By Shimon Peres, Forward, March 23, 2007
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, understood that the Jewish state’s future lay in the Negev. Indeed, he himself called the Negev home, and it was in his hometown of Sde Boker that, this past November, the development of the Negev once again became a national strategic priority. At a special government meeting held in commemoration of Ben-Gurion, some $500 million was allocated to jumpstart projects in the Negev, part of a $4 billion plan to develop this vast landmass. The challenge is immense, and the task of carrying out such a tall order imperative. While the Negev represents 60% of the Land of Israel, it is populated by a meager 8% of its population. Meanwhile, the center of the country is increasingly overcrowded, expensive and congested.
Therefore, multifaceted projects need to be forged and executed in Israel’s south. Done right, they can serve as leverage for a surge of initiatives that will generate meaningful change in the region and signal to veteran Israelis and new immigrants alike that today, the Negev is the place to build a life and call home.
Building an infrastructure that will attract an inflow of new residents from a strong socio-economic bracket will boost the Negev’s economy, tap its enormous potential — including the available superior human capital — close social gaps and help redistribute Israel’s population more evenly and more effectively.
To do this, it is necessary to focus on a number of central areas of development: industry, education, science and technology, community building, transportation, tourism, housing, health care, the environment and quality of life, as well as the Negev’s Bedouin community. This entails short-term and long-term projects — including major plans such as a gas-transportation pipeline, roads and railways — with the intention of raising the standard of living of Negev residents, making it possible for them to compete on an equal footing with the center of Israel.
Attractive incentive packages for investors contemplating moving their operations to the Negev will have to be devised. Initiatives aimed at consolidating infrastructure for science, research-and-development and technology centers will have to be promoted. Industrial zones will have to be established in strategic locations. And, this being the desert, research on water and agricultural issues will have to be increased.
All this, I believe, will generate a substantial number of medium- and high-income job opportunities in the Negev.
In the field of education, much hinges on the ability to improve the educational infrastructure. Much also depends on the degree to which pupils are exposed during their formative years to scientific and technological advances, cultural events, enrichment courses, training programs for teachers and cooperative programs, such as those with Ben-Gurion University and Sapir College. Promoting excellence and leadership qualities among the student population — including the Bedouin community — is an absolute must for developing the Negev.
The region’s educational infrastructure already has an anchor in Ben-Gurion University, a vibrant hub of student activity with academic credentials recognized worldwide. The government’s commitment to provide a stimulating professional niche for postgraduate students in the Negev will surely serve as a major influence on their decision to establish roots in the region and to raise their families in an environment where quality of life is a primary goal.
The Negev boasts breathtaking scenic views, pristine desert beauty and invaluable archaeological sites. Its diversity offers infinite possibilities for tourism-oriented projects, from recreational centers and parks to lakes and rejuvenated rivers. And it can claim a prosperous hotel-and-restaurant industry that, when further developed, can draw even greater throngs of visitors from both Israel and abroad. Opportunities abound: Tourists can travel the length and breadth of the Negev, a unique experience in and of itself, or relax in the region’s thriving and bustling capital, Beersheba, enjoying its upscale boutiques, promenades and wide-ranging conveniences, as well as its Old City.
Opportunities have not been so plentiful, however, for the residents of such development towns as Ofakim, Arad, Dimona, Mitzpe Ramon and Yerucham — which were established in the past with a promise of better days. The time has come to deliver on this promise and to reverse the outflow trend of young people from these towns.
Injecting new energy into these centers can be accomplished only by offering a concrete infrastructure for employment, housing, education and social services. Building such an infrastructure will serve to attract an inflow of new residents, which in turn will do much to strengthen the existing population.
The plan for developing the Negev is, without a doubt, ambitious. It calls for nothing less than an appropriation of funds, a pioneering spirit and a deep sense of commitment.
The partnership of Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which have harnessed their energy and resources to support this plan, has been and remains vital. Developing the Negev is a matter of national importance, and bringing it to fruition is of the essence.
It is crucial that this endeavor is met with an enthusiastic response from our partners —the Jewish communities all over the world — and from investors interested in participating in this historic enterprise.
“The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose,” the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. Turning the vision to reality must become our collective goal, as together we create a new genesis for one of the most impressive regions of Israel.
Shimon Peres is vice prime minister of Israel and a former prime minister. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.