Thirty parties will be running in the Israeli election Monday, and the vast majority, mostly single-issue outfits, have no chance of getting into the Knesset. They include a brand new women’s list, an Israeli branch of the international Pirate Party movement, a party dedicated to the needs of non-Jewish Russian immigrants and Christian Arabs, and another out to win reparations for Jews forced out of Arab countries more than half a century ago.
Not one is raising the environmental flag. Israel’s Green Party, which ran as part of the larger Democratic Union in the September 17 do-over election, was effectively thrown under the bus to enable the link-up between Labor-Gesher and Meretz, the two main powers on the Zionist left.
So while environmental issues have come to dominate the international agenda, as seen in the remarkable success of green parties in last year’s European Union elections, not only has Israel failed to keep pace with the global trend, it has actually retreated.
Yael Cohen Paran, a prominent environmental activist and former Knesset member, isn’t surprised. She points to a recent Pew survey on how people around the world view climate change. Among 26 countries surveyed, Israelis were found to be the least concerned about climate change. Only 38 percent of Israelis considered climate change a major threat, 40 percent saw it as a minor threat, while 18 percent didn’t consider it a threat at all.
On average, in the 26 countries surveyed, 68 percent of respondents considered climate change a major threat, while only 20 percent saw it as a minor threat and 9 percent as no threat at all.
“True, there is more and more happening on the local level in Israel when it comes to environmental activism,” says Cohen Paran, who served in the Knesset from 2015 to 2019 as a member of the Zionist Union, an alliance between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s now defunct Hatnuah party. “But it’s still a niche issue here, not something most people take into consideration when deciding how to vote. In that way, we’re very different from other countries.”
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Just before the September election, Stav Shaffir – until then a rising star in Labor – left her political home (after losing a bid to lead the party) and joined Democratic Union, the alliance between Meretz and a new party headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Shaffir came in on the Green Party ticket (which until then was known as the Green Movement) and brought Cohen Paran with her.
As a lawmaker, Cohen Paran, a former co-head of the Green Movement, gained a reputation as the Knesset’s most prominent voice on environmental issues. Unlike Shaffir, Cohen Paran didn’t make it into the Knesset in the last election.
When Shaffir was bumped down on the new Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate, created in December, she announced that she was leaving the three-pronged alliance. Initially, she announced that the Green Party would run on its own but later reneged, knowing that it had no chance of crossing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.
Technically, then, a representative of the Green Party was part of the outgoing Knesset. But because the last election, like the one before it, ended in a stalemate, the outgoing Knesset did little during its less-than-six-month tenure, with scarcely an opportunity to promote environmental legislation.
The only time before this past year that a green party had a shot at getting into the Knesset was in 2009, when the Green Movement ran on a joint ticket with Meimad, a dovish religious party. Although the alliance didn't cross the electoral threshold, it won more votes in that election than any of the other small parties that also failed.
Alon Tal, the American-born co-founder of Israel’s Green Movement, who was third on the list then, says the Israeli electoral system is at least partly to blame for the fact that a green party has never made it in.
“I believe there are enough supporters of a green party in Israel to put one or two seats in the Knesset, but because the threshold is much higher than that, it’s almost an impossible feat.” (The 3.25 percent threshold means a party needs four seats to reach the Knesset.)
But the main reason for the Israeli greens’ shortfalls, he believes, is that the Israeli agenda has always been dominated by geostrategic issues – particularly the conflict with the Palestinians – leaving little room for much else.
“The proof in the pudding to me is that on the municipal level, where national security isn’t an issue, the greens have done pretty well,” Tal says, noting that some of Israel’s largest cities – among them Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa – have deputy mayors representing green parties.
Big brothers and sisters
Considering these obstacles, Tal has concluded that for the meantime, the best way to promote his agenda is through a big party rather than a stand-alone green list. When Benny Gantz, the leader of centrist Kahol Lavan, began creating his new party about a year and a half ago (the original party he founded later merged with two others to form the current slate), he asked Tal to join him.
“I realized that by being in a large party whose DNA could presumably be green, you can actually put together a real sustainability agenda,” Tal says. “And as I see it, it’s a rational and even a strategic decision for voters concerned about the environment these days to support a large party that gives promise both through its platform and the people on its list.”
Tal wasn’t the only prominent environmental activist Gantz recruited. Among the first big names brought on board was former TV anchorwoman Miki Haimovich – a vegan who launched Meatless Monday in Israel. In the seventh spot on the Kahol Lavan ticket, Haimovich is the top woman on the roster, but Tal, a distant No. 45, has hardly a chance to make the Knesset.
Roby Nathanson, director of the Tel Aviv-based Macro Center for Political Economics, notes that while single-issue parties have sometimes won enough votes to get into the Knesset, rarely have they survived for more than one term.
“We’ve seen this with parties dedicated to the rights of pensioners and parties dedicated to the rights of workers,” he says. “Their success has been extremely limited. Even with the huge social protests that took place in Israel in the summer of 2011 over the cost of living, they were never able to translate this success into a political movement because the security issue tends to trump everything else in this country.”
Ran Raviv, local sustainability chief at the Heschel Center in Tel Aviv, also blames the tendency in Israel to see the environmental crisis as a problem of the rich. “People in this country just don’t understand that poor people tend to suffer most from environmental problems,” he says.
And while he's disappointed by the recent ouster of the Green Party, Raviv is encouraged by developments outside the Knesset. “This would suggest to me that our political system is lagging behind what is happening in the streets,” he says.
Tal notes, for example, the thousands of Israeli schoolchildren participating in the past year in protests demanding action to ease the climate crisis, as well as the record numbers expected to attend the People’s Climate March on March 27 in Tel Aviv – many of them no doubt inspired by Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden turned international celebrity.
“Greta Thunberg’s spirit definitely hovers over a generation here,” Tal says. “We in the green movement will definitely get a shot in the arm when these kids come of age to vote.”
Cohen Paran is less upbeat, noting that there is still much work to be done. “Greta grew up in a country where for the past 20 years, environmental education has been compulsory at all levels of the school system,” she says.
“Our kids, on the other hand, graduate without knowing anything about the climate. Whatever programs exist are all voluntary. That has to change, but I think we’ll probably have to wait until the end of the Netanyahu era to start talking about other agendas in this country.”