Alon Tal, Israel’s newest U.S.-born Knesset member, seems at first sight like a mild-mannered professor who should be far too polite to mud wrestle in the Israeli political arena.
But appearances can be deceiving. Tal may be a career academic with a doctorate from Harvard, but he is also a former Israel Defense Forces paratrooper whose former commander, Benny Gantz, is now the leader of Kahol Lavan, the party that brought Tal into the Knesset. More significantly, the 60-year-old North Carolina native is an indefatigable environmental activist who has spent decades waging fierce battles against the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
Since his arrival in Israel in 1980, Tal has founded, co-founded, or played an active role in nearly every Israeli environmental advocacy organization of note. He has lobbied against and sued a string of government and private entities for their environmental hazards – ranging from oil spills to illegal sewage discharge, air pollution to encroachment on sand dunes – and opposed construction with potential to damage forests, open spaces and seafronts. He has won some fights and lost others, but never has he politely backed off.
“I do have sharp elbows,” admits Tal.
When Tal spoke to Haaretz on Tuesday, he was still stunned by the realization that after decades of struggling to effect change from the outside, he will finally have the authority to submit legislation of his own, influencing the country’s environmental policy from the halls of power. It all happened quickly. Following the formation of the new Bennett-Lapid government came the news on Monday that all four Kahol Lavan ministers would resign their posts under the Norwegian law, which allows them to forgo their Knesset seats for the benefit of members further down the party slate.
Since Kahol Lavan holds seven seats, this means that Tal, at number 11, has made it – just barely – into the Israeli parliament.
There was little time to celebrate, he said; he was busy scrambling to redistribute his academic and non-profit commitments. As chair of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University and sitting on a host of NGO boards, he did his best to quickly clear his plate before being sworn in on Wednesday. After that, he said, he was eager to get started working on the issues to which he has devoted his life.
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Despite the precarious state of the new government, Tal said he is optimistic about the ability to forge ahead with that mission. Environmental protection, he contends, is something that the eight parties comprising the Bennett-Lapid government coalition – one with highly divergent views on core issues – can potentially unite behind, and the opposition can support as well.
Everybody in this country – right, left, religious, secular, Jewish, Arab – we all want to breathe the air and not get sick from the water in our faucet,” he said. “We all want to be able to go out and take a lovely hike in nature and feel like we're being stewards of this land. That is a consensus. To me, it's absolutely shocking that as a country, we've done such a poor job of it till now. I know we can do better.”
Tal’s quest for a Knesset seat began 13 years ago. In 2008, he had co-founded the Green Movement, a party that ran in the following year’s Knesset elections but didn’t win enough votes to make it into parliament. Four years later, in the 2013 race, the Greens merged with Tsipi Livni’s Hatnua party. Tal ran as number 13 on the party slate, but the Hatnua only won six seats.
In 2019, he returned to the national stage when Gantz, a retired IDF chief of staff, took the plunge into politics and formed the Hosen L'Yisrael (Israel Resilience) party. Tal quickly became an active member and the party’s environment point man – but his chances of making it into the Knesset were slim. When Gantz’s party merged with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to form Kahol Lavan, he fell even further down the party slate.
In 2020, as the country headed into its third election in two years, Tal held out hope that Kahol Lavan’s Miki Haimovich was poised to become environmental protection minister, and that he could potentially serve as her director-general. That didn’t come to pass. He then suffered a further disappointment: his hopes of become the chair of the Jewish National Fund were dashed when Gantz chose not to endorse his candidacy as part of a political deal.
Even after Haimovich left Gantz’s party (and politics altogether) between the third and fourth elections – joining a list of Kahol Lavan deserters after Gantz joined then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government – Tal stayed put, loyally defending his former commander. His personal ties to Gantz run “deeper than politics,” Tal said. “I think he represents the best of Israel.”
Tal made the case for Gantz in an opinion piece during the 2021 election. He recalled the defense minister’s sensitivity to the many new immigrants in his command in paratrooper training. “Even those Anglos who hardly spoke Hebrew (and there were several) were given a buddy who translated for them, so they knew when they should toss the grenade or jump out of the airplane,” Tal recalled.
Tal came to Gantz’s regiment soon after graduating from the University of North Carolina, after having been active in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement. He had shed his diasporic name of Albert Rosenthal for the sabra moniker of Alon Tal.
And upon his arrival in Israel, he soon saw that environmental advocacy was a niche waiting to be filled. “It was already clear to me in the army that the environment was an area where an American Israeli could make a real contribution,” he said.
In the 1980’s, as awareness of the need to preserve the environment grew rapidly in Europe and then the United States, Israelis scoffed at such concerns when visitors raised them. A country with a young, struggling economy that faced existential security crises, they explained, didn’t have the luxury of worrying about pollution or recycling. As for overdevelopment, the Zionist ethos was all about building and development, not preserving open space.
After his discharge, Tal went to law school at Hebrew University, with stints in Israel's Environmental Protection Service and clerking for the country’s attorney general. He returned to the United States for a doctorate in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard, and after his return, founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (known locally as Adam Teva V’Din) in 1990.
In 1996, following the signing of the Oslo Accords and Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan, he founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, a research institute on the desert kibbutz where he lived; an academic endeavor that brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and other international students.
By that time environmental awareness had finally come to Israel. The government that would be known as the Environmental Protection Ministry was created in 1988. The change, Tal said, was expected: most countries, as they grow wealthier, reach a point when they feel they can devote resources to preserving their environment – and eventually Israel arrived. That increased awareness resulted in a surge of appreciation for Tal’s efforts. In 2008, at the tender age of 48, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for Environmental Protection, as part of the country’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
But he had always had a taste for politics. As a young boy, he dreamed of being a congressman: “I guess my life has come full circle,” he laughs.
In the Knesset, Tal doesn’t plan to limit himself to legislation to keep pollution at bay and promote renewable energy. He has other political areas of interest as well, noting that he wants to be a vocal male voice on social and economic gender equality and fighting violence against women.
Religious pluralism is also an issue close to his heart, and he plans to be vocal on restoring the Western Wall deal for egalitarian prayer. Tal grew up in a Conservative synagogue and is a long-time active member of its local counterpart, the Masorti movement. He purchased his current home in Maccabim, he said, because it is walking distance from a Conservative synagogue; Tal chose to observe Shabbat in 1982.
Tal was peace activist in his youth and remains an enthusiastic promoter of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in his environmental endeavors. His most recent public fight pitted him against a right-wing push by the Jewish National Fund to formalize the organization’s ability to acquire private West Bank land for the purpose of settlement expansion. Nonetheless, Tal says he feels at home in Gantz’s centrist party.
“On one hand, I'm completely committed to a two-state solution. But I also think that any leftist, or anyone who had been in favor of territorial compromise, [who] didn’t then reassess following the aftermath of the Gaza pullout, is naive or foolish. That experience has to make us a little more circumspect. On the other hand, the ten years of intentional obfuscation by the Netanyahu regime in order to buy time and have creeping annexation – that's completely unacceptable to me.”
When it comes to advocating for his fellow English-speaking immigrants, Tal says he plans to pick up the baton from former Kahol Lavan MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh. “American Israelis are my tribe. And even though many of them vote for other parties, it doesn't matter to me.” He hopes to create a bureau for English-speaking immigrants and “be the voice and advocate and ombudsman in the Knesset” for those who made the same leap that he made 40 years ago.
The latest evidence of his belief that anything is possible in Israel, he says, is the fact that he ended up with a Knesset seat. “ I’m just feeling so grateful for the opportunity, he said. “I mean, I’m not a natural Knesset member. I don't even have a Twitter account. I'm just a 60-year-old academic who moved to this country, and felt we weren't doing enough to ensure the future of our natural resources, environment and quality of life for the upcoming generation,” he said.
“I've always said that Israel is the land of opportunity. Not that I didn't like the United States... But there was something about Israel that I think captured my heart when I was 17. It was that things are not ossified. There's room for something new. You can hang a shingle on your door and start a new environmental innovation, and next thing you know you're suing the most powerful economic interests in the country.”