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Zionism in Action the Southern Project

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When Ra’anan Weitz looks at the Negev Desert he sees what some argue is a mirage-a wild dream–the blossoming of a 1.25 million-dunam stretch of land, populated by 200,000 enthusiastic settlers, with hundred of millions of cubic meters of water produced by a nuclear reactor. But last week, Weitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency Settlement Department, convinced Premier Yitzhak Rabin that his vision was worth serious consideration.

The idea of developing a vast rural area east of Beersheba is no wild dream for Weitz. “The Southern Project,” as he calls it, is, as far as Weitz is concerned, a natural consequence, considering Israel’s economic, social and political needs at the present.

Zionism’s first stage, the agricultural development of the land of Israel, has in fact been achieved, said Weitz in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israel has more farmers than she needs, and agricultural output is greater than demand. This, said Weitz, is the clear indication of agricultural success.

Since Israel is almost totally self-sufficient in supplying its agricultural needs, one might think it is time to divert public attention-and funds– from the countryside to industrialized areas.

But Weitz said, no. Because agriculture has been one of the success stories of the Israeli economy, it should be broadened, intensified and adjusted to new needs. The farming branch could serve as a valuable tool in bridging the alarming gap in the balance of trade, Weitz said. Moreover he observed rural settlers have always been–and will continue to be-the social elite. In addition, agricultural settlements are important elements in the country’s defense lines.

The key to modern agriculture, Weitz said, is not heavily populated villages, but rather the development of large areas by the right number and quality of people.

EXTENT OF DEVELOPMENT AREA

Weitz believes that the sand dunes of the Negev have just the right soil for growing grains and vegetables for export. This has been the successful experience of the new settlements in the Raffah area on the Mediterranean coast near Gaza.

Weitz’s projected development area would stretch from Raffah east to the Halutza sand dunes on the international border line between Israel proper and the Sinai peninsula, and up to Beersheba in the north. Similar work would be done in the Arava along the southern border with Jordan, and in the northern Jordan-Valley between Jericho and Beisan. The biggest problem of all is water. The project will demand, according to Weitz’s own calculations, some 220 million cubic meters of water yearly.

This figure sounds like science fiction in terms of the dry Negev. Weitz’s solution is the creation of a nuclear reactor which would supply 600 million megawatts of electricity and 120 million cubic meters of water by desalination, with an investment of $800 million. Even this will not be enough to cover the project’s water needs. An additional plant would supply another 100 million cubic meters of water by bringing purified sewage water from the Tel Aviv area to the south.

IMPORTANCE OF THE PROJECT

Weitz has no doubt about finding the right people to come and settle his “Southern Project.” Just give them the framework and they will come and do the Job, he said. The importance of the “Southern Project,” according to Weitz, is that it would help meet Israel’s economic needs, help populate the Negev with desirable groups and help strengthen problematic security areas such as the Jewish settlements bordering the Gaza Strip and others on the Jordanian border.

The plan, so clear on paper, presents tremendous difficulties. But Weitz believes he has the answers. One key problem, quite obviously, is money. The scheme would cost some $2.25 billion, to be spent over 15 years-the time it would take to complete the project. Most of the money, some $1.5 billion, Weitz said, would be raised as a loan from foreign sources, most probably the U.S.

The rest should come from Israel’s development budget (Bonds), and from the resources of the settlers themselves. This, of course, is a sizeable challenge. It is not easy nowadays to get such large loans from the U.S.-witness the “transitional aid” tussle–and Israel’s development budget is constantly shrinking. Above all, the potential settlers would be unlikely to settle if it costs them too much money.

According to Weitz’s plan, settlement would begin four years after the initial planning of the project. Then would come the operation of the purified water system, and, after eight years, the nuclear reactor. The water system would be completed within 10 years and the entire project within 15 years.

SHARP CRITICISM RAISED

His plans raise the question whether carrying out the “Southern Project” would not jeopardize efforts to settle the Galilee, of which more than half the population are Arabs. “On the contrary,” said Weitz, his eyes shining with vision: “the Southern Project’ will serve as the economic basis for the development of the Galilee. In order to develop the Galilee, the country must begin to manufacture more, and manufacturing it can do in the south with export-oriented villages. I have one sick leg. This is the Galilee. In order to cure it, I must strengthen the other leg– the Negev.”

On political grounds, the plan has met with stiff criticism. Advocates of Greater Israel accuse Weitz, known as a dove, of proposing the plan to divert attention from their demands for populating the occupied areas. Weitz responds that he reached his conclusions and calculations entirely on economic considerations. “It is only a coincidence that the plan fits my political beliefs,” he noted.

Rabin approved last week the setting up of a team of six experts to work out a specific plan for the “Southern Project.” Within a year, the experts are scheduled to bring their findings before the Cabinet for a final decision.

The plan, no doubt, will cause much controversy. It has already been widely attacked in the press, mainly for what was described as unsound economic calculations. But last week one columnist, Avraham Schweitzer of Haaretz, wrote: “Nowadays, when a large part of the society depends on welfare, it is good to remember that one can cure a society with development, rather than with cold, institutionalized charity.”

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