Taking Change Into Our Own Hands

Much of our socioeconomic reality is the result of policy choices, not divine edict, and we have the option to set different priorities.

The week after 400,000 people turned out for Israel's largest protest since the first Lebanon war, and the week before the Palestinian request for UN recognition usurps all the headlines and politicians' rants - a torrent of activity signaled the next phase of Israel's summer of protest.

The "1,000 Tables" event took place last Saturday night in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art plaza, with a small group discussion about fixing our social policy at each of the 475 tables. There were parallel events scattered around the country. My wife and I joined eight strangers at table 140, and spent two hours connecting the dots from personal experience - draconian rent hikes, underfunded schools, disappearing benefits, the struggles of immigrant friends - to the agenda of the protest.

If the event lacked the rush of the rallies, there was a subtler pleasure in thinking out loud with an attentive circle. And for the first time in the protest process, as the table talk wound down, we were invited to poke into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I found a special poignancy in a predominantly although not exclusively leftist crowd exercising zen-like self-control in refraining until that point from addressing the issue that occupies most of our political minds.

If the protest leaders have given the conflict a wide berth because of its toxic divisiveness, it's hard to argue with the tactical if not moral logic of the fact that the 10 people at our table managed to glance past the Green Line without breast-beating or demagoguery.

The not exclusively left-wing qualification is significant, because outside Tel Aviv the table talkers were apparently not mostly leftist. Even in the big city, the willingness to suspend discourse on the moral calamity of the occupation until the end of the evening allowed other people to join the conversation. These included middle-aged centrists and the 25-year-old contemporaries of Daphni Leef and Gilad Shalit, who have little recall of Oslo's optimism but clear memories of Rabin's assassination, the second intifada, missile attacks, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.

"1,000 Tables" was only one of a multitude of real-time and cyberspace efforts to keep the talk and the momentum going. If there has been a reluctance up to now to question the movement's agenda - the protest leaders seemed to be working some kind of magic and nobody wanted to pop the bubble - we are now seeing so many initiatives specifically targeting social policy issues from different factions (Tel Aviv protest leaders, the student union, activists from the periphery, independently organized efforts ) that it is impossible to keep up. Colleges hosted seminars on the protest, foundations debated the role of funders in supporting the next round of the protest, and TheMarker's Israel 2021 conference featured protest leaders and politicians alike. The situation is increasingly decentralized, and chaotic, but perhaps in a good way.

So why did all these people show up for a Saturday night policy chat instead of going to the movies? Why have scores of professors and researchers on the Yonah-Spivak committee volunteered for hundreds of hours of unpaid labor to beat the Trajtenberg deadline? Why have NGO veterans from the Coalition for Affordable Housing to Community Advocacy to Shatil and Sikkuy - to name a few - been running themselves ragged to explain policy alternatives to the curious?

Clues can be found in the final, climactic rally, which became a family affair. We brought our 14-year-old twin boys and our 8-year-old daughter because we wanted them to witness history, but more specifically, to experience public dissent as a natural part of democracy. Throughout the crowd, protesters used cell-phone cameras to create personal visual records, to capture the wave of humanity coming over the bridge from Ramat Gan, and to document poster messages ("Even the tent was paid for by my parents"; "Bibi go home the gas is on us" ), stretching arms high for aim-and-click aerial shots or low for family snaps.

My daughter was photographed at least five times by passersby, as she slept on my wife's lap. It was as if we were overcome by collective anticipatory nostalgia and would need to show later that we had really been there. By documenting our own protest and acting as if the rally was a historic turning point, we hoped to guarantee that it would really become one.

There is finally an audience motivated to challenge socioeconomic decisions - ranging from the middle class, whose real income has declined in the past decade despite Bibi's much-touted economic growth, to the working poor who question why two incomes is not enough to escape poverty and the single mothers who can't even dream about it, to the Arab communities who wonder if they will ever be treated as equal citizens and not suspected as enemies.

Momentarily setting aside our intractable bickering over the conflict with our neighbors has allowed us to snap out of a 15-year coma. (And we sure can't afford more than a moment. ) After being told for years that our government leaders had no recourse but to adopt Thatcherite policies leading to diminished health care and social services, apartment prices with no relationship to our incomes, and privatization without question or oversight - we have discovered that it's all a bluff. For much of our socioeconomic reality is the result of policy choices, not divine edict, and we have the option to set different priorities.

Thousands of the 400,000 citizens who took to the streets have now taken the trouble to begin to learn what those choices are. We want change. We want the government to listen, and to act. And we are finally beginning to take action ourselves.

Don Futterman is program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports NGOs working for social and economic justice in Israel.





Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd.

Editor-in-Chief: David Landau Deputy Editor: Tami Litani

21 Schocken St.,Tel Aviv 61001 Israel. Tel: 03-5121212 Fax: 03-6810012

English Edition Editor: Peter Hirschberg

Assistant Editor: Ruth Meisels

Customer Service Tel: 03-5121750 Fax: 03-5121703E-mail: iht@haaretz.co.il. Advertising: 03-5121112

Letters to the editor: letters@haaretz.co.il or fax: 03-5121156


W TEXT2 Here is the text

Protest march: Victory or flop?

The following comments come from this week's "Make Your Point" debate on the Haaretz.com Web site. You can also make your voice heard by visiting www.haaretz.com

Editor-in-Chief: David Landau Deputy Editor: Tami Litani

21 Schocken St.,Tel Aviv 61001 Israel. Tel: 03-5121212 Fax: 03-6810012

English Edition Editor: Adar Primor

Assistant Editor: Ruth Meisels

Customer Service Tel: 03-5121750 Fax: 03-5121703E-mail: iht@haaretz.co.il. Advertising: 03-5121112

Letters to the editor: letters@haaretz.co.il or fax: 03-5121156

Frances Raday

Israel has, as demonstrators claimed this summer, become a hegemonic state, whose political agenda is dominated by a small number of players. It can indeed be regarded as an almost neo-feudalist society, in which a large part of the country's economic resources are centralized in the hands of a dominant 18 families. Israel has indeed, in its 62 years of existence, produced an extraordinary inequality curve - from having one of the most egalitarian distributions of income among the Western states, to one of the highest levels of inequality in the OECD.

The path to correction is not an easy one. Among the economic solutions being proposed for funding social needs are reestablishing a progressive tax policy that will increase tax revenue from affluent corporations and wealthy individuals, dismantling monopolies, changing budgetary priorities, and diverting funds from sectoral subsidies to the social and economic infrastructure of society at large. These are necessary and logical moves, but they all require political leadership that will put social justice above the sectoral interests of coalition partners, campaign donors and business lobbyists.

While hoping the political strategists among the demonstrators will find a way forward in this morass and achieve a change of budgeting priorities, I also want to suggest they adopt one strategic economic demand that has not yet been tabled, and involves earmarking an unexpected economic windfall, which has not yet been designated for any budgetary purposes and is not yet claimed by any sector as a vested interest.

I am referring to the government take (that is, the share of revenue taken by the state ) from future gas and oil revenues. The Sheshinski committee, to which I am proud to say I contributed some legal support, succeeded in raising from 12 percent to 50 percent the government take from expected revenues from the recently discovered natural-gas fields in the Mediterranean. The amounts of money involved will be very significant, enough so that the way the revenue is used can fundamentally affect the character of Israeli society.

The potential impact is aligned on a spectrum ranging between, for example, Saudi Arabia and Norway, depending on the way the government uses the revenue. If the Saudi Arabian model is followed, the gas and oil revenues could accelerate the political-economic hegemony and create an even more sectoralized and unequal society. If the sectoral political interests, which at present set the agenda in Israel, acquire a disproportionate share of the government take, the interests of business tycoons, the religious parties and the settler movement could be generously funded, entrenching their power. In contrast, by following the Norwegian model, Israel could become a more democratic and pluralistic state with a flourishing economy that serves the entire population.

The current unleashing of popular power must be harnessed to a real and immediate battle on this issue. The goal should be the creation of a public commission that will do the kind of in-depth research of the economic prognostics that the Norwegian government carried out when the oil fields in the North Sea were discovered in 1969. On the basis of this research, Norway passed the Government Petroleum Fund Act, investing the large surplus generated by the petroleum sector in a government pension fund in order to guarantee the pension system for generations to come.

Israel should follow suit and establish a public commission, one that does not serve sectoral interests, and should entrust it with the power to designate the public purposes for which the natural resources of the State of Israel are to be dedicated. The terms of reference should be that those purposes must serve the entire population. In order to ensure this course of action, the Knesset should immediately adopt a basic law on the use of gas and oil revenues, and thus preempt the bypassing of public interest by future collusion between powerful political and economic interests.

Listening to the voices from the tent-city demonstrators, I would suggest that the primary public purpose could be free, high-quality education, from nursery school through academic and technical higher education. Greatly improved, free nursery school education is vital for two purposes: both to facilitate integration of family life and careers for parents of young children, and to increase the chances that children from all sectors of society will get an equal start. Vast improvement of our children's school life is an absolute priority. At present, Israel's education system, with its overcrowded classrooms, lack of sophisticated teaching equipment and materials, and underpaid teaching staff, is wasting the human capital of our children.

The future sustainability of Israeli society depends on the quality of its population and its ability to develop - in terms of both the economy and civic governance - a highly productive society. The creation of a fine school system, with emphasis on the arts and the sciences, on Jewish culture and human rights, would contribute to this goal by educating and enriching our future citizens.

A basic law on a natural gas fund would act as a lighthouse, setting us on a course of public solidarity and growth, and illuminating the way to avoid the negative repercussions of continuing privatization of Israel's natural resources.

Prof. Frances Raday is director of the Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel at the Haim Striks School of Law, College of Management Academic Studies.



Daniel Orenstein

Two months ago, in what was considered a victory for environmental groups, the National Planning and Building Council approved plans for a new power plant in Ashkelon that will run on natural gas. The decision, which received broad support from environmental groups, Ashkelon city hall and various government ministries, was opposed only by the Finance Ministry. The ministry advocated a coal-fired plant which, its representatives claimed, would be less expensive to operate. While the treasury's claims could be disputed once external costs - in terms of public health, property value and environmental quality - are taken into account, the real issue is whether natural gas is really the "environmental" alternative.

The National Infrastructure Ministry promotes natural gas on its website, where it explains: "Israel is actively striving to diversify the sources of energy by the introduction of natural gas as a primary, environmentally friendly and cheaper energy than other forms of energy."

Natural gas indeed trumps coal on several environmental counts: It burns cleaner and more efficiently than coal, releasing half the carbon dioxide, a third of the nitrogen oxides and nearly no sulfur dioxide per unit of energy produced. Transition to natural gas has already greatly improved local air quality.

Moreover, the entire nation has been in energy euphoria since reservoir after reservoir of natural gas has been discovered off our Mediterranean coast. Thanks to the unflinching work of Rabbi Michael Melchior and other social activists, who forced the government to raise taxes on gas, the state's share of revenues could add up to $1 billion a year starting in 2015. The potential economic windfall even played a role in the recent Standard & Poor's upgrading of Israel's credit rating.

But natural gas is no environmental panacea. At best, it is an improvement on coal and a transition fuel on the road to a cleaner, renewable-energy economy. At worst, it is a significant pollution source that could be responsible for another half-century's delay in developing truly clean, local energy production.

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and burning fossil fuels inevitably produces carbon dioxide. Further, the gas is primarily methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas that is 72 times more potent in capturing heat over a 20-year period. Throughout the process of exploiting natural gas (exploration, extraction, transportation, storage and combustion ), there are many potential sources of methane leaks. According to two recent studies published in the journal Climatic Change, the transition to natural gas may have a greater negative impact on global warming than use of coal. This, write the authors of one report, "undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming."

Aside from its impact on climate change, dependence on natural gas brings other environmental problems - including pollution of ground water when drilling on land and, in our case, damage to marine ecology. The drilling-exploration process produces thousands of square meters of sludge, which can be laced with hydrocarbons, thereby poisoning the ocean floor and water. The act of extraction, whereby water must be pumped into the ground to push out the gas, creates "produced water" which, according to Russian marine ecologist Prof. Stanislav Patin, usually contains organic compounds, oil hydrocarbons, heavy metals and even radioactive elements. These can pose a significant threat to the marine environment.

There is, unfortunately, little research on the environmental impact of offshore gas drilling, and there is little oversight - either governmental or by environmental organizations - at drilling sites.

While our natural-gas infrastructure is being set up, the public must demand full transparency regarding chemicals used, rate of methane leakage and the aggregate environmental impact of every phase of the drilling, extraction and transportation process. Only transparency will assure best environmental practices.

Finally, there are potentially explosive issues (politically and literally ) of transportation and storage. Coastal communities as well as Druze villages on the Carmel were only the first to say "not in my backyard" to the demands for a natural gas infrastructure - and not only because of necessary land conversions. Natural gas, according to a study in this month's Scientific American, causes the third-highest number of deaths per unit of energy production, after coal and oil; most natural gas-related deaths occur during distribution and power and heat generation.

Despite its greater efficiency than coal or oil, it is a fallacy to assume that natural gas will solve all of our environmental problems. Nor is it as safe and clean an energy source as advocates suggest. For clean and safe, we need to turn to solar and wind power, and especially energy-efficiency measures. One telling example from our Environmental Protection Ministry: Thirty percent of our household energy requirements could be reduced by using existing technologies and green architecture.

If our appetite for electricity continues to rise, due to population growth and increased per capita consumption, our carbon emissions will continue to rise. If we don't use the time our natural gas discovery has afforded us to advance truly clean energy sources, environmental sustainability will continue to elude us.

Daniel Orenstein is a senior lecturer in the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology's architecture and town planning faculty.

Ryan Kaminski

As the UN General Assembly convenes for its 66th session this week in New York, it has at least one thing to celebrate. Namely, its 2006 decision to replace the hapless UN Commission on Human Rights with the UN Human Rights Council. Despite some notable exceptions, the UNHRC has shown remarkable progress in its five-year existence, and should be afforded more time to continue its institutional development, implement its mandate and pursue targeted reform.

During its relatively limited tenure, the UNHRC has broken ground in a variety of areas. This includes passing an unprecedented resolution on preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, suspending a former member - Libya - for its human rights record, and condemning the recent crackdown in Syria.

Regardless of all of this, disapproval of the UNHRC dies hard in the United States.

During its inception, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton called the UNHRC a "caterpillar in lipstick." Two weeks ago, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, introduced legislation that if enacted would effectively ban the United States from participating in the UNHRC and eliminate its funding.

Time and time again, however, criticism of the new UN human rights organ has been, at best, half-baked. For example, the UNHRC is routinely chastised for including states from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which either have troubling human rights records or cultural beliefs significantly at odds with those of the West. But rarely do people consider what legitimacy a human rights group restricted to a coterie of Western states that condemn other countries' rights records could really expect to have.

Furthermore, frequent claims that the UNHRC is as toothless as the defunct Commission on Human Rights are both wrong and unfair. First, it is equipped with new mechanisms like limitations on the terms served by members, and the Universal Periodic Review, which assesses the human rights records of all UN member states every four years.

Additionally, the UNHRC is simply not the same as powerhouses like the UN Security Council, and must work within a restricted mandate. Of course, if the UNHRC's loudest critics are ever asked if the body's powers should be augmented, they would say "no," citing largely unwarranted concerns that U.S. sovereignty could be endangered.

Next, the UNHRC is continuously derided for its apparent hypocrisy. Most recently, this has included controversy over a resolution it passed on the elimination of all forms of intolerance against religion, a problematic move for freedom-of-expression advocates everywhere. On the other hand, the complicated and often completely contradictory human rights stances the U.S. employs as a part of its own foreign policy are commonly defended by the same critics as both inevitable and "pragmatic."

Regardless of these attacks, the UNHRC admittedly has much work to do before it can be considered a genuinely effective human rights body. In order to both maintain and build upon its historic work, it must do three things:

• First, get off Israel's back. The UNHRC has taken an obsessive approach to Israel bashing, placing the country on its permanent agenda. True, there are a number of rights issues associated with Israel that warrant ongoing investigation and concern, but the UNHRC can ill afford to sustain its fixation on that state while ignoring human rights black holes in places like North Korea and Zimbabwe.

• Second, follow up. There are number of matters the UNHRC needs to revisit, discuss, and ultimately act upon, including evaluating the investigation it recently sanctioned regarding Syria. It would also be a good idea to carefully monitor the ongoing turmoil between Sudan and the world's newest country, South Sudan.

• Third, and most importantly, the UNHRC must take maximum advantage of an upcoming window of opportunity regarding the composition of its membership. In contrast to its defunct predecessor, the mandate of the UNHRC strictly limits its member states to two consecutive terms. That means after their terms expire in 2012, influential two-term UNHRC members with less than stellar human rights records - including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba - will have to wait for another election cycle before running again for a seat.

Everything won't be lovey-dovey even with these countries on the sidelines, but such a scenario certainly presents an opportune moment for the 47 members of the UNHRC to work in concert to improve the committee's record and further expand its agenda.

None of this is likely if the United States suddenly withdraws its political and diplomatic support for the UNHRC. Losing a large portion of its funding probably won't help much either.

If not a lipstick-wearing caterpillar, is the UNHRC a butterfly? Not even close. Still, the latest UN General Assembly session calls for cautious optimism instead of unfettered cynicism.

Ryan Kaminski is research associate for the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.