BEERSHEBA, ISRAEL — WHEN a young reporter covering Beersheba's recent mayoral campaign asked Yitzhak Rager why he was so confident of victory, he replied: ``Lady, you don't know me. If I'm running for mayor, I'll be mayor.'' Now in charge of city hall, the former journalist, diplomat, and businessman will need all of his legendary self-confidence to haul Beersheba - and the extensive Negev region of which it is capital - out of economic lassitude.
Once the object of Zionist dreams to make the desert bloom, the Negev has slowly languished, a victim of bad planning, economic recession, and national neglect. Now comes Mayor Rager who, six months after taking office, has become a cheerleader for revitalizing the Negev.
``The vision has to return,'' says Rager of the region that constitutes 60 percent of Israel's land area but holds only 12 percent of its population. ``The Negev is the future of Israel. The center is full of Jews; this place has room for millions more.''
As an advocate of a Negev renaissance, Rager is either way behind - or perhaps way ahead - of the times.
When the Jewish state was founded in 1948, this parched region, the site of ancient trade routes and inhabited mainly by Bedouin nomads, was largely ignored. But it was a gleam in the eye of Israel's founding patriarch David Ben-Gurion, in whose vision the Negev was to provide a place for waves of future immigrants to settle.
When the immigrants did come, in a flood starting in the mid-1950s that nearly doubled Israel's population within 10 years, the Negev flourished. Aided by a government policy of cheap mortgages and low-interest business loans, ``development'' towns and ``kibbutzim'' - or agricultural cooperatives - bloomed like desert flowers in the spring. Beersheba, a lonely outpost of 2,000 in 1948, grew to 100,000 within 25 years.
The trouble began when the government turned its attention - and its resources - away from the Negev to the booming metropolitan centers along the Mediterranean coast, and, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, to new Jewish settlements planted in the occupied West Bank.
At the root of the Negev's troubles are flaws in the very conception of how to develop the desert, say various Israeli specialists.
The idea behind settling the Negev was to disperse Israel's population away from the center. But located far from ports, tourist attractions, or pools of skilled labor, the new towns were artificial creations with little economic raison d'^etre. The businesses that took root proved transient and highly vulnerable to business cycles. As unemployment grew, skilled workers departed, municipal debts grew, morale dropped, the gap between the center and the periphery widened.
According to a recent report issued by the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies, the average life span of development town industries is barely a decade, while unemployment stands at over half again the national average.
``Development towns have been an economic problem since they were established,'' says Allen Pakes, communications director of the Jewish Agency, which is aiding in the rehabilitation of the communities. ``They were built to create employment but not from the point of view of where there was an economic base.''
``People here have a bad self-image,'' adds a social worker from Beersheba. ``For those who stayed behind after the hard times started it was a way of saying I remain economically small and culturally small.''
Yitzhak Rager needs no tutoring on the problems of the Negev. During a lengthy interview in his Beersheba office he waits impatiently for the phone to ring with word on whether the next day's city payroll can be met. Like most of the towns in the Negev, Beersheba is flat broke.
But Rager insists that Beersheba and the Negev have a role to play in Israel's future.
What other region, he asks, can absorb the tens of thousands of Soviet 'emigr'es who are expected to descend on Israel over the next few years?
To make his point, the burly chief executive has launched an intensive lobby in Jerusalem to get Beersheba and the Negev noticed again.
In six months he has already met five times with fellow Likud Party member and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who has promised to have the government take a closer look at the region. His next targets are the dozen or so Cabinet ministers who can open the coffers to more aid and development for the Negev.
DURING a meeting in Beersheba two weeks ago, Housing Minister David Levy promised unprecedented 100 percent mortgages to new arrivals from abroad in Beersheba, new housing units, and money to spruce up the town's main thoroughfare. It is the first, the mayor hopes, of many fiscal conquests.
Rager says his philosophy is simple: The Negev has contributed more than its fair share to the nation and deserves a fair return. Receipts from the bustling tourist industry at Red Sea resort at Eilat, plus proceeds from phosphate and other mining activity at the nearby Dead Sea Works alone provided $500 million to Israel last year - almost none of which was returned in government expenditures and services.
The Negev is also the site of Israel's only reactor and nuclear research center, near Dimona.
``It's not that we're asking for something we don't deserve,'' says Rager. ``The nation makes millions on the Negev and we're not getting it back. The nation has robbed this region. The Negev has stopped being nice.''
The heart of Rager's strategy to revive Beersheba is the search for what he describes as ``smart investors who realize the future of Israel lies here.''
To attract them Rager is practically giving away land and offering bountiful tax incentives, in a region which already has some of Israel's lowest rents and labor costs. The clincher will come in 1992, when foreign companies moving to Israel can cash in on Israel's special trade relationship with an economically united Europe.
Many experts say Rager's enthusiasm may prove no match for the forlorn image many Israelis still hold about the Negev as a hot, isolated backwater.
But the mayor, who believes Beersheba can show the world how deserts can be made productive, is not deterred. ``Forty years ago this was sand,'' he says of a city that, despite the recent hard times, today has two universities, a major medical center, and a lively, if still second-tier, cultural life. ``This is just a hint of what we can do.''
``I can't tell you we will win,'' Rager says in a rare moment of pensiveness. ``I can tell you pressures from here will increase.''
``The message is coming across,'' he adds with a new burst of enthusiasm. ``The vision has to return: the Negev is the future of Israel.''