PM May Head Israeli Delegation to UN Climate Conference

After years of ignoring environmental issues, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering heading the Israeli mission to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Has Netanyahu joined the green cause? Last week his cabinet opposed a bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from this week's debate, Netanyahu has not attended debates on environmental issues, and like most previous prime ministers, he has not initiated nearly any environmental actions or presented an environmental vision.

In general, Netanyahu is advancing initiatives that harm the environment. Among other things, he supports shortening planning procedures, privatizing real estate and accelerating road building - all projects that environmentalists oppose.

In the Climate Change Conference from December 7 through 18, world leaders will try to work out a new agreement to prevent global warming. The agreement, entitled the Copenhagen Protocol, will replace the Kyoto Protocol, and will set new goals for greenhouse gas emissions binding all developed states and some of the developing states.

Israel, which is not bound to reducing gas emissions because it is categorized as a developing state, has no official position on the issue.

During his first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu had no environmental achievements, either. He was the first prime minister to appoint only a part-time environment minister - Rafael Eitan, who served as both agriculture and environment minister. This significantly weakened the Environment Ministry, which wasn't very strong to begin with. Netanyahu's cabinet supported the construction plans for West Jerusalem, which threatened the city's green lungs and were ultimately dismissed.

At the end of his term, a severe water crisis erupted, but the cabinet did not prepare to address it, and made no steps to save water or build desalination facilities. "In that period there was an amazing regression in environmental issues," Professor Alon Tal, who wrote a book on Israel's environmental history, told Haaretz.

"The Environment Ministry's budget was slashed and the important fund to encourage industry to manage environmental pollution was canceled," he said.

When Netanyahu was Ariel Sharon's finance minister in 2003-2005, the cabinet decided to advance the coal-based power station in Ashkelon - a project that directly contradicted the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent months, Netanyahu and his cabinet had a chance to reconsider building the coal-based power station, but they have not done so despite Environment Minister Gilad Erdan's efforts.

The greatest threat Netanyahu poses to the environment, as far as environmentalist are concerned, is in advancing construction and development projects. Green groups say the planned road works will cause grave damage to Israel's open areas and encourage use of private vehicles, which cause air pollution. They also fear that his bid to cancel regional planning commissions could facilitate construction projects without supervision or consideration for environmental issues.