Israel's Municipal Elections Spotlight Environmental Issues

Bike paths, clean air, coastal preservation are suddenly considered vote-getters.

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Until a few years ago, it was hard to convince politicians that there was any electoral benefit in promoting environmental projects, such as bike paths. They were interested mostly in big projects such as paving roads and real estate developments. But over the past few years, environmental issues have been getting a great deal of attention in local elections. They are playing a larger role than ever before on city council lists and even among mayoral candidates.

Close to 70 representatives of lists that identify as environmentally conscious were elected in the last local authority elections in 2008. Most of them were members of Israel’s long-existing Green Party and the newer Green Movement, but today the map is a good deal more complex.

Three or four lists that identify themselves as environmentally conscious are running for council seats in most of the large cities. Rishon Letzion has four such lists. One of them is identified with the Green Party, and the Meretz list has a strong environmental agenda as well. In Tel Aviv there’s the Green Party, which is headed by former deputy mayor Michael Roeh — and also the Mahapach Hayarok (Green Revolution) faction, which includes activists from the animal-advocacy organization Let the Animals Live.

The Green Movement created a series of political coalitions in various cities. In Jerusalem, it joined the joint Labor-Meretz list. In Ashdod, it is part of the municipal list known as Samim Ayin (Eye on Ashdod). One of its heads, Boaz Ra’anan, has led an environmental non-profit organization in the city for many years. Ometz Lev (Courage), a list headed by Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, is contending in Jerusalem.

Haifa has quite a few green-minded candidates as well. Alongside the Green Movement’s list is the Haim B’Haifa (“Living in Haifa”) list, headed by Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem, who is also running for mayor. She devoted the past two years to public opposition of the plan for the electrification of the railway, which she says will harm efforts to revive the lower city.

The environmental agenda in the local authorities includes addressing damage such as air pollution, trash and radiation risks. But the two main topics are planning and construction and public transportation. In a parlor meeting that took place recently, Aharon Maduel, who is running for mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa on the Ir Lekulanu (City for All) list, illustrated the link between planning and construction and preserving the environment. “We will demand changes in the construction plan for the northwest part of the city and use the land for more housing units. But at the same time, we will make sure to keep construction away from the cliffs along the shoreline, and we will protect them,” he said. Nitzan Horowitz, his opponent on the Meretz list, announced that he would show solidarity with the activists working to protect the cliffs.

Linking green and red

Another trait of the current elections campaign is the link between the social justice protests and environmental activity. One city council list in Rishon Letzion is called Hatnuah Hahevratit Hayeruka (The Green Social Justice Movement). “Our goal is to link the environmental topics with the topics of social justice and the economy,” says Yifat Meirovitz Yefet, a member of the city council and one of the creators of the new list. “Improving public transportation through a uniform card for buses and taxis, for example, would give the residents greater access to the downtown area. We’re also dealing with things that damage the environment. We’re demanding the burial of power lines and the construction of a sewage treatment plant so that odors won’t spread.”

As the elections approach, incumbent mayors are also becoming involved in environmental issues. Haifa’s Mayor Yona Yahav recently threatened to shut down the fuel tank farm in his city if it did not meet the municipality’s safety demands. Last week, the Acre municipality unveiled a new energy efficiency plan. Ma’alot proudly declared itself “the first city in Israel” to begin using efficient street lighting. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai constantly reminds voters how he developed a bicycle-path network. He placed Karnit Goldwasser, who has worked for environmental causes over the past few years, in a prominent spot on his city council list.

The environmental umbrella organization Haim U’sviva (Life and Environment) has been in the forefront of efforts to push the green agenda. “Over the past few years, local authorities have definitely been taking environmental issues more seriously,” says executive director Naor Yerushalmi. “But usually that has to do with operational issues, not necessarily for environmental concerns but to save money. The real test will be a change in thinking on subjects such as general planning in the city or the preservation of open areas, and that will require standing up against people with financial interests.”

He adds, “In the current election campaign, we’re seeing the green image expanding to include lists that were not environmentally aware in the past. This shows that the candidates think this has value to the public, but of course there’s a danger that they’ll use it for political purposes only.”

A planned bike laneCredit: Israel Lands Administration
Tel Aviv is barely seen through the smog and haze of a spring day in 2010.Credit: Moti Milrod

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