Who Represents the Public?

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Construction on Salame Street in South Tel AvivCredit: Daniel Bar-on

On Tuesday a subcommittee of the National Building and Planning Council will convene for its weekly meeting. Practically unbeknownst to the public, this subcommittee meets once a week to debate important issues that affect the lives of many Israelis. For example, the committee will be discussing on Tuesday a master plan for propane storage sites in the north and a plan to expand a Bedouin town near the Neot Hovav industrial zone in the south.

Absent from this debate will be any representative of environmental organizations, after the approval last week of a motion, introduced by the Interior Ministry and pushed through by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, dropping these figures from the subcommittee. Also removed were representatives from engineering and planning associations, student organizations and organizations represented by the Jewish National Fund, which generally cooperates with environmental groups.

This move by Sa’ar and the Interior Ministry was aimed, in their words, at “streamlining and simplifying procedures.” But if that means removing the public and professional representatives from the process, then by the same token the public can be removed from any decision-making process that affects them; perhaps other democratic rights can also be dispensed with in the effort to improve efficiency. The problematic aspect of increasing the government’s control over the planning process was pointed out by Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, who tried to get the Interior Ministry motion canceled. Peretz, who wanted to debate the issue at this week’s cabinet meeting, noted that because of the changes, the government ministries have an overwhelming majority on the subcommittee, while public representation is minuscule.

Israel’s history with regard to planning and environmental issues has demonstrated what an important contribution the environmental groups make, even if their positions don’t sit well with the government and even if they prove to be mistaken. Their involvement has made the planning process much more thorough and has put issues of nature conservation and public health on the agenda. These groups have, inter alia, advanced a planning perspective that strengthens urbanization while preserving open spaces. Not always must these considerations be decisive, but they should at least be heard.

The undermining of environmental representation is part of an increasingly clear attempt to limit public objections to construction plans or the ability to challenge them. The government ought to reconsider this anti-democratic step by the interior minister and demand that the National Planning and Building Council restore the environmental and professional representatives to its subcommittee.

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