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Jewish Journal

2040 Vision

by Rob Eshman

November 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

This, too, shall pass.

And when the current government crisis in Israel, the showdown with Iraq and the conflict with the Palestinians are history, professor Avishay Braverman wonders, whither Israel?

His answer: the Negev.

"All our focus is on what I call the theater of the immediate," Braverman said. "I'm concerned we ignore internal issues in Israel, as if all we have to do is solve our external problems and the Messiah will come."

Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), was in Los Angeles last week raising money and awareness for his college and his cause. At a time when Israel's "Theater of the Immediate" was running three shows daily on CNN, he was pushing his audiences to think long term.

The Negev Desert in southern Israel makes up 60 percent of Israel, but accounts for only 8 percent of its population. Braverman envisions turning the region's main city, Beersheba, into a metropolis of 3 millions souls. Surrounding it would be development towns, now blisters of unemployment and neglect, reinvented as research and support centers. These communities and greenbelts would carpet the desert, airing out the tightly packed coastal area of Israel and linked via efficient trains to similar new developments in the Galilee.

"By the year 2040, there will be 12 million Israelis," Braverman told me over breakfast in Century City. "Now is the time for the Negev project."

Braverman, 54, is a tall man with a keen intellect and the forceful presence of a platoon commander, which he was. The Stanford-trained economist counts himself as a friend to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and observers of the Israeli political scene say that if Braverman only wanted to get his hands a little dirty in national politics, Labor Party leadership would be his for the taking.

But Braverman says he is content -- for now -- to leverage his considerable access and influence to push his dream. "I want the key players of the Jewish world to focus now on the Negev."

If there is a bit of Los Angeles water pioneer William Mulholland in Braverman -- it's easy to picture him standing astride the empty stretches of desert proclaiming as Mulholland did, "There it is, take it" -- there is more than a touch of David Ben-Gurion. Israel's first prime minister made his home on Kibbutz Sde Boker, about 25 miles from Beersheba. He who would seek wisdom, Ben-Gurion used to say, should head south to the Negev.

Ben-Gurion long believed that settling the Negev was critical to Israel's future, and today his vision seems more urgent than ever. It is the catalyst for what Braverman calls Zionism 2.0, the next phase in the Jewish people's nation-building in its ancestral homeland. Like Zionism's first iteration, this one, too, involves a man, a vision and a desert landscape.

It is true that every third Israeli declares his corner of the country the next "Silicon Wadi," ripe for foreign investment and boom times. But Braverman -- to judge by his track record -- might just be the one to fulfill his own prophecy.

He arrived at BGU 12 years ago as Israel's youngest university president, at a time when the government threatened to turn the school, riddled with debt and declining enrollment, into a community college. He has since tripled enrollment to 16,000, raised $250 million, run budget surpluses each year and established the campus as a leader in science and literature.

Its Hebrew literature faculty includes Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld; its National Institute for Biotechnology boasts as consultants Phillip Needleman, developer of Celebrex, and Nobel Prize laureate Sir Aaron Klug, and it runs a world-renowned program in arid lands and water research.

Now, BGU is the fastest-growing university in Israel and the hardest one to get into. Think Princeton or Dartmouth at 33 Celsius.

But Braverman's vision of Israel extends beyond the university and the desert. Israel's lurching from crisis to crisis has blinded its leaders to the need for long-term planning and investment. During the last decade, when the tech boom and the glow of Oslo set fire to the nation's economy, the division between the country's haves and have-nots only grew, and monies for public services were nowhere to be found.

"The trickle-down theory never took place anywhere," said Braverman, who served as a senior economist at the World Bank. "There is no trickle-down theory. We never invested -- that's my j'accuse -- not in education, desalination, transportation. We didn't do what we're supposed to do."

But, he says, it is not too late. Development in the Negev and the Galilee -- another underutilized region to the north -- could be the catalyst for improving Israel's governance -- more regional control, less waste and corruption -- and democracy.

For starters, Braverman urges Angelenos who visit Israel to start putting Beersheba and environs on their itinerary. "If you don't go to the Negev" he told me, "you don't understand what Israel is." Or, he might have added, what it can become.

For more information, contact the American Associates of Ben Gurion University at (310) 552-3300 or www.aabgu.org.

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