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Environmental activists in Israel should be proud of their country these days. Last week, the government approved a strategic plan for sustainable development, which includes the correct and most important principles for preserving the environment. All government ministries are supposed to follow the plan's guidelines.

Under the plan, the government will encourage the use of renewable energy sources and maintenance of natural sources of water, and will make the principle of economizing on water a way of life. It will promote clean industrial production, reduced use of chemicals for fertilization and pest eradication, and will grant incentives for the preservation of open spaces. The processes involved in developing the rail and public transportation infrastructures will be streamlined, and the use of clean fuels will be promoted. These are only a fraction of the measures that are to be introduced in order to transform Israel into a truly green country.

The plan was prepared thanks to the efforts of the Environment Ministry and the environmental organizations, headed by Friends of the Earth - Middle East. They view the plan, and rightly so, as a necessary basis for setting a long-range environment policy, which will apply to every government ministry in all its spheres of activity.

However, even before this plan was adopted, the government of Israel had enough laws, master plans and policy papers to enable it to formulate a sustainable policy. In other words, a policy entailing the preservation of the country's natural and environmental resources in scope and quality that will make it possible for future generations, too, to appreciate them.

Despite this, in most of the key spheres, the government continues to behave contrary to the principles of sustainable development, and no one embodies this tendency more strikingly than the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in his various capacities.

In the cabinet meeting that approved the plan, Sharon spoke about the need to preserve land and complained about the excessive size of the interchanges in the center of the country. Yet he himself continues to promote plans to establish new communities at the expense of open areas. In his previous portfolios, as minister of housing and minister of national infrastructure, he encouraged the establishment of communities in which the buildings have land attached, which are the greatest predator of open areas.

The present government, like its predecessors, continues to neglect preservation of water sources, whose quality continues to deteriorate, and supports the establishment of a coal-run power station to generate electricity, which will have the effect of increasing air pollution. The government continues to raise the price of public transportation and to spend money on the Trans-Israel Highway, which by definition encourages the use of private vehicles.

Israel's governments did not prevent the plunder of the country's public beaches for the benefit of private building and private events. The governments also depleted the strength of the environmental protection organizations. The Environment Ministry receives a meager budget, and the Nature and Parks Authority has become a body that has to constantly slash the budgets and manpower at its disposal.

The new plan hardly sets any quantitative goal for reducing pollution or preserving the country's land and water resources. That it is nonbinding in its present format is strikingly obvious from the section relating to the Finance Ministry, which is probably the key ministry in terms of implementing the new policy.

This section states that the ministry will examine the possibility of eliminating subsidies and incentives for excessive use of water, land and private cars, or will examine methods to set usage fees for natural resources that have no market price, the reference here being to distinctive forms of landscape. It would be simpler and definitely compatible with a reality of sustainable development to instruct the ministry to cancel subsidies for excessive use of water and land and decide on methods for the use of natural resources.

The sponsors of the plan hope that when it reaches the stage of implementation in each government ministry, it will have practical weight and induce the ministries to act. This will require budgets, professional manpower, and consistent support at the political level. Until then, the plan will perhaps be a good basis for Israel's entry to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which requires governmental commitment to the principles of sustainable development. But it won't be of much help in improving the quality of the environment in Israel.