Sprawl At Gunpoint

I’m not writing about housing policy right now because I’m building enthusiasm for THE RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be on the table. For the moment, though, nobody in Israel is talking about the occupation because there are massive protests about housing policy:

[Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai refused to answer when Haaretz asked about the government’s conduct since the protests began a few weeks ago, saying “the solution to the housing problem in Israel cannot be found in the city of Tel Aviv, that is all of 51 square kilometers. The solution can be found with the government’s policy for selling and subsidizing property, its definition of affordable housing, etc.”

One of the mysterious elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it’s sometimes not clear to outsiders what it’s actually about. On some level, it’s about religion — Jerusalem, holy sites, etc. And on a very literal level, you have a fair amount of Israeli settlers grabbing Palestinian olive groves. But while their farms are very important to the lives and welfare of Palestinians, it’s just not the case that Israel is operating a low income agricultural economy that crucial relies on olive production to create wealth. What’s more, the really wild rural land grabs are quite controversial within Israeli politics and if that were all that’s at issue the Israeli government would have a relatively easy time making a plausible peace offer. The problem is the large “settlement blocks” near the border, and especially near Jerusalem, that have a mainstream status in Israeli politics. These are pretty normal looking suburbs, albeit built on land stolen from the Palestinians, and Israelis don’t want to give it up.

This can be regarded as a pretty banal suburban sprawl dynamic. The mayor of Tel Aviv says Israel’s housing shortfall can’t be found in the city of Tel Aviv, because Tel Aviv is only 51 square kilometers. Manhattan, of course, is approximately the same size as Tel Aviv and manages to contain four times the population. But as you know, in most places (including present-day Manhattan), it’s not legal to build at Manhattan levels of density, so the tendency is for the population to spread out. But Israel is not a very large country, especially once you leave the desert out of it, so the range of possible suburban sprawl is quite logistically constrained. Unless, that is, you build some of your suburbs and suburban arterials on the wrong side of the Green Line. The basic economic logic is not all that different from the LA area spreading into San Bernardino and Riverside counties rather than the nice Westside neighborhoods becoming super-dense. Of course the political context is completely different. And equally of course, this is hardly the only driver of the conflict. But if you’re looking for a baseline material issue creating incentives for Israeli expansion, it’s here in the housing shortage.