To fulfill Ben-Gurions dream, we must develop Israels desert

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Thirty years have passed since David Ben-Gurion’s death. Is today’s Israel fulfilling his vision? Ben-Gurion envisaged Israel as a state of limited size devoting its major efforts to education and science and striving to become an inspiration for the rest of the world.

Its major challenge would be the development of the Negev. He desired a country that would be not only be strong but also motivated by justice.

As the head of the university in the Negev named after him, I feel Ben-Gurion’s vision is still valid for me. Can 5.4 million Jews maintain a completely Jewish lifestyle within a Muslim world of hundreds of millions? How will it be possible to preserve a significant Jewish majority in the coming generations together with a large Arab minority possessing equal rights? How can we maintain high economic, cultural and moral standards of living, so that talented young people will not emigrate to Silicon Valley, New York, Canada or Australia?

Israel’s birthrate is 2.9 children per woman (compared with 1.3 in Germany, 1.2 in Italy and 1.1 in Spain). Eleven million people live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in an area of 11,120 square miles, and this total is expected to reach 20 million by 2040. Jews currently represent slightly less than half this number, and in a few years that percentage will shrink.

These data are sufficient to emphasize the need to divide Eretz Israel between the two nations. However, it is not enough to partition the country. If we disregard the Negev, which comprises 60 percent of the area of the country but only 8 percent of its population, Israel is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The density is greater than anywhere in the Western world and is rapidly approaching that of the Far East.

The time has come to change our priorities and allocate greater resources to the development of the Negev and Galilee. This is the sole way to correctly utilize Israel’s relatively small area. In 1953, in the Sheikh Munes conference, Ben-Gurion called on Israeli youth to settle in the Negev. Unfortunately, since then we are witness to the development of a small strip of territory between Hadera and Gedera, which is what Ben-Gurion warned against when he said that “Israel without the Negev will be Carthage under the name of Tel Aviv.”

A country so densely populated along the seacoast will be a historical mistake.

Israel’s demographic and geographic problems are accompanied by social ones. Thirty years ago Israel was one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. It is now the most unequal country, with the highest rate of poverty, in the Western world.

We cannot continue in this way. The public has demonstrated exceptional powers of endurance in recent difficult years, but increasing social divisions are liable to unravel society’s fabric of solidarity, and are certainly incompatible with Ben-Gurion’s aspiration to a just society representing a light to the nations.

One way to reduce social inequalities is to invest in education. Thirty years ago we were among the world leaders in comprehension and mathematics. Today we are in 42nd place and are surpassed by many Third World countries. We need massive educational reforms, and not only in the size of the budget. The status of teachers must be strengthened and the allocation of funds changed.

It must be kept in mind that Israel’s economic growth is strongly dependent on its scientific strength. The cuts in research funds in recent years have seriously weakened the country. We have also for too long neglected investment in physical infrastructure and have not carried out essential structural reforms to the economy. All these factors, together with the defense burden, have seriously reduced Israel’s rate of growth. It is now abundantly clear, particularly following the change to our strategic situation caused by the war in Iraq, that the defense budget must be significantly reduced in order to increase investments in education and culture, science, welfare and infrastructure. Furthermore, diplomatic progress is an essential condition for encouraging foreign investment and the renewal of economic growth.

This is related to the revolution we need in the Galilee and Negev. The sole development potential lies in the Negev and Galilee, which currently contain the greatest pockets of poverty.

My colleagues and I shall present to the government a working plan for the development of the Negev based on the construction of a technological metropolis in Beersheva comprising hundreds of researchers and thousands of young graduates of the university and colleges in the south. We need government grants for the construction of high-tech industries, even greater than those awarded by Ireland and Singapore. This is essential if we want educated young people to remain in the periphery.

The development program should integrate small towns and kibbutzim, Jews and Arabs. The Negev and Galilee leaderships should unite and thus counter the policy of divide-and-conquer that has in the past prevented the development of these areas.

Israel faces many challenges in the coming decade, and the way they are met will determine the country’s future. Suitable investment in education, science and infrastructure, giving priority to the Galilee and Negev, will lead both to economic growth and social strength.

Avishai Braverman is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.