Looking Back on 5774: A Year of Environmental Triumph and Tragedy

In this holiday season of retrospection, we would do well to consider the wisdom of Israel’s mad race forward, where development and population growth are paramount social objectives.

Alon Tal
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Bathers enjoying the Dead Sea.
Bathers enjoying the Dead Sea.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Alon Tal

Tradition holds that our planet was fashioned on Rosh Hashanah. This period, as we prepare to begin celebrating the birthday of Mother Earth on Wednesday evening, is a fitting one in which to consider Israel’s accomplishments and transgressions in nurturing its small but holy corner of creation. On reflection, we find reason for both encouragement and alarm.

The year ended well, with two major unanticipated victories that reminded the local environmental community of what can happen when scientific integrity, relentless lobbying and righteous indignation unite against the forces of destruction.

A bulldozer works at a magnesium factory near the Dead Sea.Credit: Reuters

In a nearly unanimous decision, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee voted down a pilot program for shale oil extraction in the scenic Adulam region, southwest of Jerusalem. Despite the prodigious profits that stand to be gained from commercial fracking, the regional zoning commission decided the environmental costs were too high.

Then the National Planning and Building Council rejected an Interior Ministry proposal to automatically allow development on 4 percent of the open spaces surrounding Israel’s urban centers. The director of the ministry’s Planning Administration, Binat Schwartz, argued that the move would expedite residential building and lead to a reduction in housing prices. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V’din), together with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, opposed the plan. They called for developers to build in urban areas that have already been zoned for higher-density construction, saying hundreds of thousands of housing units could be added in this manner, before destroying open areas.

File photo: Drilling platform at the Leviathan natural gas field. Credit: Albatross

While environmentalists won both battles, it should be remembered that in conservation there are no absolute victories, only stays of execution.

Mixed report card

Environmental activists protesting construction in a protected area in northern Israel.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki

The sudden resignation from the cabinet and the Knesset last week of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and the prospect of Communications Minister Gilad Erdan agreeing to replace him is cause for hope. In supporting initiatives by his ministry’s Planning Administration, Sa’ar helped weaken environmental protection in the zoning process. Erdan, a former minister of environmental protection, could restore the Interior Ministry’s traditional role as a champion of thoughtful, sustainable development.

On the positive side, the Knesset approved an ambitious “green” makeover aimed at reducing the legislature’s ecological footprint. Introduced on January 1, 2014, the program will be overseen by environmentalist Samuel Chayen. But on the legislative front there is little evidence of the Knesset’s purported commitment to the environment. The passage of a critical bill to protect Israel’s coastline by requiring the reexamination of development projects that were approved years ago but not yet carried out is being blocked due to opposition from the interior and tourism ministries. In addition, a law reinstating emergency planning committees was approved, in a bid to circumvent review procedures that ensure responsible development.

Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz gets good grades this year for unhesitatingly speaking out on numerous environmental issues, from the proposed railway line to Eilat (a likely ecological disaster) to phosphate mining in Arad (a likely public health disaster). His ministry has made the handling of solid waste a priority, with unprecedented spending on trash collection and recycling in Israel’s long-neglected Arab communities. Peretz has worked to expedite the removal of a mammoth ammonia tank in Haifa that constitutes an explosion risk endangering tens of thousands of residents. But on innumerable issues, his voice went unheeded.

The treasury withdrew all funding for national greenhouse-gas reduction programs in 5774. “This is just a delay” in implementing already approved incentives for conserving and using renewable sources of energy, Finance Minister Yair Lapid promised. But in the wake of the high cost of Operation Protective Edge, the Environmental Protection Ministry, like most government ministries, faces new budget cuts.

The battle against climate change was not the only environmental casualty of the fighting in the Gaza Strip. Damage to the Strip’s water and sewage infrastructure poses a health hazard for Gazans and will inevitably lead to the discharge of effluent into the Mediterranean, polluting the shared coastline and Israeli desalination plants.

After seven fat years, environmental civil society and advocacy in Israel is entering a lean period. The Green Environment Fund, a consortium that was the largest supporter of environmental activism in Israel, closed its doors, leaving dozens of organizations with severe budget shortfalls.

The Jewish National Fund, in contrast, flourished. The organization published its new “forestry bible,” which has already sparked some of the most innovative and ecologically sensitive afforestation plans in the world.

But most of the key environmental indicators in Israel for the past year were negative. With the exception of an impressive effort to rehabilitate the Kishon Stream, Israeli waterways remained polluted. The offshore natural-gas operation will bring needed revenue and a less-polluting energy source to the state, but an accident could spawn a disaster.

Many members of the local environmental community are realizing that Israel’s high population growth poses a big challenge to improving the environment. When 40,000 to 60,000 housing units must be built each year to accommodate natural increase and immigration, the country’s open spaces and the plants and animals that live in them inevitably suffer. The coming year will see Israel’s population top 9 million, and environmental consequences abound. The decline in the number of species of flora and fauna in Israel adds up to a full-blown biodiversity crisis.

At last week’s national conference on ecology and environmental science, the Israel Parks and Nature Authority celebrated its 50th anniversary with panels that heaped praises on the agency’s historic contribution to conservation. But as Daniel Orenstein of Haifa’s Technion Israel Institute of Technology wryly noted, considering the vast number of threats to Israeli nature, the agency’s efforts are like rearranging the furniture when the house is on fire.

Shmita, a time for retrospection

The coming year, 5775, is a Shmita year. The Bible commands us to allow the land to rest every seven years. We in Israel would do well to take advantage of this sabbatical to consider the wisdom of our mad race forward, where development and population growth are paramount social objectives. Do we really want quantity of life to trump quality of life? The Shmita tradition can remind us that according to Jewish tradition, greed and instant gratification are less important than the pursuit of a healthier and more beautiful Israel.

The writer is a veteran environmental activist who is on the faculty of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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