Monday, November 12, 2012

Ben Gurion, the Negev, and the Vision Thing

In his magnificent autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz tells the story of his dawn meeting with Ben Gurion, after a short story he had written as an aspiring young author had caught the eye of the father of the nation. It's one of the best portraits around of Ben Gurion in action--the prime minster and minister of defense and literary critic. Afterwards, Oz summed it up to himself: Ben Gurion had decided in his youth that the Jews needed a state, and that he would be its leader. He may have asked himself what the cost of implementing these two decisions might be, but had answered himself that whatever the price, both decisions had to be realized.

Probably as plausible a summary of Ben Gurion's life as any 500,000-word biography.

The man had The Vision Thing, in spades.

Yet not all his visions came to be realized; only those two main ones. The broad flow of human history is stronger even than the most capable of visionaries, and some things they imagine turn out very different.

Yesterday we took a quick look at Ben Gurion's fascination with the Negev; today we're offering a slightly closer look. Everyone knows how in 1954 he abruptly resigned his post as prime minister and went to join the newly founded kibbutz of Sdeh Boker deep in the Negev, to prove that settling the Negev was more important even than leading the government. (He returned the following year, though when he finally did retire, it was back to Sdeh Boker.) So all Israelis knew about his ideas about the Negev, but they didn't necessarily agree.

One of our staff recently dug up a short summary of the idea, from a three-page set of responses Ben Gurion wrote for a journalist in 1959, anticipating the conditions in 1968, which would be Israel's 20th anniversary:
In 1968, 500,000 people will live in the Negev. There will be four urban centers: Beer Sheva, Dimona, [Mitspe] Ramon and Eilat. 20,000 families will make their living from agriculture, once we complete the National Water Carrier and develop desalination capabilities. Another 20,000 will work in the mining industries, producing phosphates, copper, iron and other minerals. We'll develop a chemical industry and in the cities there will be additional industry, and 50,000 heads of family will be employed there. Thousands will be employed in the port of Eilat, and perhaps 10,000 in transportation. 80% of the people will be immigrants, and 20% will be haluzim from existing settlements, and university trained teachers and doctors. We'll pave a new road the length of the Arava, since the present narrow road to Eilat isn't sufficient; the geologists think we might find oil south of the Dead Sea.
Well, no. If in 1959 there were fewer than 2 million Israelis, there are now 8 million, yet the population of the Negev reached 500,000 only in 2003. Dimona has remained a small town, Mitspeh Ramon is tiny, Eilat is a major tourism town but its port is marginal. No-one ever found that oil. One of the most significant sources of population growth came from the Beduin communities, who seem not to have been in BG's focus at all. There is agriculture in the Negev, here and there, but it doesn't support 20,000 families, not remotely. There's a large-ish mining industry based on phosphates, but no copper or iron.

The government recently put together a program to promote the Negev by 2015. Some of the ideas were formulated by Ben Gurion 60 years ago, but now they've got a modern terminology: The government needs to build infrastructures so as to attract private investors; the fields the planners hope to develop are hi-tech, tourism, solar energy and so on. The program explictly includes the Beduin poulation.

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