Israel's Miraculous Growth May Spell Its Demise

The Book of Ezekiel calls this land a 'devourer of men,' but in modern Israel it's the other way around

Traffic on in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

“It’s a miracle that will be impossible to maintain over the long run.” That’s how Manuel Trajtenberg recently described Israel’s achievements in the 70th year of its existence. Prof. Trajtenberg is one of the country’s leading economists, but the maintenance problems he referred to actually referred to the increasing burden Israelis are putting on the environment.

Trajtenberg, a former Knesset member, was speaking at a conference on law and the environment held by the Adam Teva V’Din environmental group and the law faculty of Bar-Ilan University. He noted that since Israel’s establishment, its population has grown tenfold and its economy a hundredfold.

“There are countries in which there was a greater population increase during that period, and there are some where there was a greater increase in gross domestic product,” he said. “But there isn’t a single country in the world where both GDP and the population have increased at [Israel’s] rate. It’s a unique historical phenomenon and I don’t think it will recur – and that’s definitely a huge achievement for Israel.”

But this achievement, Trajtenberg said, is taking place in a tiny country and greatly burdening the environment. “Without drastic changes in lifestyle, in legislation, in connection with the environment, it won’t continue, it won’t be possible together,” he added, not mentioning another necessary change: a decline in population growth.

The other participants in the conference described the significant progress in environmental legislation, which is a vital part of protecting our environmental resources. Still, Israel is having problems maintaining its miracle of economic and demographic growth.

Trajtenberg mentioned construction planning for housing. “We plan as if we were still a country of 2 million inhabitants,” he said. “We build a new neighborhood with one exit road, and then tell the young families to buy two cars – with which they can’t get anywhere.”

For its annual report, about a month ago, the Bank of Israel published a chapter on the country’s transportation infrastructure. It said 69 percent of Israelis with jobs go to work by car, crowding the highways; their average time to reach work has more than tripled in the past two decades.

Additional evidence of the growing pressure on the environment comes from a forecast of a loss of agricultural areas due to greater housing construction. According to Prof. Eran Feitelson of Hebrew University’s department of geography, the new construction will come at the expense of tens of thousands of dunams of agricultural land.

He was referring mainly to plans for new neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities – neighborhoods that will penetrate deep into agricultural areas. Indirect evidence of the great burden is the increasing friction between plans for residential areas and plans for utilities like desalination plants and power stations.

Never have there been as many public battles in Israel over plans for new infrastructure facilities as there have been during the past six years. These include fights over setting up a desalination plant in the Western Galilee, over power stations that burn natural gas that are planned for the Sharon region, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and over facilities for emergency fuel storage near Yokne’am, southeast of Haifa.

There are no more empty spaces where these facilities could be built far from populated areas, even as they become increasingly necessary, due to the rising GDP and population. When they’re built today, next to residential areas, they’re seen as a threat, even when they are intended for desalination and natural gas, which are intended to help a small country address its shortages of water and energy sources.

If this small country is indeed a miracle and not a “devourer of men,” as it says in the Book of Ezekiel, one has to ask how long can the miracle continue?