Riding Roughshod Over the Objectors

The Economic Arrangements Law, which passed its first reading in the Knesset, contains a proposal that constitutes a definite threat to the quality of life, the environment and democracy in Israel.

An effective mechanism for bypassing both the Knesset and the Israeli public is better known as the Economic Arrangements Law, which has passed its first reading in the Knesset. The law contains a proposal that constitutes a definite threat to the quality of life, the environment and democracy in Israel, in the section entitled "Planning and building."

The central component in this section, which was initiated by the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry, would be the creation of a new body that would be called a "committee for the planning and building of national infrastructures." The committee, whose powers would be extensive and whose discussions would be highly time-delimited, would be responsible for authorizing the establishment of infrastructures, such as highways, airports and seaports, power stations and residential building plans consisting of more than 1,000 housing units. All that is needed for the committee to go into action would be the declaration by the prime minister and the finance minister that a given plan has "national importance."

Even before one considers the far-reaching environmental and planning implications of such a committee, what is particularly blatant about the proposal is the fact that its initiators are showing gross disregard for the public's right to influence the committee's deliberations or to oppose its decisions on major building projects.

Even in the context of the present Planning and Building Law, the public has only a limited opportunity to express its opinion on, or to oppose, a given building plan, while its representation in planning agencies is also extremely limited. The time limit for the submission of objections to a plan is presently 90 days, and that period would be reduced, once the new committee is established, to only 30 days. The committee would arrive at its decisions within a matter of a few days or weeks and would itself study the objections, with the result that in effect, there would be no right to appeal the committee's decisions.

The committee would receive the extensive powers of planning agencies at the national and local levels and would have only one representative of the public, to be appointed by the government. The other members would be representatives of government ministries. Local governments would not be represented on the new committee.

Undoubtedly, the manner in which the committee is to function expresses a world-view that considers democracy in the profound sense of the term as a burden and a serious nuisance - a burden that must be downsized and eroded. The kind of regime that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom want to create would, on the one hand, provide a free market for major entrepreneurs and giant corporations that would pounce on every opportunity to build and pave while, on the other hand, it would silence the public.

From the planning standpoint, this section in the Economic Arrangements Law would constitute the "pulverizing of the existing system of planning," in the words of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). The new committee would fulfill the functions of all existing planning agencies at the national and local levels and would even be authorized to issue building permits. In other words, the new committee would put an end to the present hierarchical structure of planning agencies.

Politicians are fond of criticizing the present system as a mountain of red tape that obstructs progress in the implementation of building plans; however, the system actually enables building plans to go through a filtering process that allows professionals the opportunity to study a given plan and criticize it at all the various levels - from the local to the national level.

Naturally, the current system has its limitations, and the functioning of some of the agencies that compose it is seriously colored by vested interests; nonetheless, instead of altering it in a pragmatic, cautious fashion, the new procedure would simply demolish it.

The building plans to be dealt with by the new committee would have sweeping environmental ramifications, from inflicting damage on the landscape and on values of nature conservation to traffic congestion, noise and the emission of pollutants. Yet the examination of these ramifications - which, up until now, has been carried out via the preparation of an environmental impact survey - would be, in the spirit of the new law, short and swift, so as not to hold up galloping progress (perish the thought).

If the new committee is established, seven days would be allotted for the preparation of the guidelines for such a survey, an additional seven days for corrections and for the document's completion, and another two weeks for an examination of the report. The preparation of the guidelines and the examination of the survey would not be carried out by the Environment Ministry, as has been the case until now, but would instead be undertaken by an environmental consultant.

In the world of Sharon and Shalom, there is no need for devoting too much time to seriously consider, for example, whether a natural gas facility could blow up and cause casualties among the residents of a nearby city or whether a major traffic artery could make life very difficult for those living near it because of the noise it would generate. An environmental impact survey intended to study such questions would now be inevitably transformed into a slapdash document that would not be a serious consideration of all the aspects involved, would be prepared in a hurry, would enable the rapid authorization of building plans and would symbolize a disregard for defense mechanisms designed to protect both the environment and its inhabitants.

There is no likelihood the initiators of the new committee will change their view about the monstrosity they want to create. The only ones who could alter this decree are the members of Knesset, some of whom have, in recent years, learned firsthand of the public's distress in the face of building plans that have threatened the quality of life.

The person who should be spearheading the battle against the proposal but who has not done so yet is Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, whose ministry would be converted by the new committee into an agency that would watch from the sidelines as major changes were wrought in Israel's environment.