Israel’s environmentalists are up in arms. The Interior Ministry has decided to terminate their long-established representation in the country’s foremost planning commission forums. Petitions to the High Court of Justice against this are already in the pipeline.
The environmental lobbies contend that their absence would inevitably deny ordinary Israelis a voice on what might be constructed in their vicinity and that the needs of nature would be subordinated to the interests of tycoons and shortsighted urban expansion.
The ministry stresses that not all lobbies are being kept out (the Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel’s remain), that the planning forums are altogether being streamlined and that the aim is to speed up licensing processes, cut red tape and make it possible to proceed with vital housing and transportation projects.
A frequently heard quip is that had the assorted Green environmental lobbies existed pre-state and during the state’s earliest years, Israel would still be a malaria-ridden moonscape.
Roads would not have been paved, putrid swamps would not have been drained, towns and villages would not have been erected, industrial zones would not have been set up, housing would not have been provided for immigrants and water would not have been piped to the Negev.
This is obviously a grave exaggeration, but environmental lobbies back then might have nipped in the bud some of what came to constitute the Zionist endeavor.
Conversely, mistakes made along the way would have been spared us if there had been an environmental lobby.
The Hula marshes would have still featured prominently on Israel’s map and our beaches would not be marred by long rows of hotels that obstruct the sea views, the sea breezes and access to and from the seaside.
There is much that is praiseworthy about these lobbies, but also much that is disruptive in a country that still operates in development mode. The generic confrontation between progress and conservation is singularly amplified in our setting.
Transportation is a crucial touchstone in Israel, which suffers a chronic housing shortage and whose well-being ultimately depends on population dispersal. Not everyone can find an affordable home in the desirable but crowded central region. It is imperative to improve transportation to the periphery and cut travel time to employment and cultural hubs. Israel simply cannot forgo upgraded commuter links.
Yet the green lobby has habitually and vehemently opposed anything new – from the already completed Route 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) to the still-to-be-constructed railroad to Eilat.
Had the Green lobbies been less doctrinaire, less radical and more selective in choosing the campaigns for their well-meaning involvement, they would have commanded more respect and aroused less resentment. As is, the business and infrastructure industry sees them as seeking to stymie any change and as having over the years imposed strangleholds on all moves to set development plans meaningfully in motion.
However, much of the objection to many projects is of late being unjustly seen as anti-Zionist. A point in question is the Negev, where a longstanding struggle is being played out. It’s simplistic to state that the green campaign that has time and again halted construction there on grounds such as the amorphous need to safeguard “open spaces” is a ploy enabling Beduin to illegally grab the land and fill it with illegal construction.
There, however, is an element among those environmental activists who are launching their campaigns for clearly political reasons despite copious denials. Lamentably, the environmental lobbies do not always choose their battles fairly and are excessively aggressive to the point of undermining their credibility.
But their presence on the planning commission is still of vital interest to the country. MK Dov Henin (Hadash), the head of an environmental coalition, has warned that the streamlining of the planning forums will not be allowed because “we will go to court to stop plans to which we object. Procedures will hence take far longer rather than be shortened.”
The Interior Ministry should rethink its decision to block out the Green lobby. At the same time, the Greens must realize that a knee-jerk reaction to every development plan is only going to harm their efforts and the country’s progress.