It’s been a hectic few weeks, Alon Tal, chairman and co-founder of Israel's Green Movement admits, navigating his way from an interview at the Tel Aviv offices of the Israel Broadcasting Authority to a retirement home in Petach Tikva, where he will defend his party’s merger with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party to dozens of octogenarians.
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The day started at about 4 A.M. he notes, speaking over his car phone, his chat punctuated with unintentionally profound questions-to-self about the route he is on (“is this where I take a left?” he says. “Do I merge here?)
Early mornings are usually when Alon, 52, a lawyer by profession, and an expert on environmental policy, grades papers and tries to catch up with his day job as a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “I approved a master thesis proposal about sewage treatment in the Palestinian Authority at 5:30 A.M.,” he says.
Post-master-thesis advising, the day has been a blur of hand shaking, leafleting and a lot of talking. With elections a few days away and support for former foreign minister Livni’s new center party seemingly shrinking (polls show Hatnuah getting 11 seats in the January 22nd elections, with Tal number 13 on the list) – there is a lot that needs to be said.
After visiting the retirement home, Tal will head back to Modi'in, where he lives with his wife, Robyn, and three daughters (two of whom are in the army) to call potential supporters, meet with local activists and get some sleep before heading up to Haifa early the next morning for a panel on the environment.
He catches his breath, basically, on Shabbats, says the Masorati Tal, who keeps the Sabbath. But generally, he has accepted that “there is no rest these days.” “If you want things to happen, you have to make them happen,” he says. “If you have dreams you have to fight for them.”
And Tal dreams big. “I believe in the dream of Israel as a light to the nations. I was raised and grew up with that in [the youth movement] Young Judaea,” says the bluegrass fiddle playing, Super Bowl watching, New Jersey born and North Carolina bred Tal. And no, he has not become cynical over time, he says, or lost the idealism and optimism that brought him here over three decades ago.
If Tal, who was born Albert Rosenthal in New Brunswick, gets into Knesset next week, he will be the first American-born Israeli to do so since 1984, when the ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane (who Tal, incidentally, helped prosecute when he worked for the Israeli attorney general) was elected. Other American-born candidates hoping to win a seat this time around are Atlanta-born Jeremy Gimpel, running with the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi; Boston-born Kahanist Baruch Marzel, who is a candidate in the new Strong Israel party, and Rabbi Dov Lipman, an Orthodox rabbi from Maryland who is a candidate on Yair Lapid’s new secularist Yesh Atid list.
Some have raised eyebrows at the Green Movement’s decision last month to join forces with Livni, who is not particularly known for an interest in environmental issues, instead of remaining independent, or merging with Meretz, one of the two parties (the other being Hadash) traditionally associated with the green agenda. But Tal is convinced he did the right thing.
“There is both a pragmatic and an ideological component to the decision to go with Tzipi,” he explains, harkening back to the last elections, in which the Green Movement, on a joint ticket with the moderate religious party Meimad, did not receive enough votes to pass the threshold for a Knesset seat.
“We found that over 70 percent of those who said they supported our agenda did not end up voting for us because of the threshold syndrome,” says Tal. “I am not willing to allow those votes to go to waste and now they won’t – they will go to a party with a Green interest.”
While environmental issues are barely mentioned in the current election campaign, Hatnuah does have an official environmental platform: one it established together with its new Green partners. It includes, among other things – passing a Basic Law of the environment, reducing taxation on green-friendly products, limiting the export of natural resources, encouraging recycling, setting stricter standards on bus pollution and doubling the percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources by 2020.
Before throwing his lot in with Hatnuah, says Tal, he met with “everyone.” Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich would have been happy to have the Green’s support, he says, but he felt she had no real interest in integrating their agenda into her party’s platform. Meanwhile, he says, Zahava Gal-On, Meretz’s leader, told him she would have liked to join forces, but her party, weakened in recent elections by other mergers, would not let her. “When I met with Tzipi, it was clear to me that it was in the DNA of her party to have a strong Green component,” Tal says.
Moreover, Tal argues, the country will never be able to properly address the environmental question before there is peace – an issue on the forefront of Hatnuah’s platform. “The only real progress in environmental protection took place under (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin, when he was able to cut the defense budget and invest more in the environment and education.” It is a “lie,” he continues, referring to Yachimovich, “to say we can deal with social issues without first addressing the peace issue.”
Tal reads the polls, but thinks things are going to turn around for Hatnuah and, as such, for him – “I believe history repeats itself,” he says. “In 2009, Tzipi had 18 seats and it went to 28 in the last week.” When push comes to shove, he believes, “people will realize there is no one else on the menu of options that can lead the way to peace like Tzipi can. And I am with her.”