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The staff of the Environment Ministry and activists of green organizations had long since ceased to believe that this day would come. Last week, a new minister, Yehudit Naot (Shinui), took over the environment portfolio - and she did so because she wanted the job and didn't conceal her delight at having received it.

After Dalia Itzik (Labor) who expressed publicly her protest against having been given the environment portfolio, and Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), for whom nothing "more important" could be found two years ago, the new minister is a Knesset member who has shown that environmental affairs is one of her major areas of interest.

Naot brings with her the advantage of familiarity with the environmental sphere and a desire to deal with it. The disadvantage with which she will have to cope is that she is a member of a government that has considerable potential to cause serious environmental damage in almost every conceivable area.

The previous Sharon government systematically undermined the status of the planning institutions and principles such as preservation of remaining reserves of open space and ensuring their non-pollution. The government set up a committee to approve infrastructure projects in an accelerated process, encouraged the establishment of new communities in open areas and promoted a plan to build a power plant based on coal, which will aggravate air pollution. At the same time, the government blocked the authorization of a master plan for the Gulf of Eilat, because it did not include the fish farming in the gulf - the fish are raised in huge underwater cages - that is one of the main causes of pollution there.

Naot will have to try to bring about a change of direction, but the start doesn't look promising. Her party betrayed the environmental cause when it agreed to transfer the Planning Authority in the Interior Ministry (where the minister is from Shinui) at the demand of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon thereby showed that he has no intention of departing from the policy of his previous government, which was based on the concentration of power in his hands or in the hands of his political allies (in this case, Ehud Olmert, the new minister of industry and trade) in order to promote construction projects at a rapid pace.

Naot will thus find herself largely isolated in the government. Still, it is important that the cabinet hear what she has to say about the long-term environmental impact that its decisions are likely to produce - something they rarely heard from the previous environment minister. Shinui has the potential to exercise major environmental influence because it also holds the national infrastructure portfolio: Yosef Paritzky is in charge of water, energy, quarries and other spheres, and with Naot can create a serious environmental front.

Naot also has her work cut out for her within the Environment Ministry. Her first task will be to remove the cloud left lowering over the ministry by Tzachi Hanegbi, who appointed cronies and party hacks to various positions. Naot will have to act quickly to prove that she intends to run the ministry professionally.

One of the important challenges the new minister will face will involve doing battle with major polluters, such as industrial plants, local governments and transportation companies. This will not be an easy struggle, especially where improving the quality of the air in Israel is concerned. This is one area in which Tzachi Hanegbi showed an interest, even succeeding in forcing the public transportation companies to switch to using fuel that is less of a pollutant.

However, Naot will have to push ahead with additional, far-reaching measures such as uncompromising enforcement of the pollution standards to which industry is committed, and the addition of new regulations concerning toxic pollutants such as mercury. In addition, joint action is needed with other government ministries and with public organizations in order to step up the use of measures involving parking regulations and bans on the entry of vehicles into certain urban areas in order to reduce pollution.

Another important area that requires urgent action is the rehabilitation of the country's waterways. The Environment Ministry has dealt with this subject in recent years and has scored some achievements, though to date not one stream has been restored to health. This is a matter that has economic as well as ecological implications, as the rehabilitation of streams can bring about the improvement of large areas for tourism and leisure use.

It will be interesting to see whether Naot will also devote time and resources to modest and now forgotten streams such as Soreq, Lachish, Be'er Sheva and Hadera, and will not make do, as her predecessor did, only with well publicized visits to the Yarkon and Kishon rivers. Israel's coastal streams are among the most seriously affected victims of the environmental damage wrought by the Israeli society; their complete rehabilitation will in large measure be the yardstick for measuring the success of the Environment Ministry in becoming truly influential.