Once a Settlement Leader, Now Safeguarding the Whole Land of Israel

He's best known as a settlement leader. Now Shaul Goldstein has a new job. Instead of looking out for the interests of Gush Etzion, he'll be safeguarding the whole land.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Shaul Goldstein was expecting the last question of the interview. He knew it was coming. A moment after I asked him whether his appointment as the new director general of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was a political one and if it is connected to the fact that he wears a kippa (skullcap ) and lives in Gush Etzion, Goldstein hurriedly responded:

"There are two clear answers. The first is it's not a political appointment, because I competed in a tender. There were another 80 candidates and I was chosen after a long and complex process. I submitted my candidacy, went through a search committee, the placement institute, psychological exams which some of the other candidates did not even agree to take. Afterward, they told me I got first place on the exams. The appointment was approved unanimously, including important support from environmental organizations. It's not serious after all that to come and toss out comments like 'a political appointment.' Check me out in another year or two. Look, I'm declaring now that everything at the Nature and Parks Authority is transparent, there are no appointments of associates, there is no handing out of jobs, none at all."

Goldstein responds to the second question a bit more slowly. Sometimes he tends to swallow his words, making it a little hard to understand him, but this time he speaks clearly: "I'm proud to be a Zionist and part of the national religious community. There are clear and sharp similarities between the values I grew up on and the values I found at the Nature and Parks Authority. I state clearly that I love this country immensely; I declare my love for mankind and for the land everywhere. What's political about that?

"And I allow myself to make one more mention of this issue," he continues. "People should voice their satisfaction, which for some reason is missing, with the fact that someone is emerging from the group I am part of, sometimes referred to as 'settlers,' leaving his bubble and getting involved in public efforts in the State of Israel. I certainly see myself as part of this trend. Decisive, conscious and supportive integration into Israeli society and not remaining closed off in a single community or small group."

The interview with Goldstein takes place on a cold and rainy Jerusalem evening at the Givat Shaul offices of the Nature and Parks Authority. A few minutes after the designated time, Goldstein comes out of a long management meeting, apologizes for not having had a chance to recite the afternoon Minha service and leaves for a few minutes. Then he returns, more relaxed and suggests that I share a plate of carrot sticks with him. He has been in his new post for only around ten days, but is already wearing the Nature Authority's uniform of light khaki slacks and a green shirt featuring its logo, a profile of a gazelle.

Even now, just after assuming the post, Goldstein identifies strongly with the organization he heads. For almost the entire conversation, he talks about the Nature and Parks Authority in the first person. Repeatedly he cites examples in which he is personally involved. He talks about trips he took in the past, things he did in his previous positions, links himself to the job, speaks warmly and with a commitment to the organization, and is not afraid of saying things like "I'm crazy about this country," which occurs several times during the conversation.

Career switch

Goldstein served until recently as head of the Gush Etzion Council and he thinks for a moment before answering a question about whether his new position resembles his previous post. "It's a job that fascinates me; a huge challenge. I've already taken a few leaps in my life. For ten years I was a development engineer for the air force. For ten years, I built homes. I spent 13 years on the Gush Etzion Council and there doesn't appear to be any connection between these fields. I have an inner drive to change directions, but this time there are actually a lot of overlapping areas.

"As chairman of the Gush Etzion Council, for example, I headed the Herodion National Park steering committee and took it from zero development eight years ago to where it is now, with 16 million shekels invested in it. I personally handled the smallest details of operations at Herodion. There is not a single area that I am not intimately acquainted with. I had to do this at the time, because the Nature and Parks Authority did not act on its own then. In other words, I am familiar with the field.

"Another similarity is the educational work. That's how it was with the council and here too it's that way. When I arrived at the Nature and Parks Authority, I realized how great this organization is, with high professional standards. The Nature and Parks Authority primarily needed management skills, and that is what I hope I have."

Is nature something that is of personal interest to you, or is it professional management job?

"Anyone who knows me knows very well that this is something that has been in me for years. It's a little hard to believe this today, but for years I had thought about becoming the director general of the Nature and Parks Authority. It's hard to explain how strongly I feel about the values of the areas the Nature and Parks Authority deals with.

"Exactly one year ago, I trekked with my brother to nature reserves in Costa Rica and was comparing them to Israeli nature reserves. We did a night hike there to see sea turtles; we walked in the jungle for two days, and we experienced amazing natural wonders. A few years earlier, I went to South Africa to see the rehabilitation of a nature reserve where there had been a large fire.

"My family goes on long trips every year. That's the way it's been ever since my Dad taught us to love camping out. Hiking is part of our family's tradition, and for me, the current connection to the Nature and Parks Authority is part of that. I know the Negev really well, know the whole country; there's hardly any place you can mention that I haven't visited."

What will the Nature and Parks Authority focus on in the coming years?

"It might be a bit pretentious to say this now, just a few days after I took the job, but the picture is pretty clear. The authority was established in accordance with the Nature and Wild Animal Preservation laws. We must first of all uphold these two laws. The law is my guiding light. It covers nature reserves, preserving animal species and preserving our heritage. An important part of the Authority's goals is also to endear nature to others, to get the public to love every aspect of the land of Israel."

A minute later, as happens several times during the interview, Goldstein switches to talking about education and something stirs in his voice. "Deep down in me, everything starts with education, but we are not the Ministry of Education. I have to deal with education because it is a tremendous tool to connect man to his surroundings. The second important thing for me is research. Nature conservation must be based on theoretical and applied research; research that is based on gathering real data. I want us to have updated files about the sites that will enable us to know every day what species are there, and what the dangers, threats and solutions are."

What is the state of Israel's nature?

"Nature in Israel is very nice. I really love it, but I feel it is seriously threatened. There are large forces threatening it; the forces of development are practically unstoppable. Our job at the Nature and Parks Authority is to tell the decision makers what damage there could be from every development project and what alternatives there are for creating a better situation. When I was born, there were two million residents in Israel; now I'm over 50 and there are eight million people here. Every construction and development project is after all anti-nature, but it's also important to remember that the birth rate is also part of nature. You have to know when to say yes to development projects and clearly identify those development proposals it is our role to halt and block.

"The second threat to nature in Israel, after development, is the lack of enforcement. This is the case in every area, but when it comes to us, it is very serious. There is uninhibited takeover of lands, hunting, mining, invasions of nature sites and more. All of this is due to the lack of enforcement."

When I ask Goldstein about the Authority's attitude to organizations whose work overlaps with its own, he asks to distinguish among the various bodies. When it comes to the army, he says "the IDF now has greater openness and awareness of environmental issues than it did in the past, but there are still quite a few problems. We, for example, cannot say a thing to them about firing ranges, and on the Golan Heights this is causing problems and starting fires. This is a good example of a situation that I plan to change.

"Two days ago, I came across another example. During a visit to Shivta [a Nabatean site, situated next to an artillery base in the Negev desert], we saw Nabatean terraces the army had damaged. It's unfortunate, but this is part of their operations and it's hard to prevent this. It has to be minimized to the extent possible."

Of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, he says, "clearly they are a green organization that is doing very important work and we should cooperate with them, but it is important that they remain different from us. It is an organization that can present environmental statements without having to address development issues. We, as a government body, must address this and present alternatives. We also have an enforcement unit and they do not and this does not always stir good feelings. Sometimes they do the environmental work and we just have to stand on the side and let them achieve things. I have no problem with this."

And of the Jewish National Fund, he remarks: "The fire in the Carmel Forest proves that problems can arise in the cooperation between the two organizations. The fire proved that there must be boundaries and designations of who handles what. This did exist in the past and shifted slightly. Today there is a geographical division. It is possible that this should be divided by issue. For example, they are responsible for the forest, and we are responsible for all the rest, or we are responsible solely for the nature reserves and they are responsible for everything else. I don't want to decide, but to meet with them and decide what is best so that there will be overall responsibility with one organization."

The 'evil' Nature Authority

Are you aware of the considerable criticisms of the authority, and that it is referred to (negatively ) as "Rishut Shmurat Hateva" (or "The Evil Nature Authority" )?

"Yes. I heard that. It's unpleasant and unhelpful and we have to consider how we can connect more to the community and provide them with an answer. The problem is the Authority is in charge of the law, and not everyone among the public is in favor of the law. For example, in the past I used to like to hike at night. Afterward, I realized that night hikes harm and disturb animals. When a ranger comes and kicks out hikers, they obviously don't like it."

What about fees to enter nature reserves? "If only we could allow free entry to all, but someone has to pay for this. Annual income is 140 million shekels. If the Treasury wants to give us this sum, we will not charge the public. The state will decide who should finance this. The directive I received from Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan was not to further burden the public and take a broader social perspective."

What will you do about the matter of privatizing the national parks?

"In the City of David (a national park in the Old City of Jerusalem operated by the rightwing Elad organization ) they are doing an exceptionally good job. They should be commended for what they are doing. But the approval for this was given to them, thank God, before my appointment as director general, and I assume that the High Court of Justice, which is hearing the case, will approve the agreement with the City of David. I can only say that the Nature and Parks Authority does not need help operating parks. We know how to do it very well. If the government decides to amend the law and allows privatization, we will operate according to the new law."

Is there a difference in nature conservation on the two sides of the Green Line?

"There is no difference. It's exactly the same. The entire land of Israel needs nature conservation. The politicians will decide where the border runs. Today the Nature and Parks Authority has a Judea and Samaria District. Its authorities are fewer and different from those of the other districts, and I intend to change this. I will make every effort to get the Nature and Parks Authority's jurisdiction in Judea and Samaria to match that of everywhere else in Israel; especially in matters of enforcement.

"Nature has no borders"

"Currently we have no legal authority in Judea and Samaria. Wild animals are becoming extinct in Judea and Samaria because they are being hunted. Next to my home in Gush Etzion there were once deer and now there are none. Nature doesn't have borders and I also plan to collaborate with other countries, first of all, with Jordan and also with other countries such as Egypt, to protect nature."

What would you consider a success on the job?

"If the Jewish people has a little more love for the land of Israel and its panoramas, its nature, its history and heritage; if the love of walking, hiking and camping increases; if nature conservation stems from love and not fear, because this is our land we must preserve it; if I succeed in doing all that, I will have done a good and proper job."

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