Environmental activists give Ezra failing grade as minister

Outgoing environmental protection minister "deserted the environmental cause when push came to shove."

gideon ezra face 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gideon ezra face 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Outgoing Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra deserted the environmental cause when push came to shove on numerous occasions, according to environmental activists who spoke to The Jerusalem Post this week. Moreover, considering the green trend that swept Israel during Ezra's three-year term, the fact that he had missed several opportunities to take the lead was all the more galling, they said. On the positive side, with Ezra coming from a national security background and having no previous experience in environmental conservation, both the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and noted activist Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev said they were impressed by his efforts to understand and engage with the field. Given his lack of background, "we give him credit that he worked hard to understand the issues over which he had responsibility and frequently got involved down to the details," SPNI replied via e-mail to a Post query. Tal concurred. "He was a very accessible minister of the environment. He read a lot, learned a lot and really worked as minister by attending conferences, making presentations and soliciting opinions. He was always congenial, nice to talk to and one of the few ministers who recognized the environmental problems in the Arab sector. He didn't spend all his time on internal Kadima politics like [former minister] Tzahi Hanegbi did." SPNI noted that Ezra had resolved the issue of shooting pelicans by orchestrating a compromise with all the relevant parties. He had also been very helpful in encouraging the use of biological pesticides. Iris Hahn, coordinator of planning and research at the SPNI Open Landscape Institute (OLI), credited the ministry with an encouraging policy on open spaces within cities. "The issue of open spaces in urban settings was pushed forward quite a lot, and the ministry led a very positive process," she told the Post on Monday. Other successes the ministry has had include passing the landfill levy, crafting regulations for construction and demolition waste, and crafting legislation to deal with ground contamination. Ezra will be holding a press conference on Wednesday morning to summarize his tenure as minister. Despite some successes, however, activists leveled many charges against Ezra. During the past two years, the ministry has said air pollution was its top priority. Yet nothing has been accomplished to reduce it in that time, activists said. "His air pollution policy was a total failure," Tal said bluntly, "Enforcement was astonishingly poor." Student environmental organization Green Course also pointed to weak enforcement against polluting factories, particularly in the Haifa Bay area. The group summed up Ezra's main contribution as merely cosmetic in nature. "The most significant change Ezra instituted during his tenure was changing the name of the ministry from the Environment Ministry to the Environmental Protection Ministry. In actuality, the change turned out to be cosmetic because there was no substance to the actions of the environment minister. Ezra proved to the public that the environment does not head his agenda, and during his tenure he was responsible for surprising actions which damaged the environment and the public interest." These included "attempting to torpedo the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws, and an incompetent enforcement regime against air, water and ground polluters. We expect the next minister to be committed and loyal to his job and [to] fix what his predecessor left behind," the organization said. Tzipi Iser Itzik, CEO of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, also took Ezra to task. "Even if reducing air pollution headed the ministry's priorities over the last two years, it is impossible to point to improvements over the last two years in air quality regarding those parameters which harm the public health," she said. "The principal achievement regarding air pollution recently has been the legislation of the Clean Air Act, where although the minister supported it, he brought about a delay in implementing it [for three years] because of a lack of manpower which the minister could not overcome. The problem has been pushed off onto the next minister, and so [have] the necessary reforms in air pollution policy needed to bring the country in line with the new law." Activists pointed to a string of incidents in which Ezra had chosen other national interests over the environment. Rather than being the dissenting voice in the cabinet or at the National Planning and Building Council, Ezra sided with the government time and again against clear environmental interests. Both SPNI and Hahn cited the case of Mirsham, a new settlement approved in the Lachish region. Environmentalists charged that new settlements would disrupt the fragile ecosystem in the area, and the experts in the ministry agreed. However, because the new settlement was designated for Gush Katif evacuees, among others, several days before the decision was set to come up at the National Planning and Building Council, Ezra ordered the ministry representatives to vote for Mirsham's establishment. The ministry representatives could not bring themselves to do so, however, and absented themselves from the crucial meeting, thereby enabling the plan's approval. Hahn also brought up two other planning issues where Ezra sacrificed protecting open spaces in favor of supporting government policies that would clearly harm the environment. He supported the creation of Mitzpe Ilan in Wadi Ara, even though it had been illegally turned into a civilian settlement from a Nahal outpost, she said. "Director-general Shai Avital came to the council, something unusual in and of itself, to speak on behalf of creating the new settlement," said Hahn, who sits on the council as a representative of the environmental organizations. Ezra also supported the lone farms policy, which was used to combat illegal Beduin construction, Hahn said - despite the fact that solitary farmsteads clearly disrupt open spaces. The idea behind the policy was to claim hills for the Jews by planting Jewish homesteaders on the hilltops so Beduin would not build there illegally. Turning to sea pollution, Zalul deputy director Ezer Fischler noted that the ministry had failed to collect a levy for dumping waste water into the sea, even though a 2005 law had allowed it. The money from the levy was supposed to go toward a fund to rehabilitate the sea, but instead the fund had no money, he said. In addition, the ministry has allowed cities and factories to dump into streams even though "the clear ecological logic argues against it," he said. Both Tal and Hahn said Ezra had failed to step up as a leader. "He seems to have had an antiquated view of what environmentalism is: that it holds up development, which is rather anachronistic," Hahn said. "Environmentalism has gotten an international platform, and he didn't capitalize on it at all." Tal argued, "He took very little leadership in terms of prioritization. He should have decided what to focus on. He didn't push any laws through, didn't really champion any issues. He also made bad appointments. Eli Amitai was not well respected as head of the Nature and Parks Authority, and Shai Avital, former head of Sayeret Matkal, was the worst director-general ever. "Moreover, the ministry's budget got cut again during his tenure to the lowest point in the last decade. That was his responsibility to fight for. [Agriculture Minister] Shalom Simhon got more money, for instance. Overall, I give him a C-/D+," Tal concluded.