What does a very influential army do if it wants to gain approval for a plan to build a large complex of bases near an industrial area with a history of pollution problems and offensive odors?
The answer is very simple: Bring the plan for approval before an almost secret committee, which approves it and announces the decision to a very surprised public.
That is how the plans for the new training base complex, to be built near the Ramat Hovav Industrial Area, were approved last week.
While everyone was arguing over the amount of pollution and the level of danger in the area, a committee called the "Planning and Building Commission for Defense Installations" met calmly and secretly and approved the plans for the training base complex in stages; last week it gave its final approval.
The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'din in Hebrew), which knew nothing about the committee sessions, requested to see the protocols of the meetings, but was told that they were confidential. In a few weeks the Be'er Sheva District Court is scheduled to hear a suit filed by the environmental organization against the approval process for the training base complex.
Bar-Ilan Law Studies, the journal of the university's law faculty, recently published a study on the work of the secret defense planning commission. The report was written by Dr. Oren Perez and attorney Esther Rosenblum. The two note that the commission is composed of only three members; one of whom is a representative of the Defense Ministry who clearly has a conflict of interest.
The commission's entire decision process is conducted secretly and quickly, with no supervision by the planning bodies. Basing itself on very limited factual information, the issues it considers are mostly related to the needs of the defense establishment itself.
The committee can also disqualify other plans that the defense establishment objects to, and it has an almost entirely unqualified exemption from requirements for new building permits in sites that already have installations.
With all due understanding of the special needs of the defense establishment, it is clear that the way that this committee works does not meet the standards of transparency and openness in planning processes that the present Israeli reality requires.
Not only environmental activists and law professors think so, but also judges from the Nazareth District Court and the Supreme Court. These judges heard cases on the commission's activities and decided it was necessary to find an alternate legal arrangement that "better balances the proportionality between defense needs and other needs."
The problematic activities of the commission stand out in particular in the case of the training base complex. This project has none of the factors of urgency or secrecy that sometimes justify speedy and secret approval processes of construction plans.
The environmental and health issues are known to everyone, and there is no justification for the committee not to publish its meeting minutes and bring in other bodies, such as public representatives or external experts.
Recently, Perez and Rosenblum formulated a change in the planning law relating to the Planning Commission for Defense Installations; MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) is trying to push the initiative in the Knesset.
One can only hope most of the proposal will be adopted. The change takes the defense establishment's needs into account and allows planning processes to be approved in an abbreviated amount of time, and with only partial transparency by keeping to censorship requirements.
Nevertheless, the proposal recommends expanding the committee to include professionals, and require it to discuss more aspects of the plans and adapt them to national master plans. According to the proposed change, there will also be a chance to appeal the committee's decision.
This seems to be the most we can achieve in a society where, as Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein wrote: "The interests of the defense establishment have not passed, to our great sorrow, from the world."
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