Turning the periphery into the center –an opinion article by Prof. Jehuda Haddad

“We must bring the periphery closer to the center”, said Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party chairperson, Knesset Member Benny Gantz, upon receiving the mandate to form a government. This is a commonly held view among decision makers, and while it sounds so obvious it is based on rigid thinking that is fundamentally wrong.

The “periphery”, which with the founding of the state shouldered the burden of protecting its borders, developing agriculture and settling the country, changed its nature and character over the years. Technological advancement, transportation, roads and trains have shortened distances and ranges, and now it is also time to change the meaning of the term “periphery”. Cities located one or two hours from the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area (Gush Dan) are no longer considered the periphery according to international measures, at least not geographically.

Worrying data published by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in recent years point to a continuing process of migration from the periphery to the center, mainly of a young and educated population. A pronounced difference in the quality of services, along with an unsatisfactory response in various areas of life, will continue to thrust cities and towns in the periphery into the same intolerable vicious circle of lacking development and economic growth that leads to migration to the center that further weakens the fabric of life in the periphery. Only recently, for example, the Ministries of Communications and Finance submitted a plan for laying fiber-optic cables, a vital infrastructure that communication companies must deploy throughout the country. Remarkably enough – the “periphery” will only enjoy this deployment in another decade. This has huge implications for the ability to attract companies to these areas and to develop a vital infrastructure for businesses, companies, high-tech and startups.

The time has come to dispose of the pattern of thought which maintains that our major and vital national and social life takes place in Gush Dan, and that all that is needed is to bring the center closer to the residents of the periphery, to make it more accessible for them. We must recognize the fact that every area in the country has its own life, character and uniqueness, and that instead of “bringing the periphery closer to the center” the periphery needs to be strengthened, to become a center unto itself.

It is not enough to “fight the traffic jams”. An in-depth plan must include legislating tax benefits combined with a policy aimed at enriching cultural and economic sources in the periphery and strengthening, among other things, education, health, employment and leisure culture. All these will change reality, empower the residents of the areas far from the center and enable them to strive to develop their localities, not just dream of moving to the center.

Take Be’er Sheva for example, which should serve as a central anchor of the southern area of the state, yet the state has difficulty developing it as a significant metropolitan. The capital of the south has potential, and not only in terms of land reserves: this is a city with academic centers, a medical center, a high-tech park - everything needed for an independent city. When the center of the country becomes crowded and housing prices in Gush Dan soar, there is no reason that a city such as Be’er Sheva will not become an attractive city for young couples.

The approach should be - to turn urban centers in the periphery into metropolitans. This can be achieved by significantly improving health and education services, developing advanced industry and transportation, raising the standard of living in the north and the south, empowering residents and promoting economic growth. Moreover, it is important to invest not only in roads and interchanges but also in education infrastructures, with leading schools, culture and sport centers, first-rate medicine and physical infrastructures that will facilitate development of a local economy – among them optic fibers, development centers, high-tech centers and training centers. When residents of the north and the south will live in leading, advanced and innovative cities, they will not find themselves spending hours on the road on the way to work in the center of the country.