Israel to privatise kibbutzim

IT IS THE biggest land grab since the foundation of the state of Israel. The value of the property to be transferred is put at $60bn (pounds 40bn) - but it has nothing to do with Israeli settlers taking Palestinian land.

At stake is a quarter of the habitable land in Israel. Hitherto it has been leased by the state to kibbutzim, Israel's famed socialist farming communities, co-operatives and private farmers. Now it is to be largely privatised, to the immense benefit of the three per cent of the Israeli population who live on the land.

The cabinet is scheduled to discuss the new proposals on land ownership today, with every chance that it will give the go-ahead. When it has done so, says Ari Shavit, the Israeli commentator, "a farmer in the centre of the country will be eligible to receive from the government an instant gift of somewhere between a few hundred thousand and a few million dollars".

It means the passing of the kibbutzim, once the symbol of Israeli egalitarianism, whose future wealth will come from property sales and development. Dr Alexander Kedar, a specialist in Israeli land law at Haifa University, says the kibbutzniks "will become a community of rich landowners".

Some of those whose forefathers came to Israel as socialist pioneers will become very rich indeed. For years they leased land, originally purchased or confiscated from Palestinians, from the state. They did not own it. If they ceased to use it as agricultural land they would get only its value for growing crops or raising livestock. Even if the market value of the land for industry or housing was pounds 300,000, they would get only pounds 10,000.

It is this that is about to change. Throughout the 1990s the agricultural lobby, one of the most powerful in Israel, has fought for real property rights and is on the verge of success. Not only socialist enterprises, but private agricultural concerns can see enormous profits now very close on the horizon.

Full private ownership will not be granted, but there is more than enough to satisfy property developers. Agricultural land will be leased for 196 years. There can be unlimited building on residential land, which can then be sold, while farmers will get between 20 and 60 per cent of the value of the land which is re-zoned for development. The farmers will be able to take advantage of Israel's soaring property prices, which have been driven upwards by the arrival of a million Russian Jewish immigrants. The country is not large: if the Negev desert is not included, then Israel's population density is greater than Holland's.

Despite the enomous sums involved, 97 per cent of Israelis will see no benefit from this change in ownership. "It will create a tiny group which controls most of the land," said Dr Kedar. "Israel will resemble parts of Latin America with large latifundia [estates] It is a regressive agricultural revolution."

Israeli politics is so fixated on the relationship with the Palestinians and the future of the West Bank that these radical changes in property rights have received little attention. But there is another reason why politicians avoid the topic - there is a rainbow coalition of potential beneficiaries, stretching from the left-wing kibbutzniks to Ariel Sharon, the right-wing foreign minister, who is one of the larger farmers in the country. This cross-party alliance of landed Israelis has stifled debate in the Knesset.

Ari Shavit, writing in the daily Haaretz, says the coalition which has campaigned for seven years for a change in land ownership in Israel has worn down resistance by a few government officials. He concludes: "This coalition, thanks to its ramified but hidden connections with some of the biggest real estate firms and some of the most high-powered lawyers, is one of the strongest pressure groups in Israel."

The opening up of some 750,000 acres of land will do more than create a small caste of property owners. With an estimated 150,000 housing units being built on kibbutzim and moshavim (co-operatives), it will speed up the suburbanisation of Israel.

Dr Kedar argues that after the question of the future of the occupied territories, it is the most important decision facing the country. Israeli government experts estimate that the value of the property rights to be transferred may be closer to $80bn than $60bn. With the prospect of such rewards, none of those pushing for a change in the law are likely to be deflected now.

Ninety years after their movement was started, the kibbutzniks' socialist ideology has largely evaporated. They have lost their prestige as ascetic patriots, willing to turn their hand to the gun or the plough, depending on the needs of the country.

At Ma'ale Hahamisha, a kibbutz just east of Jerusalem, Ofra Pisetzky wonders if the movement will survive. "Society is changing," she said. "It is losing its solidarity. Youngsters would like to be the same as successful people in the city whom they see on TV." Once Israel's revolution in land ownership is complete, they may well be able to do so.