Roads to Perdition

A great many roads and highways are scheduled to be built in Israel's most beautiful landscapes in the years ahead. Public review of these plans must be ongoing, and must be accompanied by a demand to examine whether these roads are truly necessary.

Complaints and criticism about the activities of the green organizations are once again being voiced by officials in the Prime Minister's Office and by the office of Ehud Olmert, the minister of industry and trade who is also responsible for the Israel Lands Administration (ILA). The greens are said to be sticking spokes in the wheels of Israel's essential development needs.

However, all the officials who are advocates of bureaucratic shortcuts and who crave more and more development would be well advised to have a look at the judgment that was handed down last week by majority opinion in the Supreme Court, in the matter of the expansion plans for Highway 1 (the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road.

The Public Works Department had planned to build a third lane for the most famous road segment in Israel - the stretch of highway that goes by Sha'ar Hagai (where the Judean Hills end and the coastal plain begins). The PWD claimed that the master plan for the highway allowed it to carry out work without submitting a detailed plan or commissioning a survey to determine the environmental impact of the new part of the road. Furthermore, the officials argued, there was no time to lose when it came to the matters of coping with the heavy traffic and dealing with the safety problems in the area.

Adam Teva V'Din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense) and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel asked the Jerusalem District Court to stop the project and demanded that the PWD submit a detailed plan and an environmental survey. The court rejected their request and the two groups appealed to the Supreme Court. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the appeal.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Mishael Cheshin, who stated that according to master plans, especially a local master plan that also involves a road, it is mandatory to prepare a detailed plan and conduct an environmental survey. Cheshin added that even if the provisions of the master plan were vague or ambivalent, detailed planning is obligatory in order to ensure the transparency required of the government and to demonstrate "an active democratic foundation in planning processes."

These results can be achieved by drawing up a plan that is presented to the public, which can then submit objections.

"The public is entitled to know how its assets are being managed and what is being done with the natural and landscape values that belong to the entire community," Cheshin wrote, also noting, "We are discussing the building of a road in a hilly area that is unique - unique in its landscape and in the history that is do dear to our hearts. Is a road to be built without the public knowing in advance why things are being done in this particular way, and why things are not being done in another way?"

The Supreme Court ruling can be seen as a challenge to the tyranny of development that has dominated Israel over the years, and is especially blatant in the present government. This is a form of tyranny that is based on contempt for anyone who suggests that alternatives to construction plans be examined, and on almost secret meetings of bureaucrats and politicians in which fateful decisions for landscapes and natural resources are made.

The message of the Supreme Court ruling does not reflect a disregard for the needs of human well-being. It reflects, rather a broader perspective on these needs and an understanding that well-being is also the preservation of what exists around human beings, and not the transformation of the surroundings into another transportation infrastructure that takes the traveler quickly to another transportation infrastructure.

A great many roads and highways are scheduled to be built in Israel's most beautiful landscapes in the years ahead, including roads that will cut through Sharon Park and the Poleg Creek basin, and others that will slice through the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem and flatten the ridges to the west of the city. Public review of these plans must be ongoing, and must be accompanied by a demand to examine whether these roads are truly necessary. If they are, alternatives must be considered that will greatly reduce their damage to the surroundings.

There is no urgent need to rush ahead and build roads, not even in the name of the economic growth that the Finance Ministry links with the creation of infrastructures. In a recent article in Haaretz, Prof. Eran Feitelson, a geographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted that economists point to the high rate of return in the 1990s in order to justify the creation of new infrastructures. However, this was a period that came in the wake of 20 years of a serious infrastructure shortfall. In the past decade the transportation infrastructures in the center of the country and in the periphery were greatly expanded, so it's a reasonable assumption that the high rate of return will not repeat itself.

Feitelson's conclusion is that a more critical approach needs to be taken to the allocation of funds for infrastructures and that we should avoid abridged processes that are intended to approve such plans.