Faced with a serious scarcity of available land on its heavily populated coastal plain, the government of Israel is quietly moving ahead with plans to develop what critics are calling "fantasy" islands.
The move comes as the country is beset by terrorist attacks inside and outside the country, a desperate need for water and the worst economy since independence 54 years ago.
In the latest move in a project that has been studied for more than a decade, the cabinet last month appointed a six-member committee to explore its financial feasibility.
The project initially calls for the construction of two islands off the coast of Tel Aviv. One would be for a new regional airport, the other for residential housing, commercial offices and tourism.
The committee, chaired by the director-general of the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Yair Maayan, expects to issue a report by the end of February, but Maayan told The Jewish Week he believed the study would confirm the feasibility of the project.
"We have some consortiums that have asked us that they be allowed to do it," he said.
Depending on their size and how they are built, the islands would cost $2 billion to $3 billion each, Maayan said.
The cost would be borne by international investors, he said; no government money would be involved in the building or future maintenance.
But Philip Warburg, executive director of Israel’s leading environmental advocacy group, Israel Union for Environmental Defense, called the idea a "technological fantasy that is highly improper [because of] Israel’s economic and environmental constraints."
The construction of such artificial islands, he argued, would severely deplete the sand on Israel’s beaches, and erode and eventually collapse the cliffs along the coastline. Warburg said also that the dredging required would adversely affect marine life.
"What is doubly disturbing is that normally in Israel, the National Planning and Building Committee reviews projects in an orderly procedure and invites public input," he said. "Unfortunately, the Sharon government has put forth a mechanism for bypassing the process and minimizing the time available for preparing and reviewing environmental impact assessments and allowing public comment."
Asked what would happen if the government proceeds to issue tenders, Warburg told The Jewish Week: "They will be hearing from Israel’s environmental community. We are not going to sit by idly as these projects are railroaded through a fast track planning process." Warburg noted that his organization has more than 3,000 active members.
The idea of building islands off Israel’s coastline has been explored for 11 years at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, which issued its first report on the subject in February 1993, according to Yoram Zimmels, a professor of civil engineering at the school.
"The idea of artificial islands has value worldwide," Zimmels said, noting that the Japanese and Dutch have similarly small countries and a scarcity of prime land.
He said they have successfully built islands; nearly half of the land of the Netherlands has been recovered from the sea, and Japan built Kansai International Airport on an artificial island.
"We should learn from them and apply their methods to increase the land reserves," Zimmels said.
He noted that the Israeli population is largely concentrated in the area of Tel Aviv, which has 2.5 million people, more than a third of the country’s total, and that available land in the area is hard to find. Relocating Tel Avivís regional airport, Sde Dov, would free up valuable land in the heart of the city, Zimmels said.
But Warburg contends it would be more sensible to relocate the airport to the Negev, the desert in southern Israel that is undeveloped.
He argued that the same types of visionaries who built a plant at the Dead Sea to extract its minerals and ended up operating a billion-dollar business are needed to develop artificial islands in the Mediterranean.
Asked about the environmental problems, Zimmels said the cost of replenishing the sand would not be more than $1 million annually, which he termed "very reasonable."
Maayan also did not believe environmental concerns should derail the project.
"It’s not a problem because they are doing islands all over the world," he said. "There is a solution to every problem."
Warburg agreed that the problems may be technically solvable, but he said "assurances that they are going to be [cared for] over time are lacking."
"Sand needs to be [replenished] in perpetuity, and in a country that is severely strapped for funds and where municipal budgets are fought over, it’s very hard to imagine funding for that kind of enterprise over time," he said.
And besides, Warburg said, there are still technical problems that need to be overcome. Kansai Airport, for example, is settling at a faster rate than anticipated.
Japanese officials reportedly believe they have resolved the problem and note that the adjoining island now under construction will not present a similar difficulty.
Supporters of the Israeli project note that two years ago, an Israeli businessman and the large Italian company Torno Internazionale approached the government with a comprehensive plan for building the two islands. The price tag on the airport island alone was $2 billion.
Investors reportedly were prepared to build the island in five years. It was to be located about a mile from the Tel Aviv coastline. The other island was to be off the coast of Herzliya.
The offer, contingent upon government approval, was based upon a study prepared by a committee of experts selected by Israel and the Netherlands in 1996 to examine the feasibility of the project from environmental, technological, legal and economic points of view. The Netherlands and Israel invested $1 million in the study, which gave a green light to the project.
The study found that there is more than 100 million tons of exposed limestone in the sea that would be suitable for building artificial islands.
The Israeli cabinet in effect gave its approval to the project by setting up the Maayan committee, which includes the directors-general of the transportation, finance and environment ministries.
Maayan said that once the committee’s report is completed, he would expect tenders to be issued for the project, which he said could start in two to three years.
But the Israeli business newspaper Globes said it found the business sector skeptical about investing in the project today. It quoted one business adviser as saying that the absence of a National Outline Plan for the sea would delay the planís implementation because legislation for the project cannot proceed without such a plan.
Zimmels said each island would be a little more than half a square mile and that each would be no more than 0.7 miles to 1.5 miles from shore. The airport island, however, would need a runway of about two miles. The further from shore, the more expensive the island because it would require a longer bridge to the mainland and would be deeper and thus need more material to build.
The commercial island would include homes, shopping malls, offices and high-quality residences, Zimmels envisioned.
"We figured out that up to 50,000 people could be there at once, about 20,000 of whom would live there," he said. "And there would be a trade center with an international flavor."
Warburg said there was concern also that an island off the Tel Aviv coast would destroy the pristine ocean view for the tens of thousands of Israelis who flock to the city’s beaches each year. But Zimmels said a 30-story building from a mile away would not be an obstruction to those on shore.
"It would not be an eyesore, only a beautiful addition to the view," Zimmels said. "And at night there would be a spectacular view" of the island lit up in the dark.
As to security, Zimmels said Israel’s 100 miles of coastline are the most secure of any nation.
"Our navy is doing an excellent job of protecting it," he said.
Asked about terrorism, Zimmels said: "It’s very difficult to destroy an island."