During an emergency conference by the Knesset’s Social-Environmental lobby on Wednesday, Knesset chairman Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers Gilad Erdan and Yitzhak Herzog spoke out against hasty legislation of the planning and construction reform promoted by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The conference featured speakers from the Coalition for Responsible Planning (CRP), a collection of environmental and civil rights groups that came together to oppose the proposed reform, and MKs representing most of the Knesset’s parties. The groups claim the reform benefits developers at the expense of the public and the environment.
“...I hear the voices that come out of the government that claim that bureaucracy is eating into every good portion of society; and indeed it often does. We sometimes stand dumbfounded by the fact that things that ought to take two weeks take three years. We also know that bureaucracy sometimes leads to compromised morals and things like bribery,” said Rivlin. “But we must not, in our desire to battle bureaucracy, forgo the democratic process and our concern for the future generations.”
Rivlin said he would make sure all the claims of the public and advocates were heard, and that the bill would be debated thoroughly before going to vote in the Knesset.
Environmental protection minister Gilad Erdan presented his ministry’s main objections to the proposed law.
“This reform has advantages and benefits, such as simplified bureaucratic procedures, but at the same time it contains terrible mistakes which, if they are not corrected, may harm the quality of life of the citizens of Israel,” said Erdan.
Erdan said that as it now stands, the reform entails complete privatization of the country’s planning system, which is supposed to be in the hands of the state. He said that putting so much power in private hands was dangerous as it was impossible to turn back once the changes were made. The reform proposes to replace ministry appointed environmental consultants with consultants from private companies, a move Erdan said would lead to endless conflicts of interest.
Erdan also criticized the bill’s proposal to predetermine in which cases environmental assessments would be necessary, saying it was impossible to predict the future and that to attempt to do so would tie the hands of future generations.
The minister spoke out against the establishment of planning subcommittees whose decisions cannot be appealed. “These are subcommittees in name, but in practice they are all-powerful, and their makeup is heavily slanted towards development, not conservation,” he said.
Erdan also criticized the extensive power that would be given to the interior minister to appoint members of planning committees under the bill, and expressed worry that the power was not more evenly dispersed among other relevant ministers, such as the ministers of agriculture, national infrastructure or environmental protection.
“Cutting procedures and diminishing bureaucracy are slogans we can all get behind, but it has to be done with reason and full transparency,” said Erdan.
Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog said his ministry was deeply concerned by the proposed reform. He said that his request to have his director-general involved in the preparation of the bill had been denied and that the lack of social considerations in the bill was worrying.
Lobby co-chairman Nitzan Horovitz of Meretz objected to the bill on the grounds that it would decrease transparency.
“The new law stands in stark contrast to public oversight and transparency; there is a clause that explicitly forbids recording and transcription of the central committee, which will not allow inspection, will not enable people to know what was said and will not
enable challenges or objections.”
The bill currently awaits a cabinet decision on whether to grant more time for objections and appeals. Avi Dabush, the director of the CRP, said he and his colleagues would continue battling the reform and urged the cabinet and the Knesset to engage in a real and comprehensive debate on the issue.
Meanwhile, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation is due to decide on Thursday whether to give more time to the government’s bill.
During a High Court hearing on Wednesday, the panel of three justices indicated clearly that if the government did not agree to grant an extension, they would order it to do so.
The bill is 241 pages long and includes 585 articles as well as four additions and 96 pages of explanation. The government published the bill on February 10 and gave all interested parties 21 days to read it and submit their comments and criticisms.
The Ministerial Legislation Committee was due to vote on the bill on March 4.
In the meantime, six environmental organizations, including Adam, Teva V’Din and the Society for the Protection of Nature, petitioned the High Court of Justice, charging that the government had not provided enough time to study such an important and complex bill. They demanded that the government give the organizations and others 90 days to study the proposal and asked for an interim injunction, prohibiting the government from discussing and voting on the legislation for the time being.
The court issued the interim injunction and scheduled a hearing for March 10.
As a result of this decision, the Ministerial Legislation Committee did not debate the bill at Sunday’s scheduled meeting earlier this week. During Wednesday’s hearing, however, the court cancelled the injunction and the committee is due to convene on Thursday to vote on the bill.
However, the members of the panel, Justices Ayala Procaccia, Elyakim Rubinstein and Neal Hendel, asked the committee to consider granting more time to the interested parties to submit their opinions and criticisms.
In its decision, the justices wrote, “The considerable scope of the law, its complex contents and its special public importance require a reasonable amount of time to form informed professional opinions by the various public bodies that deal with this matter. It seems that the 21 days allocated for this purpose is not enough to enable this properly.”
The state’s representative, attorney Aner Hellman, made it clear that Netanyahu, the moving force behind the bill, wanted it passed in first reading by the end of next week, when the Knesset ends it winter session. This way, he said, the Knesset can debate the bill immediately after it reconvenes for the summer session towards the end of April and can approve it in a final reading by the end of the summer session. During the three-month session, the Knesset would have time for an exhaustive discussion of the bill.
But the justices were not convinced by Hellman’s arguments.
"Is it possible,” asked Hendel, “that some of the government’s haste is in order to prevent a serious discussion of the bill?”
Rubinstein wondered how the MKs would vote on the first reading of the
bill when they did not know anything about it. “It’s a huge bill,” he
said. “How will the MKs be able to ask questions?” Hellman said the
real debate on the bill would take place during the preparations for
second and third reading in committee after the Pessah recess. They
could use the five-week recess to study the legislation.
But Rubinstein was not convinced by this argument either. “Do you
really think that the MKs will use the Pessah holiday to study the
bill?” he asked with a skeptical smile.