The Israeli government recently decided to stop funding the Nature and Parks Authority and instead transfer this "burden" to the Jewish National Fund. In recent negotiations, the government told the veteran Zionist organization that if it does not fund sundry government projects, the government will nationalize the JNF's financial reserves in the upcoming budget legislation. The JNF, as a green organization, asked that its funds at least be directed toward ecological activities, and, as such, the agreement was reached that it would finance the Nature and Parks Authority.
While the JNF's willingness to support the authority is commendable, the government's decision raises troubling questions. Its share of the authority's yearly budget – roughly 191 million shekels – was always modest, considering the real costs of conservation and oversight of Israel's reserves and national parks. Indeed, the Nature and Parks Authority has long been forced to expand its income by imposing entrance fees to nature reserves, as its meagre budget did not meet basic needs. Clearly, nature preservation has not been a government priority for some time. Yet, in transferring responsibility for funding the authority to the JNF, the government's indifference to Israel’s ecological predicament reaches a new high.
Several voices in Israel's environmental community have accused the JNF of trying to take over the authority. There is absolutely no basis to such claims. The government tried to compel the JNF to exhaust its savings on infrastructure activities, but the JNF preferred to direct its monies toward nature preservation.
At precisely the time the government was imposing this “agreement” on the JNF, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors biodiversity globally, determined that Israel’s gazelle species face extinction, having alarmingly dropped in its numbers from 9,000 to 3,000 in recent years. The warning was not surprising: gazelles are often considered a flagship species, reflecting the general condition of a country's nature.
In a 2014 report, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel summarized the discouraging state of Israel’s traditionally rich biodiversity:“83% of the amphibians of Israel are in danger, like 60% of the mammals; 33% of the reptiles, 23% of nesting birds, 23% of freshwater fish and 30% of Israel’s endemic plants. The primary reasons for species' extinction here are hunting, habitat loss and poisoning.”
Instead of addressing a crisis that requires renewed government and public commitment, Israel’s leaders preferred to embark on a process of privatizing nature preservation. Similar to numerous other social services, the government announced it is no longer interested in supporting the critical activities required to protect Israel’s threatened ecosystems.
Tough questions need to be directed at the government and the parties that make up the ruling coalition. Since the Environmental Protection Ministry’s inception, those appointed to head the ministry, with the exception of Gilad Erdan, began their post without a proven commitment to the subject. While most of them did, however, quickly internalize the magnitude of the challenge and the need to become an uncompromising environmental advocate, this time the opposite occurred.
The Kulanu party's demand during coalition negotiations to control the ministry did not reflect a green awareness or a desire to strengthen environmental policies. Rather, Moshe Kahlon, who was on his way to becoming finance minister, sought to make life easy for himself in his plans to expedite development and housing. He appointed Avi Gabai, a personal crony with no background in the field, as environmental protection minister. Gabai’s job was clear: to ensure the ministry and its Nature and Parks Authority pose no obstacles to the Finance Ministry as it covers the good land of Israel with a robe of concrete and cement.
At Kahlon's demand, oversight of the Planning Administration was also moved from the Interior Ministry to his Finance Ministry. Among the development plans the Administration is aggressively promoting today are new cities to replace lush forests west of Jerusalem. Rather than utilize approved plans for over 60,000 residential units inside Jerusalem’s borders, Kahlon prefers to extirpate trees and obliterate habitats around the capital. Among the mounting protests, one voice is sorely missing: that of the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Moreover, recently, when the government’s “housing cabinet” convened to discuss formal reservations filed against new neighborhoods in Mitspeh Naftoah, a critical Jerusalem habitat for gazelles, the environmental protection minister actually supported the construction. Kahlon’s representative, Gabai, never bothered to visit the lovely and sensitive site, less than 15 minutes from his office, and consider alternative plans for a biodiversity educational center. Word has also leaked of an unprecedented initiative by the minister to dismantle the “Green Police" force. This 30-person national enforcement team is the ministry’s only real field personnel, providing a modicum of deterrence against illegal polluters and developers.
Under such circumstances, it is fortunate that the JNF is able and willing to step into the void created by Israel’s government, which has shirked its historic responsibility for conservation. Ultimately, though, the JNF is a public corporation – not a government agency. Its budget should never be utilized to supplant government funding. At most, its financial assistance might help to supplement government financing of conservation work.
There is no government in the enlightened Western world that has transferred authority for its natural resources and nature to a non-government entity. The phenomenon only exists in a few developing countries, like Jordan, where nature reserves are run by an NGO. The Zionist vision dreamed of a different model: an enlightened government that could redeem and nurture a long-neglected environment.
During the legislative debate surrounding establishment of Israel’s nature reserves in the early 1960s, the question of financing for a conservation system emerged. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion vehemently rejected funding through entry fees, demanding that support be expressed in the government’s budget and insisting that the country’s citizens had a right to enjoy the most wonderful places in their country without being charged.
In those days, the country’s GNP was roughly $1,400 per capita, yet despite its limited means, the government found resources to support nature reserves in Israel. Since then, we have made impressive economic gains. But in evading responsibility for funding the Nature and Parks Authority, the government seems to have lost critical values. If present trends continue, it will also lose the wonderful natural ecology that has always graced the land of Israel –a place the ancients called: “The Land of the Gazelle.”
Professor Alon Tal from Ben Gurion University and Dr. Orr Karassin from the Open University are experts in environmental policy. Both are volunteer members of the international board of the Jewish National Fund (KKL).
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