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Last week, David Ratner wrote a poignant piece in Haaretz about a sea turtle that could not lay eggs on the Haifa coast - it was caught between a wall and an asphalt road.

This story stirs anger against developers who have once again harmed Israel's natural coasts. But this anger should really be directed at those who fail to stop this environmental damage - city governments and the Interior Ministry and its officials in charge of planning institutions that approve destructive building plans.

These officials have not only failed in recent years to prevent a number of initiatives damaging to Israel's coasts but now they are also trying to annul the little that remains of the legal proposal for coast protection currently being legislated in the Knesset.

In past years, the Interior Ministry's planning administration heaped praise on the idea of protecting Israel's coastal areas. It drafted a policy paper on preserving the coastline that included protecting free access to beaches and preserving coastal views. This policy was to supplement a national zoning ordinance to prohibit construction within 100 meters of the water line. Despite such rules, private construction along Israel's coastline has proceeded at the public's expense. The construction of illegal buildings and events facilities has stolen precious coastal land.

The coast protection law is designed to provide additional means of stopping such trends. The law had cabinet approval and reached the Knesset's Interior and Environmental Affairs Committee: At this stage, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz and delegates from the large coastal cities began to attack it. They were particularly incensed by the law's attempt to protect coastal strips 300 meters in width. Under the proposed law, some building would be permitted within this area - but this would have to be construction classified as essential and designed for public purposes; and planners of such projects close to the water line would have to prove that they have taken measures to prevent environmental damage.

The interior minister and the local officials argued that the law will bring development projects in coastal cities to a complete standstill. Such projects, they said, are essential for the cities' welfare and for the promotion of tourism. Though the law provides for construction along the coast, subject to certain conditions, its detractors depicted it as though it would impose a complete ban on development work.

More importantly, the critics chose to overlook the fact that the law already incorporates compromises condoned by environmentalists. To guarantee government support for the bill, the green activists agreed that it would not be enforced in areas already slated for construction. There is an abundance of such areas.

Poraz brought a counter-proposal to the Knesset committee that eliminated conditions to be imposed on builders in the coastal areas. Poraz also originally proposed narrowing the no-building zone to 200 meters in width; this item in his bill was apparently scrapped. Poraz's pet formula for coastal preservation is the formation of a committee whose approval would be required of planners and builders who pursue projects in coastal areas.

MK Yuri Stern, who chairs the Interior and Environmental Affairs Committee, and who, as a result of lobbying pressure applied to his committee, wants to secure approval for the revised version of the law, tried last week to cite favorable features of Poraz's law. He said that the revised law offers practical solutions to various disputes about coastal protection measures. The committee to be formed under the law can serve as a restraint upon construction, in keeping with the law's declared purposes, Stern claimed. Nor has the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel disqualified the interior minister's law. The SPNI says the fact that (unlike the case of the original law) the new committee would be authorized to address all lands, including areas in which building has already been approved, is an asset. Yet whether the Israel Lands Administration and the Interior Ministry would allow this new committee to relate to lands zoned for construction remains in doubt.

Discussion about the final formulation of the law is winding down, and the bill is soon to be submitted to the Knesset Interior and Environmental Affairs Committee. The way things look, the prodigious efforts for coastal preservation made by environmental groups will come to naught. The only thing that will remain is another coasts committee that will be dominated by the Interior Ministry.

This result will overturn the effort of the original law's sponsors to set forth clear legal standards that will force planning authorities to protect Israel's coasts. These sponsors could have abandoned the law completely due to the evisceration of its main principles; had they chosen this course, the current state of affairs on the coasts would have continued. Since they did not choose this option, the bill's original sponsors must fight to ensure that the committee formed through the new law upholds the original preservation principles, and that its members represent a fair cross-section of development-oriented persons and environmentalists. This result is not great news for Israel's public; and it appears that environmental organizations will continue to be the public trustee fighting for coastal areas that the government swore to preserve when it approved the original version of the law.