Israel's Nature Society: State Promoting Development at Expense of Open Spaces

Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel says that over the past four years threats to open spaces have increased by 75 percent due to plans for various types of construction.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has taken the Interior Ministry's planning administration to task for what it calls a strategic threat to Israel's open spaces.

The SPNI's annual report on threats to open spaces says the planning administration is working to compromise protection of open spaces and to promote the narrow interests in development of select groups rather than the good of the public.

According to the report, over the past four years threats to open spaces have increased by 75 percent due to plans for various types of construction. In 2012 there were 119 such threats, including five involving the planning of new communities, roads and energy facilities.

Two threats to open spaces last year were not realized: Plans were shelved for a new neighborhood in the city of Elad, east of Tel Aviv, in part of a nature reserve, and for a new community in the vicinity of Nitzana, in the western Negev. But the report claims there are new, more serious threats, including expansion of the Western Galilee city of Ma'alot into natural woodlands and a new road in the Halutza dunes, in the Negev.

Additional threats from development added last year are a planned desalination plant in dunes south of Rishon Letzion, oil exploration off the shore of Herzliya and Ashdod and infrastructure planned for an ecologically sensitive area near Mount Carmel.

The cabinet had canceled another project threatening open space, a holiday village at Palmahim Beach, in the southern Coastal Plain. But the project is back on the agenda because state authorities failed to ensure the payment of compensation to the developers. The Environmental Protection Ministry says it is negotiating with the developers, a claim a representative of the investors denies.

Environmental groups once aimed most of their barbs at real estate interests as threats against open spaces. But this report reserves most of its ire for the Interior Ministry's planning administration, with which environmentalists have cooperated in recent years.

The planning administration is moving ahead on two matters now. The first is the implementation of changes to National Master Plan 35 (which determines where construction may be done in Israel ) to allow more building in the center of the country. The second is the unification of all national master plans under a single plan. The National Planning and Building Council yesterday issued instructions to begin this move.

The SPNI report charges that changing National Master Plan 35 poses a great danger to the meager open space left in the central region. It could weaken protection of forests and nature reserves and obviate the system of checks and balances that is in place according to Itamar Ben-David, head of planning in the SPNI.

The Interior Ministry said in a response that it doubted that the SPNI report represented the interests of the public. It also said the changes to National Master Plan 35 were mainly to streamline the construction approval process for in cities. The ministry said unifying all 300 national master plans would simplify their use for planning, explaining that because the final result will be based on existing plans it should be seen as "hope and transparency for the public" rather than as a threat.