Thank you, good morning. My name is Ronald Lauder, and I’m standing here today on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, United States, as well as the Jewish National Fund, and Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, throughout the world. The Jewish National Fund, as many of you know, was founded over 100 years ago by Theodor Herzl, to deal with the Land of Israel. For the first 50 years, the land was purchased through millions of contributions. In the 1950s, we started planting trees, and in the late 1990s, when I became President of the Jewish National Fund, we began to collect money for water. During the last seven years, we have built some seventy reservoirs, many of them in the Negev, with the help of Keren Kayemet LeIsrael.
Today, we have over 500 000 Jewish households in the United States that are part of the Jewish National Fund. During the last year, all of them have received information about what the Jewish National Fund, along with Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, is doing, and what that is is putting our entire effort, 100% effort, into the Negev. It is our belief that the Negev offers great opportunities to Israel, as well as great dangers, because unless we act now, we, the Jewish people, the people of Israel, will lose a great chance in the Negev. The Negev, as many of you know, is approximately 60% of the Land of Israel, and has about 8% of the land living there. It is our goal to bring 250,000 people there in the next five years, and 500,000 people in the next ten years. It can be done. If it is not done, we will have failed in the mission that we tried, and basically we will not have fulfilled David Ben-Gurion’s dream. The time is now. Although we in the United States feel very strongly that we can do it ourselves, with our efforts and our money, we also know that we must do it with the government, the land authority, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, and through working with various groups within the Negev.
There are already plans now for the transfer of army and air force bases to the Negev. This alone will bring tens of thousands of people, jobs and opportunities to the region. Scientific and medical institutions are in place, and I thank Ben-Gurion University for many of the things they’ve done. There are industrial parks planned, and Beer Sheva is becoming a major hub, pulling people to the south. There is a plan for a railroad system, connecting Beer Sheva with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I can tell you that you can change what is sometimes a two hour drive into a 45 minute drive, allowing people in Beer Sheva to live in Beer Sheva and work in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this train system is still years away from being complete. I believe that if private enterprise and the government work together, what could be done in five to ten years can be done in two to three years. I think this is the most important aspect to be accomplished. In this case, we in the United States can do nothing but watch and plead with the government and plead with private enterprises to get it done. There is also the necessity of having a light rail system, connecting the various communities of Yerucham, Dimona, Ofakim and other areas. Right now, we need strong leadership and people to make this happen.
What we decided to do is look at two or three areas of the Negev as hubs, the first hub being Beer Sheva. Beer Sheva started off as a small community of 2,500 people, and today it’s a metropolitan city of almost 200,000 people. What we have done is drawn a map about 25 miles around Beer Sheva, and we said: this is our hub, and in that 25 mile area, we are attempting to establish 25 communities. These communities will be able to use Beer Sheva and all its different facilities, and at the same time grow. We feel that when we get our communities together, of about 30 000, we then have enough to have hospitals, infrastructures, educational facilities. And that is the direction for Beer Sheva.
Moving down, we are looking at Eilat. In Eilat, we are trying to do the same thing in the South that we did in the North and Beer Sheva. Drawing a line around Eilat, and again developing communities around them.
The third hub will be Mitzpe Ramon. Here as well we will draw a line around Mitzpe Ramon, and we’re looking to build as many as 17 communities in the area.
We have developed within ourselves the Negev Vision Development Authority. I use the name Negev Vision Development Authority because there already is a Negev Development Authority. This Negev Vision Development Authority will be a way for American Jews to invest money into the Negev directly. We must also work together to give people the opportunity to build homes. We are working on a Negev economic development fund, which will allow people to have 100% funding for new homes built there. It is our belief that by doing this, we are able to offer people the opportunity to move from the Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem areas, which are very overcrowded, to come South to the Negev, or for that matter, to offer the thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people, who would consider moving to the Negev from the Diaspora. These people are looking for three things – they’re looking for education for their children, they’re looking for a home, and they’re looking for jobs.
It is our belief that if we are able to supply them the money for a home, job possibilities, and education for their children, you will have a great immigration to the Negev, and we’re looking at tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people.
The way we’re looking for jobs, which is probably the most difficult area, is we know that of approximately 4000 small businesses in central Israel, about 10% of them, or 400 businesses, are in desperate need of expanding. We’ll be coming to all 400 businesses and speaking to them about moving South, to special land in the Negev. We feel that if we get 10% of these, starting off with 40 businesses, that can give 5 to 10 thousand jobs for the Negev, and that will be the beginning. What we’d like to do is move these businesses, first into the area outside of Beer Sheva, and then later on to outside of Mitzpeh Ramon, and outside of Eilat. Again, this is a way that we can combine economic development, housing development, and a whole education system.
It’s a dream. It’s a dream that started off before the founding of the State of Israel. It is very, very interesting that when we in the United States go about and speak to audiences all over country, this is a dream that everybody understands, but when I go to California, or to Texas, or to the Midwest, and I speak to audiences like this and talk to them about the Negev, they react with the same questions that you’d ask. How is it possible? I believe that if the government of Israel, and the various organizations that are represented here today, on my left and right, I believe that things could be done fantastically. We’ve seen what can be done with water. When we first started talking about water and started talking about trees, Keren Kayemet, under the leadership of Yechiel Leket, joined us, and we raised I think between $15-100 million to build reservoirs, because we were able to focus on a dream. I need your help, I need the help of the people here today, and the people sitting in the front row here, on either side of me. With your dream, and with your understanding, I believe that we in the United States will be able to help very, very much in building this organization, and building the Negev. We intend to open offices all throughout the Negev so that there is a way that we can work directly. It’s a dream, it was David Ben Gurion’s dream, it’s been a dream of many, many people, and I think the time is now. If the time is not now, we will lose, we will lose the Negev, we will lose our chance. We would lose it not only to the Bedouins, but we would lose it to people who would normally move here from the Diaspora, who would decide not to move here. Again, I thank you very much for listening, I’m delighted that the Negev is part of what’s being presented today at this very important conference, and we all need your help, and for the 450-500 thousand American households that look to you as their partner – thank you.