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So began the Biblical phrase and classic Hassidic song later embraced by the Zionist movement—seaward, eastward, northward, and southward. This was the vision of the Jewish people that returned to its homeland and fully settled it. But while the Jewish people have returned, the land remains largely and dangerously unsettled.
Rather than expanding in every direction, Israelis have crowded into the country’s center, Greater Tel Aviv (Gush Dan). There, some 45% of Israel’s population lives on 17.5% of the territory outside of Judea, Samaria, and the Golan Heights. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, far outstripping Gaza and even Hong Kong. The bulk of Israeli industry is concentrated there, and the vast majority of its technological workforce. It is Israel’s financial and cultural hub, home to two major universities and a growing number of private colleges. The Kiriya—Israel’s equivalent to the Pentagon—and Israel’s major airport are both located in Greater Tel Aviv.
The hazards of this concentration have been explored above, in the challenges posed by the dwindling Jewish populations of the Galilee and the Negev. But there is also the strategic vulnerability of placing so many Israeli “eggs”—demographic, economic, technological, academic, logistical, and military—in one geographical basket. Our enemies know this well. Instead of aiming at border towns as in the past, terrorists now point their rockets at Greater Tel Aviv.
Condensing so many Israelis, especially those who can afford private cars and commute, has resulted in endless traffic jams. Over the past forty years, traffic density in Israel has more than tripled and is today 3.5 times higher than the OECD average—four times that of the United States. The worsening pileups heighten the stress levels among the already-tense Israeli public and, in terms of lost production hours, cost the Israeli economy more than NIS40 billion per year.
Perhaps most damagingly, the burgeoning of Greater Tel Aviv also leads residents of the “periphery,” both North and South, to feel abandoned. The sense of grievance is deepened by the ethnic divide, with roots going back to the 1950s, between the preponderantly Mizrachi periphery and the predominantly Ashkenazi Tel Aviv. During times of conflict, especially, the periphery’s population have claimed—not without some justification—that the state only reacts when Greater Tel Aviv is targeted.
The answer to this crisis lies in returning to the original Zionist vision. Specifically, it requires the state to establish at least three new metropolitan centers—one in the north, two in the Negev—each with a sustainable industrial base. It means expanding Beersheva and revitalizing Haifa and developing depressed but strategically located cities of Lod and Ramle. It means incentivizing companies as well as individuals to leave Greater Tel Aviv for the periphery, building additional airports, relocating the Kiriya, and investing heavily in infrastructure. It’s not enough merely to construct apartments but also schools, hospitals, and community institutions. It means, above all, laying the modern roads and high-speed rail systems necessary to connect even the remotest towns to the regional hubs.
Only a national decision to distribute Israel’s population and resources more equitably will ensure Israel’s economic, social, and strategic viability in 2048. This cannot be achieved by prioritizing Greater Tel Aviv or the settlements of Judea and Samaria, but only by assuring that every region receives the resources it needs to develop and thrive. Toward the sea and the desert, to the north and the east, the state must expand, and not only in song but reality.
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