The Green Agenda: Still Alive

The latest surveys by the Ministry of Health indicate particularly high rates of cancer in the urban centers of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva, the latter located in proximity to the toxic Ramat Hovev industrial area.

This week's election was a serious setback to Israel's green movement. After months of campaigning, strategizing and organizing, neither of the two green parties succeeded in passing the threshold to enter the 18th Knesset. But even without their presence in the parliament, the causes they have been fighting for - an environmentally responsible approach to the challenges of water degradation and shortage, air pollution and the loss of open spaces - live on.

Security was a primary electoral theme, with the Gaza operation serving as a backdrop for campaigns focusing on Hamas militants, internal threats and an increasingly hostile world. These and related issues outweighed concerns of a rapidly urbanizing society increasingly unable to sustain itself in the long term. But air pollution, water shortages and other dangers to our natural resources are grave threats to Israel's future that must remain high on the agenda, even during the difficult security situation.

Deteriorating air quality, for example, is a critical threat to the country's health. According to a 2004 study, the air pollution in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa region is worse than that of any European metropolis, causing over 1,500 deaths per year - higher than the number caused by car accidents. Israel's increased industrialization, lack of appropriate legislation and weak enforcement are only making matters worse. The Ministry for Environmental Protection estimates that one in five children now suffers from breathing difficulties, in part due to air pollution.

Rapidly shrinking open space is also worrisome. Though 90 percent of the local population lives in urban areas, one of the world's highest rates, many are seeking to escape the city. This rising demand for a rural lifestyle is increasing the pressure on one of Israel's most precious and scarcest natural resources: open space. As more and more undeveloped or agricultural land is transformed into housing developments and malls, the danger of habitat loss - with its negative impact on biodiversity and loss of public recreational areas - rises.

At the same time, city life has its own health hazards. The latest surveys by the Ministry of Health indicate particularly high rates of cancer in the urban centers of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva, the latter located in proximity to the toxic Ramat Hovev industrial area. Tighter restrictions on air pollutants and stricter enforcement measures are called for if we want urban centers to be attractive places in which people can raise families.

The country is also, of course, in the midst of one of its worst-ever water crises, with Lake Kinneret and many aquifers below their red lines. The future looks even grimmer, with a projected continued decline in Israel's per capita fresh water resources. Water for both agricultural and domestic use will be scarce if we do not learn how to manage this precious resource in a sustainable manner. Part of the answer is more investment in wastewater treatment and desalination, but we must also recognize that we live in the Middle East, not Canada. This means learning to use our limited water resources wisely.

Future peace agreements will be impossible if we aren't able to constructively address our growing environmental problems. Trash collection, sewage treatment, industrial waste, natural-resource management and coastal land use are all issues that will be critical for power sharing and cooperation between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. With Syria and Lebanon, the diversion of streams and rivers will be central issues. Unless Israel successfully manages its own environmental challenges, it will have difficulty negotiating agreements on these issues with its neighbors.

As the problems mount, the lack of momentum among the green parties is worrisome. Their efforts in the recent election, though, were not in vain. In fact, the larger parties, across the political spectrum, have made great strides in integrating environmental issues into their platforms and public commitments.

Yisrael Beiteinu has pledged to set up a special environmental court, while Hadash retains as a Knesset member Dov Khenin, the chair of the Knesset's Socio-Environmental Lobby, who campaigned for the Tel Aviv mayoralty on a public transportation-oriented platform. Kadima has emphasized responsible water management and increased funding for public transportation, and Labor has proposed an environmental cabinet to mirror the socio-economic and security cabinets. Likud, meanwhile, has pledged to prevent the construction of a second coal-fueled power plant in Ashkelon, which would be a positive step toward significantly reducing environmental emissions.

Still, all indications are that traditional security concerns will continue to dominate the public agenda, and it is possible that environmental issues will drop by the wayside for another parliamentary cycle. Yet we cannot afford to ignore the implications of the continuing damage to Israel's valuable natural resources. The next government must limit polluting power plants and effectively manage water use, and the new prime minister must work to maintain open spaces and promote environmental sustainability in transportation, sanitation and personal consumption.

The green parties have taken us much of the way and the Israeli environmental movement has a lot to feel proud about this time around. Now it is up to all of us - the NGO sector, civic society and the concerned public - to continue to raise environmental issues and work toward pushing a united green party over the threshold next time around.

David Lehrer is the director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.