Greener Political Pastures

The government's decision two weeks ago to approve construction of a coal-based power plant in Ashkelon (instead of a natural gas facility) is another link in a clear anti-environment policy. In recent years, the absence of any powerful environmental advocate within the government has been reflected in a series of decisions whose negative impact will be felt for generations.

The government of Israel cannot be faulted for inconsistency. Forty years ago, despite vigorous public protest, the government insisted on building the Reading Dalet power plant that pours out pollution on to the residents of Tel Aviv. Even today, the plant still has serious health implications. In a recent European survey, Tel Aviv was ranked as one of the three most polluted cities in the Western world.

During his term as environment minister, Tzachi Hanegbi often presented the scale of relative dangers Israeli society is facing today: 250 deaths a year due to terror attacks; 500 fatalities from traffic accidents; and some 1,000 deaths each year from air pollution. The European study confirmed that if the state invested in improving air quality, it would save even 1,315 lives a year.

Hanegbi did not succeed in translating his green rhetoric to government policy. His opposition to the coal-fired power plant was recorded in the protocol, but fell on deaf ears. It seems that the environment ministers over the years have treated this portfolio as a temporary "green" way-station. They issue warnings about the pollution emitted by that the passing convoy. (For example, as environment minister, Dalia Itzik, made sure to register a protest prior to the paving of the Trans-Israel Highway.) But with the exception of the golden years of Yossi Sarid, the six environment ministers who have served during the 13 years since the Environment Ministry was established have not invested real political capital in fighting for a healthy environment. Instead, they preferred to wait for a more attractive ministerial portfolio.

The environmental record of the outgoing Knesset is also not a positive one. A water crisis arose in 2001, and a parliamentary committee of inquiry was formed. But even before the ink had dried on the committee's report, the panel's chairman, David Magen, received a promotion - the chairmanship of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee - and the findings of the panel and the water crisis itself were forgotten.

After more than six years of birth pangs, the Mediterranean Coast Law has still not been brought to the Knesset plenum for its second and third readings. Central environmental issues such as ground pollution or radon gas remain without an appropriate legal footing. In fact, since 1998, the Knesset has not enacted any comprehensive environmental legislation.

One of the conclusions to be drawn from this situation is that the current green political forces are not enough. The only solution in a democratic country is to bolster the environmental forces in the political arena.

But a strong national green party, like in Germany, cannot be expected to take shape before the elections in January 2003. The results of the 1999 elections and current surveys show that the Israeli public, which welcomes green parties in local elections, is not ripe for a green party in the Knesset contest. If the greens received minimal support under the two-ballot system, it's logical to assume an environmental party would garner even less support under the single-ballot system - especially during a time when security concerns remain salient.

Thus, what remains is to strengthen the green voices within the existing parties. The field is not entirely empty. The environmental lobby in the 15th Knesset included MKs like Mussi Raz (Meretz), Yehudit Naot (Shinui), Michael Nudelman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Nehama Ronen (Center), Effi Oshaya (Labor), and even the chairman of the Interior and Environment Committee, Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism). But a real change in the balance of power will not occur until people committed to environmental issues become involved in political parties.

Environmental activists should vie for a spot on the Knesset list of whichever party they support. This is the only way we'll be able to change the embarrassing political equation. Then, if a future Israeli government approves a polluting power station, it will be punished politically - or at least embarrassed.

Dr. Alon Tal is the head of the Life and Environment umbrella group of 80 Israeli environmental organizations.