After years of activity consisting mainly of either responses to building plans or attempts to cancel or change them, Israel's environmental groups and the Ministry of the Environment have shifted to a new initiative-oriented battle strategy.
They have recently published a document entitled "Policies and Tools for the Preservation of Open Spaces" which includes a list of socioeconomic proposals for the preservation of the country's open spaces. The paper also contains proposals for administrative and legislative changes related to the preservation of open spaces. In addition to the Environment Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority were involved in the document's preparation.
One of the most surprising figures presented in the document is the following: Despite the massive construction work that has been carried out in recent decades, the total built-up area in Israel accounts for only 6 percent (13.8 percent, if the Negev is excluded) of the country's total area. This figure gives the impression that Israel has a wealth of open space.
However, if one takes a close look at the extent and pattern of dispersion of the built-up areas, it emerges that, in a considerable portion of the areas in Israel north of the Negev, the open spaces are intermittent and do not include any continuous territory that could permit the existence of landscape formations and ecological systems to any significant extent. In many areas, the situation reminds one of an area that has many houses, each with its own private garden. If each garden is calculated as a unit of open space, the total area is impressive; however, the truth of the matter is that what we have here is only a number of closed areas that are either unconnected or intermittent.
In light of these figures, the most pressing problem is to protect those areas north of the Negev that are not protected land (forests or nature reserves) but are rather defined as farmland. The policy paper defines two economic tools for attaining that goal. The first is designed to provide an incentive for the continued maintenance of open (that is, agricultural) spaces, while the second is defined as a physical warning device to prevent open spaces from being neglected. The need for such tools is vital in view of the current practice in which farmland is abandoned and becomes fields of dry thorns.
The physical warning device would be based on the levying of a tax on all owners or holders of land that would be defined as "land that is suitable for farming but which is not being used for agricultural purposes." On the other hand, a monetary incentive, which would be expressed in tax benefits, would be offered to all those who carry out farming activities on land that is suitable for agricultural purposes.
An additional tool proposed in the policy paper is the drawing up of "land's end plans" that would focus on the "end" of an existing built-up area. These plans would be detailed blueprints that would determine a clearly defined border for all construction activity within a given municipality. Beyond that border, the open spaces would be maintained for all posterity. The blueprints for each community would explicitly state that the residents of all buildings located at the end of a given built-up area would have the right to enjoy an unobstructed view of the landscape. This arrangement would provide the residents of such buildings with legal standing that would enable them to preserve the open spaces they can currently see from their window.
The two-fold advantage of the new policy paper is the wide range of instruments it proposes and its attention not only to landscape and ecological issues but also to economic questions, real estate problems and ways for educating the members of the general public and involving them in the preservation of open spaces.
Nonetheless, in order to involve the general public, the proposals in the policy paper will have to be presented in a simpler format. In its present version, the document is inaccessible to all those who lack expertise in planning concepts or in the complex links between economics, the preservation of open spaces, and construction in urban areas.
The really serious problem is that, in Israel, the principal obstacle to the preservation of open spaces is not the absence of tools for preserving those open spaces but the operators of these tools, especially government ministries, municipal authorities and the Israel Lands Administration. These major players continue to relate to land merely as a real estate resource and ignore the long-range importance of its preservation.
Israel's environmental groups and the Environment Ministry have made impressive inroads in the struggle to preserve nature and landscapes in this country, but they have failed so far to introduce any change in the national agenda - namely, a change that would assign environmental issues the place they deserve on that agenda. The environmental groups and the ministry will have to continue their efforts to attain that goal; it would seem that their best option is to focus a considerable portion of their energies on municipal politics.
The prominent place that environmental issues occupied in the last round of municipal elections in Israel and the stunning success of a number of local green political parties proves that it is possible to create political forces with an environmental awareness. If these political forces can achieve a position of influence vis-a-vis municipal councils or local/district planning committees, the chances will greatly improve for the implementation of the tools that have been prepared by the green groups.
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