Israel's Environment Minister Calls Environmental Activists Ignorant Charlatans

Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, Zeev Elkin says environmental groups have unjustifiably sown public fear and distrust

Zafrir Rinat
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A demonstration in Tel Aviv protesting the planned discharge from the Leviathan offshore gas rig.
A demonstration in Tel Aviv in Dec. 2019 protesting the planned discharge from the Leviathan offshore gas rig.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Zafrir Rinat

Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin launched an unprecedented attack on environmental activists on Tuesday, accusing them of being ignorant charlatans who are trying to mislead the public. In addition, he said, their activities severely undermine the public’s belief in the importance of protecting the environment.

Elkin was speaking at the Israel 2050 conference in Tel Aviv, which focused on anticipated environmental developments in the coming decades. It was sponsored by government ministries, industrial companies and law firms.

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A series of environmental battles have been waged in recent years that have unjustifiably frightened the public and created distrust of his ministry’s professional staff, Elkin said. As an example, he cited this month’s startup of the Leviathan natural gas rig in the Mediterranean, off the coast west of Zichron Yaakov, which emitted concentrated quantities of chemicals.

“People left their homes, doctors left their places of work and schools closed out of fear for their health,” he said. “They promised us there would be a Chernobyl in the Carmel Coast region, but air pollution measurements showed how bizarre that was. They garnered important public energy in support of environmental activity and channeled it in the wrong direction.”

The monitoring carried out during the startup of the gas platform did not, in fact, detect emissions exceeding standards, but not all environment ministry professionals agree with Elkin’s view. One senior ministry official said, for example, that the work of the Homeland Guards (Shomrei Bayit) organization, which organized the opposition to the installation of the gas rig off the Carmel Coast, influenced the ministry’s decision to expand the air pollution monitoring network in the area.

Elkin also made mention of the battle led by the non-profit group Zalul to remove Haifa’s ammonia tank. The opposition, Elkin claimed, was based on a report that lacked any scientific basis.

The report was written by well-known independent experts, however, who warned that leaving the tank in place and the ministry’s proposed alternative – transporting ammonia to shore from ships through a pipeline – posed dangers. But other professionals agreed that the opposition wasn’t sufficiently based on evidence.

Elkin said as a result of the report, the ministry’s plan to supply ammonia following the removal of the tank was delayed and ammonia is now being shipped to Haifa by truck – which he said is even riskier.

Elkin also took Adam, Teva V’Din – the Israel Union for Environmental Defense – to task for seeking a High Court order requiring deposits on large bottles to encourage recycling. Currently deposits are only required on bottles smaller than 1.5 liters. Expanding the deposit policy to include larger bottles would do little to increase recycling, but would harm the public, the environment minister claimed.

Elkin said he is supportive of criticism voiced by environmental groups, as long as they don’t ignore the facts.

Amit Bracha, the executive director of Adam, Teva V’Din, was present at the conference and responded angrily to Elkin’s remarks. “Instead of presenting an environmental vision, the minister chose to launch a head-on attack on environmental organizations,” he said. “Such remarks toward partners along the way are inappropriate.”

Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin speaking at the Israel 2050 conference in Tel Aviv.
Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin speaking at the Israel 2050 conference in Tel Aviv.Credit: Nadav Karlinsky

“The minister called environmental groups charlatans,” Bracha noted, “when just recently, the High Court issued a show-cause order requiring him to explain why he hasn’t applied the deposit law to large bottles. Perhaps he also views the court as a charlatan.”

Zalul responded: “There is an enormous leadership vacuum at the top of the Environmental Protection Ministry, which should be addressing one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Once again, Elkin has chosen to side with polluting industries and to accuse environmental groups of failures that are all chalked up to him.”

For the past two years, the ministry has been harshly criticized in reports from the State Comptroller’s Office for what it said was lax oversight of industrial companies. Senior officials at the Environmental Protection Ministry have also accused Elkin of not giving the ministry the attention it requires due to his political activity.

For their part, manufacturers have also criticized the ministry, claiming that its regulations are too stringent.

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