Cabinet votes to build in Negev, but will settlements bloom there

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NITZANA, Israel — How does a barren strip of land in the northern Negev tie in with last year's failed Camp David summit?

The answer lies partly with a man considered a legendary figure in Israel's history.

Last week, Aryeh "Lova" Eliav stood in the heat of the day on a hill in the Negev.

"Right here, underneath me, we have the equivalent of the Sea of Galilee," he said. "The only region in the country which suffers no water problem is the Negev. Pretty soon we will be able to ship water from the south to the north."

His prediction might sound counter-intuitive, but Eliav, 79, a former secretary-general of the Labor Party, has some basis for his optimism.

He was referring to the huge Negev aquifer, an untouched water reservoir in a country suffering an acute and unprecedented water shortage.

"Some 50,000 Israelis could come down and settle here," Eliav said. "It is only a matter of will."

In the early 1950s, Eliav, under the guidance of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, orchestrated the settlement of the Lachish and Arad regions in the Negev with thousands of Israelis, turning Lachish into the granary of Israel and Arad into a prospering desert city.

Now Eliav is again in the midst of a political campaign for the Negev.

Here is where the story links to Camp David.

A year ago, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a portion of the Negev known as the Halutza sand dunes in exchange for Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat turned down the proposal, questioning the quality of the land Israel was offering.

Still, the offer created a precedent: It was the first time that a portion of land within Israel's original 1948 borders was being bartered in political negotiations.

Last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government moved to prevent a repetition of the offer, as ministers voted to build new Jewish communities in the Halutza dunes.

Halutza is one of the more beautiful spots of the northern Negev: It is some 400 square miles, the size of the Golan Heights, but pure desert.

The area is largely unused. Studies are performed here by the Nature Reserves Authority, and the Israel Defense Force uses the area for training purposes. It also is a destination for wealthy Israelis from the north, who come on weekends to test their four-wheel-drive jeeps.

Yossi Beilin, who served as justice minister in the Barak government, defended last year's offer to transfer Halutza to Palestinian control.

"This was simply the best alternative," said Beilin, who last year was one of the advocates for the land trade.

Beilin recalled that other options for such a trade — including an area east of Beersheva bordering the Hebron mountains — are close to Israeli population centers.

"The advantage of Halutza was its emptiness," Beilin said in a recent interview. "At Camp David and the subsequent Taba talks we were quite close to reaching an agreement on such an exchange."

He blasted last week's Cabinet vote.

"This was simply another move by the present government to block any future options for a possible deal with the Palestinians," Beilin said. It is "sad that my friends in the Labor Party in the coalition fell into this trick."

However, Beilin's adversaries on this issue are not only his "friends" in the Cabinet, but also people from his own political school of thought — like Eliav.

Thirty years ago, Eliav was the first mainstream politician to call for a total Israeli withdrawal from territories conquered in the 1967 war, recognition of the PLO and the eventual recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

After he was forced to quit the Labor Party, he set up his own Shelli Party, which failed to win Israelis' hearts and minds.

For all intents and purposes, Eliav was the political role model for Beilin and other leading Israeli doves such as Yossi Sarid, leader of the Meretz Party.

When it comes to Halutza, however, Eliav overnight became a political ally of Avigdor Lieberman — the right-wing infrastructure minister who introduced the Cabinet proposal — and an opponent of the dovish Beilin.

Eliav long has called on Israelis to populate the Negev. Fourteen years ago he convinced the Jewish Agency for Israel and the regional council to set up a youth village here in Nitzana, at the southern tip of the Halutza sand dunes.

The village since has blossomed.

Even this summer, in the midst of the 10-month-old Palestinian uprising, it is hosting dozens of American Jewish youths who undergo paramilitary training.

But Eliav always has wanted to do more. He called for establishing within Halutza a new town, accompanied by several villages, that would attract thousands of Israelis to the south.

That dream has more chance of becoming a reality after last week's Cabinet vote.

Undermining those chances, however, is neglect of the region by successive Israeli governments.

Although 20 years have passed since communities were established in the area — mostly by evacuees from Sinai settlements that were abandoned after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt — only 200 families live there today, a far cry from Eliav's vision.

Last week, in what turned out to be an uneasy confrontation, Beilin visited the region and met with Eliav in Nitzana.

Beilin suggested that the Cabinet vote was merely a political move to prevent Israel from turning over the region to the Palestinians, and that no one in the government seriously intended to build new communities there.

Eliav apparently took this personally.

"Don't do this to me, Yossi," he said. "Not to me, with my record, at my age."

Beilin immediately apologized, saying he did not doubt Eliav's good intentions.

Just the same, Beilin did not change his opinion regarding the import of the Cabinet move.