estate prices in recent years to a combination of Israel’s small size, relatively high population growth, a strong shekel and an influx of foreign buyers, especially American and French Jews. Demand is strongest in the central part of the country, where most Israelis work and live, though prices in the periphery have risen, too.

In a country that managed to weather the international financial downturn exceptionally well and where 2011 growth is projected to reach an impressive 5.2 percent and unemployment is at a historic low, many Israelis still feel financially strapped. A significant portion of the nation’s private wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few families, the gaps between rich and poor is wider than ever and poverty rates remain among the highest in the Western world.

Israeli hospitals and health clinics are in the midst of a doctors’ strike, which followed a large social workers’ strike. Both groups cited low wages as their reasons.

A boycott last month of cottage cheese to protest rising prices for an Israeli staple appears to have been a symptom of widespread economic discontent that the housing protests also are tapping into.

“Whereas the street has been relatively quiet in the last 20 years, it’s beginning to wake up and demand part of national wealth that does not seem to be trickling down as much as it should,” Lehman-Wilzig said. “It’s not a call to return to Israel’s socialist past but to a more collective feeling of society as a whole.”

While young people in particular are finding their voice when it comes to issues that affect their wallet, this segment of society appears less interested in taking to the streets when it comes to ideological issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The demonstrators have said theirs is a nonpartisan struggle. In interviews, they say they don’t want to interject hot-button political topics like the cost of subsidizing home building in West Bank settlements or for haredi Orthodox families at the risk of alienating would-be supporters of their cause.

At a protest outside the Knesset on Sunday, Itay Gottler, who heads the student union at the Hebrew University, spoke of a popular movement.

“This is a struggle that involves secular people, the ultra-Orthodox, religious, Arabs, young people and students,” he said. “This is the struggle of the people.”

Over half of Israelis unsatisfied with Netanyahu’s response to housing protest


More than half the population is unhappy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the tent protest, according to a Haaretz poll conducted yesterday. The poll also shows that an overwhelming majority of the public supports the protest and believes it stems from real distress.

Figures from the poll indicate that if elections were held today, both Kadima and Likud would lose four Knesset seats, while Labor would double its parliamentary strength.

Shas, the poll shows, would gain three Knesset seats, Yisrael Beiteinu would lose one and Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut faction would not make it into the Knesset. Meretz would gain one Knesset seat, while Hadash and Ra’am-Taal would remain with the same number they have at present.

Asked whether the tent protest stemmed from real distress or was a political protest against the government, 81 percent of the respondent replied that it stems from real distress, while 87 percent said they supported the protest.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Netanyahu responds to housing protests


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to further free up the housing market after thousands of Israelis demonstrated against high living costs.

Netanyahu opened his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday by defending government economic policies in the face of mounting criticism from Israel’s beleaguered middle class.

“This crisis is real,” he said. “We not only identify with it, we recognized it years ago.”

Building on a cascade of strikes in Israel’s civil service, students have been camping out in city centers this month to protest the dearth of affordable housing. Some 20,000 demonstrators from the various movements joined forces for an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Some protesters scuffled with police while trying to block roads, leading to 43 arrests.

Netanyahu, a former finance minister who has long championed privatization, blamed the state “monopoly” on land ownership and building regulations for the lag in satisfying spiraling demands for housing.

His two years in office have seen a 50 percent increase in the number of housing starts, he said, as well as progress in developing the transportation infrastructure to the more sparsely populated Israeli periphery.

Speaking separately to Israel Radio, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz predicted that property prices would begin to fall by the beginning of next year.

Israel plans West Bank housing construction


Israel’s Construction and Housing Ministry said it would build more than 300 homes in two West Bank settlements.

Monday’s call for bids to build the new housing came as part of plans by the ministry to build 6,900 new homes in 38 Israeli cities.

The plans call for 294 apartments in Betar Ilit, located six miles south of Jerusalem, and another 42 apartments in Karnei Shomron, which is in the northern West Bank near Kalkilya.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the planned homes, saying that Israel’s building in the West Bank only reinforced PA plans to turn to the United Nations in September to achieve statehood.

It will take up to three years to build the homes. The developers must secure their own building permits, the ministry said.

Booming housing market in Israel stokes fears of bubble


Soon after Leora’s second child was born and she and her husband began looking for a larger home, Israel’s new real estate reality smacked them in the face.

Though the couple had bought a two-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv six years earlier that had appreciated to $650,000, more than triple what they paid, they still found themselves priced out of the local market. One apartment in a basement underneath a parking lot was listed at $468,000.

They are now planning to move to the coastal town of Pardes Hanna, about an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv, where prices also have climbed significantly but where they can still find a house with a garden for the same price as the apartments they saw in Tel Aviv.

“Ordinary, hard-working people cannot live in the city, and when they do they sacrifice a lot to be here,” said Leora, who asked that her real name not be used. “It also feels so out of touch with political realities here: Where does it cost a half-million dollars to be a prime target for nuclear weapons controlled by a madman?”

Israel has become a leader in the global real estate market, with prices soaring in double-digit rates in recent years, particularly in the densely populated center of the country that includes Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Last year the average price for owner-occupied homes in the country rose more than 16 percent, according to official statistics—a marked contrast to the gloomy straits of the international housing market, particularly in the United States.

In 2010, the average home price in Tel Aviv was approximately $449,200 and approximately $398,200 in Jerusalem. Haifa showed the most significant increase, with a leap of 20 percent in one year, according to government figures.

But with the high prices have come a great challenge for families seeking affordable housing in major urban centers. Although there are great income disparities, the average Israeli family earns about $2,000 per month.

“The affordability on the demand side is almost unbearable, and this has been consistent for almost two years now,” said Danny Ben-Shahar, a real estate expert in the department of architecture and urban planning at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “We cannot maintain prices as high as they are now because of the affordability effects.”

The soaring housing prices also have sparked fears that Israel is in the midst of a housing bubble.

In the interests of stabilizing the housing market, the government has begun taking steps to cool it. The Bank of Israel is raising interest rates and minimum mortgage down payments to 30 percent. The government has pledged to build additional housing to increase supply. And the Knesset has approved several changes in real estate tax laws aimed at curbing investor demand.

Shay Lipman, a real estate analyst at IBI Ltd., an investment house in Tel Aviv, says the state’s ownership of 92 percent of Israel’s land is a major factor in the housing shortage.

“Although the government says it will release more land for building, it tends not to happen and so there is nothing to change the amount of demand,” Lipman said. “I don’t see prices dropping even though it has become very difficult for young couples to buy homes.”

Foreign buyers of real estate in Israel, particularly Diaspora Jews from the United States, England and France, have helped fuel demand and lifted prices, especially in the luxury market. In the past they tended to buy almost exclusively in Jerusalem, but in the past few years more have been buying up real estate in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.

Israelis, too, are buying. In Israel, a country approximately the size of New Jersey, real estate long has been considered a safe investment. And with the world economic downturn wreaking havoc with stock markets, local investors have poured even more money into real estate.

“People here hate renting, even though rent in Israel is quite cheap while buying homes is very expensive,” said Zvi Wiener, an economics professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “There is no culture of investing in financial markets. It’s considered instable. And so people have a tendency to overinvest in real estate.”

Chaim Kaufman, a veteran real estate agent whose offices in central Tel Aviv face Rabin Square, sees the deeply rooted desire to buy apartments as part of the culture in Israel. Some 70 percent of Israelis own their homes, a relatively high figure compared with other nations.

“Historically, Jews were wanderers and so there is this need among people here to buy,” said Kaufman, formerly the president of the real estate brokers association in Israel.“

“Often you will see relatives and parents contributing money so adult children can buy a home,” he said. “As for the Diaspora Jews, buying here gives them the feeling that they are being good Zionists and helping Israel.”

It’s also helped themselves, he noted.

“Real estate here,” Kaufman said, “has proven itself to be an exceptional investment.”

American-style retirement for Israel’s seniors


The photos in the brochures and on Web sites are all different yet somehow similar: A group or a pair of elegantly dressed older men and women sit or stand against a backdrop of flowers or greenery, their graying hair carefully coiffed, their faces clear-eyed and smiling, their teeth white and perfect. These are portrayals of the world of retirement homes or, as many prefer to call themselves, senior citizens’ residences, in which — at least according to the pictures — happy seniors live out their autumn years playing bridge or billiards, strolling through gardens and sipping coffee in the company of vivacious friends.

Although old-age homes have always existed in Israel for those who cannot care for themselves, it is only in recent years that the American idea of retiring to a comfortable community of seniors has taken off here. Over the past 20 years, retirement homes have sprung up all over Israel, and each seems to be trying to outdo the next in the level of luxury, services and amenities offered.

“There are now more people over 65 in Israel than there are under 25,” said David Ditch, CEO of the Ad 120 chain. “The population is getting older, but physically they’re still young because medicine has advanced so much. The standard of living has gone up, and the elderly population has a lot of free time and is looking for ways to fill it.”

Official government figures bear this out. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 670,000 people age 65 or over in Israel in 2003, comprising almost 10 percent of the population. This proportion was more than double the 4.8 percent in 1955 and is expected to reach 12.7 percent, or 1.2 million people, by 2025. Life expectancy in Israel has risen to 77.5 for men and 81.5 for women, more than five years higher than it was in 1980.

But with increasingly long lives come other challenges. Fully 25 percent of Israel’s elderly live alone, and while their health may be good, loneliness and boredom can eat away at their days. Retirement homes promise a range of social and cultural activities in a supervised setting. But before rushing out to book a place for grandma, there are some factors to take into consideration.

“When someone comes to us and says they want to put dad in a home, the first question we ask is, ‘Why?’ and the first thing we do is meet the person to see what they want,” said David Danhai, who set up and runs Yad Lakashish, a free advisory service for the elderly. “If the children say dad is lonely, we look at why he’s lonely. He may already live in an apartment but shut himself off from his neighbors because that’s his personality. A closed-off person will be just as closed off living in a home. Or he may be lonely because he doesn’t know where to go to find activities and meet people his own age. We show such people how to use the resources they already have in their area, such as the local day center for the elderly, golden-age club or public gardens. It is no small matter for an elderly person to move out of the home where he has lived for most of his life. It’s traumatic and drastic, and a step that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

There are two types of retirement housing in Israel, and the differences between them are significant. First are old-age homes (batei avot), which are licensed and supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs. While many people think these are only for the feeble and bed-ridden, in fact many of them are designed for the independent senior who wants to be taken care of.

Ministry conditions dictate that these homes must provide three meals a day (and two snacks) in a dining room, have a certain ratio of staff to residents, clean residents’ rooms daily, keep strict hygiene in the home’s laundry, among other stipulations. An old-age home might have a greater or lesser range of activities for residents, and medical supervision is ever-present. Residents generally live in one- or two-room apartments, which may have an electric kettle but no cooking or laundry facilities. All apartments have emergency call buttons, and staff check in on residents if they do not show up for a meal.

Residents pay an entry fee of NIS 130,000 to NIS 220,000 (approximately $31,160-$52,745), as well as monthly maintenance fees of NIS 5,000 to NIS 7,500 (about $1,200-$1,800). This entry fee depreciates to nothing within three to five years. The ministry’s Web site (www.molsa.gov.il) lists some 190 licensed old-age homes across Israel.

The second type of retirement housing is sheltered housing (diur mugan). This category is unlicensed and unregulated, but that does not mean it falls short. On the contrary, it is into this category that luxurious retirement residences such as Ad 120 fall. And it is this category that has grown so dramatically over the past two decades.

Sheltered housing buildings are essentially private apartment buildings for seniors with some — or a lot of — extras. Residents live in one-, two- or three-room apartments which, unlike old-age homes, have a kitchenette and cooking facilities and in some cases space for a washing machine. Apartments are cleaned weekly and have emergency call buttons, but daily checkups on residents are not necessarily made. Sheltered housing buildings usually have swimming pools, gymnasiums, game rooms and libraries and offer a wide variety of activities, including arts and crafts, exercise classes, concerts and lectures. In some homes, lunch in the dining room is included; in others it is extra. Some add coffee and cake in the afternoon.

Residents pay a deposit of NIS 530,000 to NIS 1.8 million (around $127,000-$431,000) for their apartments, as well as a monthly maintenance fee that can range from NIS 3,000 to NIS 5,000 (approximately $720-$1,200). The deposit depreciates by 2 percent to 4 percent annually for 10 to 12 years, and what is left is given to the residents’ heirs.
Each sheltered housing or old-age facility has a separately run Ministry of Health licensed nursing division for residents who need chronic care.

Welcome to the Neighborhood


Like most L.A. residents, we’ve moved many times over the years. From Santa Monica to Culver City, Marina del Rey and then Westwood, it’s not easy to pick up and move 10 or 20 miles with everything you own. At least, that’s how we felt until a little over a year ago, when we made the 7,582-mile move to Jerusalem.

We rented an apartment, and after two months, we started looking for a place to buy. We were used to the traditional wooden ranch-style home with big yards, a garage and a fireplace, set in a sprawling L.A. suburban neighborhood. Of course, we knew we’d need to be flexible — Jerusalem is not, after all, Los Angeles. So we set out looking for a traditional stone ranch-style home with big yards, a garage and a fireplace, set in a sprawling Jerusalem suburb.

Our first clue that things might be just a bit different in Israel came when a realtor offered us a ride to the property he was showing. That is, he offered one of us a ride.

“Sorry,” he said, pointing across the street at his motorcycle. “I only have room for one.”

I’m not sure, but I think in California you have to prove ownership of an Infiniti or a Cadillac to secure a real estate agent’s license.

One of the other differences in Israel is that a real estate agent finds the buyer a property, but that’s about it. The next steps are to hire a lawyer, sit down with a banker and, finally — with your lawyer at your elbow — sign a contract. At first this seemed like excessive specialization. Then, on the first property we tried to buy, our lawyer discovered the city was planning to put in a new road — running right through the property we wanted to buy.

We began to get the idea.

You can find large homes in Israel, although ranch style is pretty much off the menu. Homes in Jerusalem are mostly condos, but in the suburbs there are larger properties — townhomes with private gardens and large single-family homes in communities like Efrat in Gush Etzion.

What you can find in Jerusalem depends very much on the neighborhood. In our case we wanted to be in Kiryat Moshe — a central neighborhood, and that meant getting used to a different approach to housing.

Jerusalem is small by L.A. standards, and space is at a premium. We began to figure this out when we looked at an apartment advertised as “spacious” that seemed to have only two bedrooms.

“No, there’s plenty of room,” the agent explained to my wife, Sarah, waving his hands around. “Just come through here. Wait till you see this!”

They went through a door and there, sure enough, were two more bedrooms, and what was probably the nicest kitchen (though small) she had seen yet.

“You can even rent this out as a separate unit,” the realtor explained, “if you don’t need the space.”

“But isn’t this the, uh, parking area?” Sarah asked.

The realtor smiled back. “Sure. What’s the problem? Zoning laws? If an inspector comes, just take out the beds and open it up. No big deal.”

As you would expect, each neighborhood has its own unique features. After touring a condo in the Old City with an amazing view of the Temple Mount, the agent mentioned, somewhat casually, “Of course, they’re still digging for antiquities in the basement.”

You get used to privacy in Los Angeles. Life is defined by home, work and the commute between, and meeting your neighbors takes a bit of effort and planning. Not so in Israel.

In Jerusalem, people get involved in each other’s lives. We noticed this when we first moved in, walking into our living room to find a fresh plate of cake and cookies waiting for us on a white tablecloth, set out by our landlady. Then, just a few weeks ago, our downstairs neighbor’s son had a bar mitzvah. She had a number of friends and relatives coming into town, and neighbors all through the neighborhood volunteered to host them for Shabbat.

Of course this cuts both ways, as we found when we went to take another look at the home we’re (finally) thinking of buying. We walked down the sidewalk and stopped, looking at the backyard. A boy, around 11 or 12, was sitting on the fence in the yard next door — Tom Sawyer in a kippah.

“Are you buying the house?” he asked, in tones that sounded somewhat suspicious.

“Maybe,” I answered. “We’re thinking about it.”

He kicked his feet a few times, then looked up and asked, “Do you have any children?”

“Yes, we do,” I told him. “Older than you. Why?”

He jumped off the wall and glanced at us, his expression showing impatience that anyone could miss something so obvious. “Boys to play with, of course,” he said, picking up a soccer ball and tossing it, over our heads, to a few of his friends down the block.

If we do end up buying it, I’ll tell my lawyer to be sure to check the contract carefully.

There may be a soccer clause in there somewhere.

Avi Schnurr has been a regular speaker and writer for policy institutes and other forums and received his master’s in physics from UCLA. He is married with four children, and lives, works and studies in Jerusalem.

 

Program Tries to Sell Youth on Negev


Endless stretches of sand and sky surround the teenagers as they tumble off buses in the Negev Desert.

“It’s really pretty here. It’s very different from the Ukraine,” said Larisa Protasova, 17, as she posed for a photo on the edge of a sand dune. A recent immigrant to Israel, it was her first time seeing the Negev.

Protasova was one of 16,000 young Israelis — including immigrants as well as soldiers, students and youth group members — who were brought to the Negev on day trips in December, part of a campaign to convince them to make their lives here one day.

The two-day event over Chanukah, dubbed “Light Up the Negev,” was organized by the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF) with the express purpose of “selling” the Negev to Israel’s youth.

The Negev represents about 60 percent of Israel’s landmass, but has only about 8 percent of the country’s inhabitants. After the Gaza Strip withdrawal and with pressure expected to build on Israel to uproot settlements in the West Bank as well, developing the Negev has become a priority for the government, which recently approved $3 billion toward building an infrastructure of jobs and communities in the region.

The JNF, meanwhile, has launched a $500 million campaign specifically for Negev development.

Israelis traditionally have shunned the region because of its remoteness from the rest of the country, the lack of jobs and the relative harshness of desert life. The vast majority of Israelis live in the center of the country, where the cost of living is much higher but opportunities for jobs are greater.

Officials hope the surge of investment will lure people south to fulfill the vision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to “make the desert bloom” by transforming the Negev into a center of life and trade, not the periphery it has remained since the country was born.

Plans include the creation of a biotech park in Beersheba, new tourism projects and several ecologically minded villages to be built with environmentally friendly materials. Also being promoted are swaths of land to be sold as ranches.

Israeli officials hope that some 250,000 more people will move to the Negev.

“We must educate young Israelis and let them know what opportunities await them once they move there: affordable housing, open spaces, jobs, a sense of community and a place in history,” said Sharon Davidovich, who helped organize the event and formerly was a JNF shaliach in the United States.

Efrat Duvdevani, director of the recently formed Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, said there is a rare consensus in the Jewish world around the need to develop the two regions.

“The Negev and Galilee are not politically controversial. It is something that unites people and brings everyone together, including the Jewish community abroad,” she said. “It has nothing that has to do with this party or that party but the history and, most importantly, the future of Israel.”

The Negev is home to some 140,000 Bedouin. Officials say the development plan will benefit them by bringing better education and housing, but some in the Bedouin community are opposed to the plan, fearing that additional building in the region will encroach on land they claim.

Over Chanukah, youth visited different sites throughout the Negev, including military bases, development towns and parks, learning about the region’s history and environment.

Some of the youth spent time painting houses and planting trees in the town of Yeruham, while others cleaned out a riverbed or helped build a bicycle trail in Mitzpeh Ramon.

One group of immigrant youth from the former Soviet Union visited Mitzpeh Gvulot, an experimental farm from the 1940s just outside Kibbutz Gvulot.

“Do you know where you are on the map?” asked their guide, a female soldier. The teenagers, all of them from the Tel Aviv area, shook their heads no and laughed.

The soldier showed them around mud buildings that a group of young pioneers built in 1943. One had served as a communal dining room, another as a bakery.

Arkadi Demianenko, 16, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 2000, said the history was interesting, but he didn’t see his future in the Negev.

If even 10 percent of the 16,000 youth who came to the Negev on this trip decide to move there, the operation will have been a success, said David Ashkenazi who organized the event as JNF-Israel’s head of informal education.

He said the Negev life clearly wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

“It’s for them if they want a different kind of life — not the same kind of life they would live in the center of the country, but if they are looking for a more pioneering life,” Ashkenazi said.

That appealed to George Moscowski, 14, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, who said the openness of the scenery drew him in.

“In the future I’d like to live in a free, open place that is not crowded. Maybe it will be green one day,” said Moscowski, who hopes to study computer programming.

 

Groundwork Laid to Evacuate Gaza


Despite political hurdles, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is forging ahead with his Gaza disengagement plan, giving various government agencies the green light to prepare for the evacuation of settlers — using both carrots and sticks.

Even as Israeli police begin laying the groundwork for evacuating Gaza, an interministerial team of some 70 officials is working out details of a bill to compensate evacuees in hopes that the prospect of money and alternate housing will help avert a violent confrontation between settlers and police.

Despite police objections — "no budget, no manpower" — the Cabinet decided that Israeli police would perform the actual evacuation.

Tzachi Hanegbi, who recently resigned as minister of internal security, wanted the army to do the job, as it did in the evacuation of Yamit in northern Sinai 22 years ago. But most ministers preferred to spare young soldiers the experience of a potentially violent confrontation with Jewish citizens.

So police have begun making necessary preparations. Step one: allocating the funds.

Not only will the government need to pay generous compensation to evacuated settlers — about $400 million — the actual process of evacuation will require substantial funds. Police Inspector General Moshe Karadi met Sept. 5 with senior officers to assess the costs involved.

The cost of the evacuation will depend on the scope of resistance, both in Gaza and in Israel proper. No one knows for sure how many people will actively resist the evacuation, or over what period of time. Therefore it’s not only a matter of budget but of recruiting the necessary manpower.

It’s assumed that large police forces will be kept busy not only in the Gaza Strip but also within Israel, dealing with demonstrations against the disengagement.

Police were planning to set up an "evacuation administration" comprising two arms, one responsible for planning the evacuation and the other for carrying it out. The Border Police, which usually is deployed in the territories to deal with the Palestinian population, has been selected to evacuate the settlers.

The Border Police plans to reinforce its 12 companies with an additional 20 reserve companies, which will free up regular forces to cope with the evacuation.

Sharon hopes to create sufficient motivation among settlers to evacuate their homes willingly in exchange for generous compensation packages, avoiding violent confrontations like those in Yamit.

An interministerial team is working out details of the compensation bill. The general idea is to offer settlers a house in exchange for a house; they also will be given the option of relocating en masse to communities in Israel.

Government assessors were instructed to appraise the houses according to equivalents in regions that are better off than development towns, but not as upscale as Tel Aviv.

The evacuation administration already has proposed advance payments that would be deducted from final compensations, but advances can’t be handed out until the complicated legal procedure behind them is finalized.

The government will commit itself to paying out the full value of compensation packages even if the disengagement plan eventually collapses. Settlers also will receive special compensation worth six months’ salary to find alternative employment.

Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gush Katif settlement bloc, insisted in an interview with JTA that only a handful of families have expressed interest in entering negotiations on compensation.

"We regard this entire talk on compensations as psychological warfare," Sternberg said. "Sharon in his desperation shoots in all directions."

The overarching imperative in preparing for the evacuation is to avoid civil war. Policemen in the evacuation task force will undergo special psychological seminars, preparing them for confrontation with their "brothers."

When will all this take place? Sharon recently told his Likud Party’s Knesset faction that he did not intend to "drag out the disengagement plan over a long period of time."

He has presented the following timetable for the disengagement:

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• By Sept. 14, the prime minister will present the Cabinet a blueprint for evacuation and compensation of the settlers.

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• By Sept. 26, a draft disengagement bill will be presented to the Cabinet.

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• By Oct. 24, the financial compensation bill will be brought to the Cabinet.

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• On Nov. 3, the compensation bill — "The Law for Implementing the Disengagement Plan" — will be brought to the Knesset.

It’s assumed that the actual evacuation would take place no later than February 2005.

After Likud voters rejected Sharon’s disengagement plan in a May 2 party referendum, and following the impressive human chain protest of some 130,000 people in late July, settlers now are planning additional anti-disengagement campaigns, including an upcoming massive protest in downtown Jerusalem.

"Over 3,000 children and youths began the school year this week at our schools," Sternberg said. "I’m sure we will all be there to open the next school year."

Sharon Defuses Settlement Crisis


For a day or two in early August, Israel and the United States seemed to be heading for a showdown neither side wanted.

Quick action by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon managed to avert a looming crisis over Israeli building in the West Bank, but the tension could resume as Israel comes under pressure to meet its commitments to dismantle illegal settlement outposts and not to expand existing settlements.

Tension between Washington and Jerusalem was triggered by reports of massive Israeli construction in and around the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, a bedroom community about three miles east of Jerusalem.

The Americans also wanted to know why Israel hadn’t removed dozens of "illegal" or "unauthorized" West Bank outposts, despite earlier promises. In early August talks in Jerusalem, Sharon was able to convince a high-level U.S. envoy, Elliot Abrams of the National Security Council, that he was acting in good faith and that he soon would take extensive action to dismantle the outposts.

Simultaneously, Sharon took a number of steps to show the Americans that he meant business: He froze several Housing Ministry projects, despite the fact that they already had received government approval, and he offered the Americans detailed explanations of what was happening on the ground and his government’s difficulties in dealing with the settler problem.

Israeli officials also went to unprecedented lengths to coordinate data on the outposts with the Americans. For the first time, the two sides were able to produce an agreed-upon list of which outposts should be dismantled.

Sharon told the Americans that he had ordered a Justice Ministry attorney to prepare new legislation that would make it easier for Israel to dismantle the outposts before the U.S. presidential election in November. Sharon also ordered Dov Weisglass, his bureau chief, to give the Americans a progress report in the next few weeks.

To ensure that there would be no confrontation now with the Americans, Sharon froze a number of projects approved by former Housing Minister Effie Eitam, the hawkish leader of the National Religious Party, who resigned over Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

In his capacity as acting housing minister, Sharon ordered the suspension of tenders for about 1,300 housing units in the settlements of Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Betar Elit, Geva Binyamin, Karnei Shomron and Ma’aleh Adumim until the new minister, Tzippi Livni of Sharon’s own Likud Party, examines whether the projects contravene understandings with the Americans on halting settlement expansion.

As for the building that is proceeding in Ma’aleh Adumim, Sharon explained that this was an old project approved by former Prime Minster Ehud Barak’s government in 1999 and now nearing completion. It was not something his government had approved or could stop, Sharon said.

Some in the Israeli media confused the building in Ma’aleh Adumim with a far more significant plan to join the city to Jerusalem through a continuous network of urban communities scheme known as A-1, which dates to the administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. The idea was to build a complex of residential and tourist areas all the way from Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, creating a huge metropolitan area and ensuring Israeli control of Greater Jerusalem.

According to Israeli officials, the A-1 plan was designed to preempt an opposing Palestinian scheme to cut Ma’aleh Adumim off from Jerusalem by continuous north-south building, connecting the villages of Abu Dis, Issawiya and Anata, preventing Jewish territorial contiguity.

So far, neither side has done very much on the ground. In his talks with Abrams, Sharon noted that the plan hadn’t yet been approved in its entirety and maintained that it was not on the agenda, at least for the time being. For now, the Americans seem prepared to give Sharon the benefit of the doubt on building in existing settlements, but they want to see action soon on removal of outposts.

As a first step to show it is acting in good faith, Israel has charged a senior Defense Ministry official, Baruch Spiegel, with comparing Israeli and American data on the outposts and reaching agreement on numbers and locations. The bottom line is that Israel and the United States now agree on the figures: There are 82 outposts in all, including 23 built after March 2001, when Sharon came to power, and which he has promised to remove first.

"These 23 are the main focus of our work now," Spiegel told Israel TV.

The same model has been adopted with regard to the legal issues pertaining to removal of the outposts: A Justice Ministry official, attorney Talia Sasson, has been assigned the task of formulating new legislation to ease their removal.

The old laws, based on Jordanian and Turkish precedents, afford protection for illegal buildings. Ironically, a system that successive Israeli governments exploited to build settlements is now being used to prevent the government from taking them down.

Sasson has been given two months to come up with new legislation that will radically alter the legal position. Sharon has promised the Americans to act quickly once the legislation is in place and to start evacuating outposts well before the presidential election.

As he seeks international support for his disengagement plan, Sharon has no wish for a confrontation with the United States — and the American president, in an election year, has no wish for a clash with Israel that could cost him crucial Jewish votes.

Though there is little American pressure on him now, Sharon is well aware that the Americans and the rest of the international community see his ability to remove outposts as a test of whether he will be able to carry out his far more ambitious disengagement plan, which calls for dismantling more than 20 bona fide settlements.

Sharon’s accommodating tactics seem to have won him breathing space until after the U.S. election. But if he fails to deliver by then or soon afterward, he knows that he will face strong pressure from the elected president and a possible escalation that could jeopardize his main strategic goal: achieving a separation between Israelis and Palestinians, backed by the international community, led by the United States.

Builder to Fashion a Lofty Downtown


Mark Weinstein can barely contain his excitement. Standing on the roof of a historic downtown building in the heart of the Fashion District, the boyish-looking developer points to a group of surrounding structures, his voice rising with excitement.

Where the untrained might see dilapidated buildings and a gritty alley littered with cars and trash, the 44-year-old speed-talker, with a wrinkle-free face framed by a shock of silver hair, sees something entirely different.

"Think of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. There’s going to be restaurants, cafes, a dry cleaner, not to mention housing for firefighters, police officers and other working people. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Weinstein, who is working on one of the largest downtown redevelopment projects in decades.

Weinstein, president of Santa Monica-based MJW Investments Inc., is also an active philanthropist in the Jewish community, raising millions of dollars and social consciousness.

" I think Mark is illustrative of the dynamic younger generation of communal leaders," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "He cares deeply about people, the community and Israel. He has made a difference."

In the next three years, his company will also make a difference in the larger community, with its plans to convert 578 offices in nine buildings into lofts and roll out tony shops and design showrooms. The recently renovated Gerry Building on Los Angeles Street, which is also part of the development, has attracted several new clients, including a yoga studio and swanky women’s clothier.

In an interesting twist, most of Weinstein’s buildings are across the street from a clothing store where he bought suits as a student at Loyola Law School 20 years ago.

Weinstein’s three-phase, $130-million project, known as Santee Court, is "a big piece of the puzzle to bring back vibrancy downtown," said Andrew Adelman, general manager of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department.

Once Los Angeles’ crowning jewel, downtown began losing its luster in the 1950s, as residents pushed farther out into the suburbs, leaving behind the inner city core. By the late 1990s, the once-lively area had become a magnet for crime, the homeless and drugs. Once magnificent turn-of-the-century buildings were boarded up, victims of blight and neglect.

Although many politicians spoke of the importance of saving downtown, few did little more than make empty utterances. In 1999, though, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance making it easier to convert downtown office space into apartments.

Developer Tom Gilmore, in the face of widespread skepticism, was among the first developers to take advantage of the new law. The New York transplant transformed three abandoned buildings in the Old Bank District into 230 fully rented loft apartments. His success paved the way for other developers, including Weinstein.

Although it still has a long way to go, downtown has made major strides recently in its quest to reinvent itself as a thriving, vibrant metropolis.

In late 1999, Staples Center, home to the Los Angles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Kings, opened its doors. Earlier this year, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a new multimillion-dollar edifice, was completed at the corner of Temple and Hill streets. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, is expected to be finished sometime in 2003.

Downtown’s comeback is "part of a larger trend of rejuvenating downtowns across the country, from Seattle to Denver to San Francisco," Adelman said.

Weinstein, part of the second wave of developers transforming downtown, snapped up his 10 downtown buildings four years ago for a paltry $18 million. He said he got such a good deal because most developers thought it would be too difficult to get financing for a central city project.

The naysayers had a point. With banker interest initially tepid, Weinstein had to dig deep into his own pockets. Lenders, he said, have warmed up considerably toward the project since then.

If the lofts — rents will range from $1,200 to $1,500 — fail to attract tenants, and retailers stay away, "My exposure is pretty big here," he said.

Weinstein has had other headaches.

He is collecting rents from at least 20 sewing shops and retailers that fill the ground floors of his buildings. Over the years, several of them have paid rents late or, occasionally, not at all.

One store owner negotiated a lease through a translator in Korean, which, Weinstein said, complicated the deal. Once an agreement was reached, the man broke into flawless English, flashing a smile.

To mitigate his risk, Weinstein and other MJW Investments executives made several field trips before breaking ground on Santee Court. They visited Dallas, Denver and other cities to understand how their once ailing downtowns had turned things around.

Talking with developers, contractors and even politicians, Weinstein and his team learned that tenants like oversized bathtubs, lots of closet space and the unfinished look if tastefully done. Santee Court will incorporate all those features, he said.

"We’ve done our homework," Weinstein said.

MJW has 70 employees and offices in Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Reno. It owns and manages 3 million-square-feet of commercial and residential real estate valued at about $200 million.

Weinstein said more than profits are driving his ambitious Santee Court project. In keeping with his desire to give back to society, he plans to set aside about 20 percent of the apartments for low-income housing. The city does not require him to build low-income units, said Hamid Behdad, project manager in the mayor’s Office of Economic Development.

For Weinstein, who grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Canoga Park, living in a place like Santee Court will give those of lesser means a comfortable place to live, he said. Among the development’s amenities will be rooftop swimming pools, a driving range and basketball courts.

A hyperkinetic force of energy who sleeps but six hours a night to squeeze the most out of life, Weinstein said he learned about philanthropy at the knee of his late cousin, Zel Camiel. As a young boy, Weinstein spent summers with the Del Mar liquor store owner, who gave more than one-third of his income to nearly 40 charities. Camiel impressed upon him the importance of helping others. It was a lesson Weinstein said he learned well.

Weinstein, who practiced law before devoting his considerable energies to real estate, began giving to Jewish causes in the late 1980s, after a first visit to Israel stirred him. Around the time he reconnected with his Jewish roots, Weinstein completed one of the first major live-work loft projects in Old Town Pasadena, a development that put him on the map.

Over the years, Weinstein estimates he has given more than $100,000 to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. In honor of a former girlfriend who died six years ago in a rollerblading accident, he created a 100-acre forest in Israel and dedicated it to her memory.

Closer to home, he headed The Federation’s Real Estate Division for three years, raising $13 million in the process.

Weinstein said that’s what it’s all about.

"You need to give back if you’re fortunate to receive. It’s tzedakah," said Weinstein, who lives on the beach in Venice. "We have been involved in giving for our 5,000-year history, and I want to continue that tradition."