Should Residents of Arad Be Guinea Pigs in Phosphate Mining Experiment?

On the line with former Finance Minister and former Arad Mayor Avraham Shochat, who may have flip-flopped on the issue of phosphate mining after serving on the board of Israel Chemicals Ltd.

Former finance minister and former mayor of Arad, Avraham ‘Baiga’ Shochat.
Eyal Toueg

Hello to former finance minister and former mayor of the Negev town of Arad, Avraham ‘Baiga’ Shochat. Nir Gontarz from Haaretz here. How are you doing?

I’m doing very well.

Great, glad to hear it. Let’s talk for a minute about the phosphate mining project adjacent to Arad that was approved this month. You were once the mayor of Arad, but more recently you’ve been on the board of Israel Chemicals Ltd. ICL is going to develop the new mine, which is reportedly going to be harmful to the health of local residents.

Aha. I don’t know exactly what was approved, and I’m not sure I want to talk to you about this issue.

The Health Ministry and the Defense Ministry maintain unequivocally that the ICL mine will be harmful to the health of Arad’s inhabitants.

I know what they say. I also know more than that. Besides being mayor of Arad, I was also on the ICL board until a year ago.

That’s exactly why I’m talking to you.

But since last January I haven’t been on the board. I have a deep historic connection with Arad.

I have the feeling that if the authoritative bodies would have told you that a mine like this was going to be harmful to Arad when you were mayor, you would have opposed it vehemently. I am interested in your viewpoint as a senior member of the ICL board, which is going to develop a mining project that will pollute the environment.

Your description is inaccurate. My opinion about the mine

...Yes?

Well, in the meantime, I’m telling you I don’t want to be interviewed, and here I am, being interviewed.

Indeed.

And I also read you. I know how you work. So let’s take it from the top.

Fine. Government ministries maintain that the ICL mine will be harmful to residents. Until a few months ago, you were a member of the board of a company that is now going to harm people living in a town that you once looked after so assiduously.

First of all, for the sake of accuracy, when I was head of the Arad local council, there was a move and an intention to mine phosphates in the area along the Be’er Sheva-Arad road, along the town’s western edges, and I succeeded in getting the plan canceled, because I thought it was illogical and harmful.

You are only reinforcing my point.

Just a minute! Listen carefully to what I am saying!

I’m listening.

That was on the western side. About 80 percent of the time, the wind comes from the west and northwest, so if they’d gone ahead with that mining project, the town would have been covered in dust constantly. That is not the case with the current mine.

What you’re actually saying is that you do not accept the professional opinion according to which the current mine will also be harmful to the townspeople.

Wait just a minute! I know exactly where Sde Barir [the site of the projected mining venture] is. It’s south of the city and farther away than the previous plan. To calm you down, I will tell you one thing: When I joined the ICL board, 10 years ago, I said, “Listen, friends, I know there is Sde Barir, and you know exactly what I did in Arad, and I am telling you that I will vote on the matter only if it’s clear to me that no harm will come to Arad from it.”

Well, harm is expected. How did you vote in the end?

I didn’t vote, because it never came to a vote.

The board never discussed the mine?

Yes, there were discussions, but we never arrived at a vote. I have a definite opinion on this subject.

Which is ...?

In my opinion, a temporary two-year permit should be issued, and during that time, a mining experiment involving one or two million tons should be conducted. Monitoring devices will be installed in the whole expanse between the mine and Arad to examine the impact.

You are suggesting that an experiment be carried out at the expense of the inhabitants of Arad. I believe that as mayor you would not have agreed to that. I am some years younger than you. You served in governments when I was a teenager and then a soldier. You always seemed to be honest and decent, but today

I am still an honest man.

Well, my feeling is, again, that as mayor you would have objected to what you are now agreeing to as a former ICL board member. The mine will harm the health of the residents.

Fine, fine, but those are speculations. I am familiar with the project, with its problems and its advantages.

In short, you are in favor of this experiment.

Listen a minute. You’re looking for a tabloid headline.

I am looking to understand, sir. I am asking the gentleman about his viewpoint.

So I gave you the solution that should happen.

Yes, an experiment at the expense of Arad’s residents.

I know what I am saying. The subject needs to be examined. There are reports saying one thing and reports that say the opposite.

So in the end the gentleman is saying

I am saying that the matter needs to be examined!

A practical examination, that will endanger the residents.

No. No. No. You conduct an examination and see the impact.

The examination will be a practical one, not done in a closed room. It’s an experiment on people.

No. No. No. You conduct an examination and see the impact.

And the inhabitants of Arad become ICL’s guinea pigs.

You make me laugh.

What’s so funny?

The effect of the dust, if heaven forbid there really is an effect, is [a matter of] decades. Not two years. I am not a populist. That is my position. I am speaking the truth.

Fine. You have made your position very clear. Tell me, what are you up to these days?

I serve in a number of economic organizations. For example, I am a member of the board of Carasso Motors [a car importer].

So you drive a Renault?

A Nissan.

Ah, yes, Nissan is also a Carasso import.

Correct. I drive a Qashqai. It’s a terrific car – put that in.

You see, you have changed. In the past you wouldn’t have done that.

How have I changed?

By advertising the company and asking me to write that.

Fine. I am also doing things on a volunteer basis in the realm of higher education, at Tel Hai College and at the Technion

I have no more room, sir.

Tell me, how old are you?

Forty-one.

So you remember me as finance minister, right?

Yes, as I already mentioned.

Do you remember me favorably or unfavorably?

As I already said, sir: favorably.

Why “sir”? Don’t say “sir.” I’ll faint in a second. Say “Baiga.”

Fine, Baiga. I’ll say “Baiga.”

Be well. When does this appear?

On Friday.

Alright, I’ll have a look. Be fair with the spirit of what I said.