No Advocate for Nature Preserves

The new environment minister, Shalom Simhon, still has a chance to demonstrate environmental responsibility and promote alternatives to construction in the Zevulun regional council.

It has often been said that government ministers in Israel become faithful representatives of the sector related to the ministerial portfolio they receive.

The agricultural minister becomes a faithful representative of the farmers, the industry minister represents the interests of the industrialists, and the infrastructure minister becomes an envoy of the energy industry. Only the environmental sector, one of the most neglected and in dire need of protection, does not have this kind of luck.

Shalom Simhon, who became environment minister about two and a half months ago, made a decision last week that would be wilder environment ministers throughout the world. He announced that he supports the building of two new settlements in areas that are earmarked for a nature preserve and forest.

The two settlements, Issachar and Haruv, are slated to be built north of Kiryat Tivon, an area under the jurisdiction of the Zevulun regional council. The council initiated the project in conjunction with the Housing Ministry.

Issachar is slated to be built in a nature preserve that has already surrendered land in the past - with the consent of environmental groups - for expansion of existing communities in the area, the establishment of a cemetery to serve the Haifa metropolitan area and other plans. Now, additional land will be taken from the heart of the preserve.

Simhon based his support for the new settlements on the need to add a young population to the settlements of the Zevulun regional council, and on the need to stop illegal construction in particular. He argued that the construction of Issachar and Haruv would prevent illegal construction by both Jews and Arabs. He added that the goal of the two new settlements is not to Judaize the Galilee, but rather to develop it.

Simhon tried to maintain political correctness, but Haruv and Issachar are intended for Jews only. All of the bodies that have supported their establishment, led by the Zevulun regional council, have made it clear that it is a move aimed at blocking illegal Bedouin construction, which they claim threatens to dominate the land in the region.

The authorized authority for assessing the scope and characteristics of illegal construction is the National Construction Supervisory Unit, which operates at the Interior Ministry. According to the unit's data, there has not been any threatening expansion of illegal construction in recent years.

Six months ago, the unit published a report entitled "Clusters of illegal construction in open areas in the Arab sector." The report notes that there were seven such clusters of illegal construction in 2002 within the boundaries of the Zevulun regional council, and that only one additional cluster has developed within the past three years.

The residents of some of these clusters are supposed to move to permanent settlements in the area according to consensual arrangement. These arrangements are supposed to be worked out by the directorate for Bedouin settlement in the north, but this body is not active. Thus, even if there were Bedouin ready to sign an evacuation accord, there would be nobody to implement it.

Simhon agrees to surrender land in the nature preserve in order to handle a problem that is not included in the purview of his ministry. Instead of demanding that the other government ministries fulfill their duty and confront the problem of illegal construction, without touching nature preserves, he abandons the resource he promised to protect.

The new minister still has a chance to demonstrate environmental responsibility and promote alternatives to construction in the Zevulun regional council. The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority presented such alternatives to him last week. These alternatives are based on the possibility of building adjacent to existing communities and in areas that are not earmarked to be nature preserves or national parks. If people are interested in social reinforcement for the population of the Zevulun regional council, these plans are the way to do it. They are preferable to the standard response to illegal construction - building for Jews in environmentally sensitive areas.

Simhon can try to persuade Housing Minister Isaac Herzog to join him in promoting other alternatives. In the past, Herzog has defined himself as a "green" politician, and even showed interest in the job of environment minister. Now he can prove that the green label is not only intended for his public image.