Ben-Gurion University President Avishay Braverman (right) displays the Negev development declaration, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks on. (Photo: Dani Machlis)For the Ben-Gurion University students and workers who arrive at the gleaming new north Beersheva-University train station and cross the impressive bridge leading them directly onto the campus, the facilities simply represent convenient transportation.

But the newly inaugurated station that links the Negev city of Beersheva – as well as the classrooms and laboratories of BGU – to the heart of the country carries much more significance: it represents one of the first major steps toward the realization of a national dream of developing the Negev region on a massive and modern scale and transforming it into Israel’s ‘Silicon Valley.’

Danny Lazar, the architect who designed the dramatic new gateway, station, and bridge, articulated the hopes of those who planned and created it: that it would “would carry Beersheva into the future – connecting it to the dynamic future of science and technology.”

The dream of large-scale development and modernization of the southern Negev region is as old as the state of Israel itself, first articulated by the founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who chose to make the region his home, and now by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who considers his Negev ranch there his primary residence.

But despite these symbolic gestures by national leaders, growth of the Negev has remained a dream. Efforts to bring real change to the Negev have fallen by the wayside – they were not comprehensive or well-funded enough to counteract the tendencies of a population that has clung stubbornly to the central plain region and resisted moving south.

As a result, the Negev region, which makes up 60 percent of the territory of the State of Israel, houses only nine percent of the population.

But ambitious new plans are aimed at changing the situation, and the efforts to jump-start large-scale Negev developments are more than rhetoric: they have serious dollar signs and political muscle behind them.

The station is one sign of movement. Another came last month, when the Israeli government committed to providing $30 million towards a $90 million research fund for the new National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN) based at BGU.

The NIBN is the cornerstone of a planned full-scale Advanced Technologies Park, which, together with the new train station, will spark the economic and urban development of the southern region. According to the Swiss banker Edgar de Picciotto, who was the driving force behind the creation of the NIBN and is , the new facilities will be an effective academic platform for the emergence of a successful applied biotechnology industry in the Negev.

It is all part of a comprehensive $3.6 billion, 10-year plan to bring development to the Negev region, with an emphasis on high tech and biotech industries, but involving all aspects of life in the Negev, including infrastructure, housing, education, and tourism.

“If Ben-Gurion was alive today he would take immense pride in what he would see here,” said Shimon Peres referring to the construction and growth at the university named for his political mentor. Peres was the guest of honor at BGU’s honorary doctoral ceremonies which took place last week on the annual Ben-Gurion Day on the campus.

The flourishing of BGU over the past 15 years is an important part of the foundation on which the future plans for the Negev will be built, plans which Peres is personally committed to. When he announced his resignation from the Labor Party last month, Peres made it clear that he may be relinquishing some of his governmental duties -but he would continue to spearhead the Office of Development of the Galilee and the Negev.

At the ceremony inaugurating the train station on Ben-Gurion Day, all of the dignitaries attending, including Sharon, signed a declaration that read: “May the new station and bridge serve as a gateway to progress and excellence for students and scholars and the citizens of Beersheva and the Negev. May science and industry, technology and knowledge flow to and from the Negev and a new spirit arise from the desert plains.”

Sharon remarked at the ceremony that David Ben-Gurion was a man of action who completed almost all of the tasks that he made for himself, “but he left us the job of developing the Negev.”

Earlier this year, Sharon formally committed the government to the project with an official decision that creating growth in the Negev “is one of this government´s strategic goals, and there is a vital national need to do this urgently.” Sharon vowed to “turn the Negev into a region that attracts people and improves the standard of living.”

The government plan, entitled ‘Negev 2015’ sets a 2015 target date for increasing the Negev population from 535,000 to 900,000.

“The train is the link that will create a new high tech center in the desert. We can become Israel’s Silicon Valley of the future,” said BGU President Avishay Braverman, a strong advocate for Negev development who recently announced that he was leaving academia to join the leadership of the Labor Party.

“The industrial park provides a strategic long-term employment solution to the needs of the Negev and the city of Beersheva that genuinely needs investments, mainly in the fields of advanced industry, in order to enable the development of the area.”

According to Peres, the key to success in creating a plan that was large enough and sweeping enough to truly transform the Negev was coordination between various government ministries – in doing so, he said, he was able to significantly increase the budget dedicated to the plan.

Another major force in Israeli society that is centrally involved in the hopes for the Negev’s future is the military. Integral to the Negev development plan is the relocation of major divisions of the Israel Defense Forces to the south, most significantly, its technological and computer arms.

“It is a pleasure to see how the military is involved in developing the Negev,” said Peres, speaking at a roundtable on the future of the Negev at the Globes 2005 business conference. “If, as we hope, the technological and computer operations – and eventually – the majority of IDF operations are moved there, there will be a huge change in the Negev.”

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, another member of the roundtable, told the audience there that the process of locating key IDF operations, including its central technological and computer units is set to begin in 2007-2008 and continue to the rest of the decade.

Halutz is familiar with the Negev – he lived there during the time that commanded the air force, but, like most officers moved back to the center of the country when his stint was over.

“I think that the IDF is the easiest player in this game,” he said at the Globes conference. “You tell them to go south and they obey – and we are. But really, why are we doing it? This is the only way for the IDF to seriously upgrade and modernize its infrastructure. There is no way we could do it otherwise. The Negev has space, it is the place we interfere least with the local population as we do in the center of the country.”

He said that for the plan to really work, and for the IDF soldiers manning the new bases to settle in the region there would have to be development of jobs so that the family members of the army officers can find work. He himself returned north primarily so that his wife could find employment. True economic development in the Negev will mean the difference between the massive relocation of IDF families to the south, or officers who commute south for the day from their homes in greater Tel Aviv.

“They will move there for one reason only,” Halutz said. “And that is if they see that it can raise their standard of living.”

Ilan Cohen, director-general of Sharon’s office, agreed with Peres at the roundtable that it was the intra-ministerial approach and inviting investment from overseas that would allow the plan to continue to move forward and succeed.

“This is no ministry uninvolved in the effort – it has to be a joint effort between business, government, local residents and the Jewish world,” he said. He emphasized that the public sector can only lead the effort – its ultimate success rides on whether or not the private sector will follow and create the jobs that are needed to attract and retain Negev residents.

“Even now, we see young people growing up in the Negev, getting educated and leaving to see their fortune – the opportunities are elsewhere. What we have to do is reverse this process, create opportunities in the Negev, so that these young people will stay and a strong population will come and join them,” Cohen said.

In the meantime, thanks to the new train station, those who arrive in Beersheva will see that development of the region is on the fast track.

Chairman of the Board of Israel Railways Moshe Leon has plans for new commuter lines in the Negev, including a line to Dimona expected to open soon, and emphasized that Israel Railways, along with all of the other government bodies, is committed to developing the region.

“The only way to be a successful fortune teller,” he said, “is to be someone who makes things happen. David Ben-Gurion said that the future is the Negev. I am sure that it will arrive faster now since there is a train.”