Even as the affair of the political appointments made by Tzachi Hanegbi when he was environment minister is reverberating throughout the political system, it turned out last week that Israel's cabinet ministers are, nevertheless, trying to address seriously the problems with which that ministry deals. The cabinet held a special discussion on environmental problems, centering around the formulation of a comprehensive strategy of sustainable development in Israel.
The reason for the discussion is the completion of the first report on the implementation of the government's decision last year to work for the realization of a strategy of sustainable development. The report, which includes input from ministries on defining the goals and mapping the spheres of activity, was presented to the cabinet by senior Environment Ministry officials, led by the director-general, Dr. Miriam Haran.
As expected, the ministries promise to promote a multitude of innovations and decisions that will infinitely improve the quality of life of the country's citizens, provide maximum protection for nature, and enable resources to be saved. In a description of goals such as this, it is very easy to demonstrate deep verbal commitment to the protection of the environment.
Still, there are several interesting aspects to the report, such as the setting of quantitative goals. The Public Security Ministry has set a few goals of this kind, apparently at the inspiration of those two veteran environmental activists, the self-suspended minister, Hanegbi, and his director-general, Shmuel Hershkowitz. Among other plans, the ministry says it will reduce the theft of sand and the number of quarries by 10 percent a year from 2005 to 2007, and similarly cut down the abuse of animals and the number of pirate gas stations.
The Environment Ministry itself promises to recycle half the waste in Israel by 2010, as compared with 20 percent today. The National Infrastructure Ministry says it will work for the use of clean energy, adding that by 2016 the production of electricity from renewable energy (mainly wind and sun) will account for 5 percent of the total.
The Finance Ministry promises to raise taxes on fuels based on their pollution levels and to stop granting an incentive for the purchase of a vehicle in order to increase one's salary ("car expenses"). The Housing Ministry assures us that new construction will be adjacent to existing structures, this to preserve open spaces, and the Transportation Ministry announces that the railway system will be expanded so that the annual number of passengers will increase from 20 million in 2003 to 60 million in another four years.
These are all truly important goals, which are appropriate for a country that wants to strike a balance between development and preservation. But monitoring government actions shows that, in the meantime, there is only a loose connection between those goals and what the ministries actually do.
The National Infrastructure Ministry has recently continued to work for the establishment of a coal-driven power station, which will increase air pollution. The Housing Ministry continues to give its ardent support to the establishment of new communities in the heart of open territories. The Israel Lands Administration declares the importance of preserving areas of ecological value and then promotes the establishment of the community of Beitir, in the heart of a region of prime ecological value. The treasury continues to oppose the implementation of the recommendations of a committee of experts to upgrade the water purification facilities, which would significantly enhance the quality of the country's water sources. The Transportation Ministry is still supporting the building of more and more roads, which encourage private transportation.
In recent years, the greens in Israel have taken pride in influencing the creation of a new language within the community of local planners, which includes terms such as "sustainable development" and "effective exploitation of natural resources." However, there is serious concern that governmental plans for sustainable development in Israel - which make use of the right language - will become an effective tool for creating an image that will help rebuff public pressure for genuine changes.
If the greens want to exert pressure for the implementation of a true policy of sustainable development, they should adopt the methods of groups such as the World Organization for Nature Preservation. After the European Union announced last year that it was committed to putting a stop to the reduction of the biological diversity of the continent by 2010, the organization began a countdown on its Internet site until the goal is achieved. That will be a small reminder to the politicians and government officials that their promises will not remain buried in reports.
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