Alon Tal - The man who would save Israel’s environment?

ENVIRONMENTAL AFFAIRS: It is with October's WZC election that Tal hopes to clinch the much coveted role although he will be going up against the popular and politically savvy Danny Atar.

Alon Tal
Alon Tal has nearly done it all in terms of education, activism, service and research when it comes to Israel’s environment over the last 30 years.
The only role that the North Carolina native hasn’t filled is one of political leadership, something Tal would like to change.
“Historically, the English-speaking community has been disproportionately represented in environmental activism,” says the 60-year-old Tal, who is chairman of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University. “We never had... top leadership, we were more into supporting roles. It’s time, as a community – religious, secular, urban, rural – that we step up to the plate, as we always had a high level of awareness, unique sensitivities and commitment, and be given the opportunity.”
Israel’s largest environmental organization, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund established in 1901, has an annual budget of around NIS 1 billion, has remained the face, locally and abroad, for decades as the body for strengthening rural settlement and forestry. Its activities in the first decades of Israel’s existence helped set the borders of the state, particularly through its support to the Negev and by providing tens of thousands of new immigrants with initial income through forestry work.
The World Zionist Congress in October convenes to elect new leaders of Zionist organizations, KKL-JNF included. It is with this election that Tal hopes to clinch the much coveted role although he will be going up against the popular and politically savvy Danny Atar, the current chairman who has led KKL for the last few years and is the brains behind “Project 2040”, a massive and much-anticipated enterprise which aims to breathe new life into Israel’s periphery.
While it is not the first time Tal has been tossed into the ring as a potential candidate - he tried but failed to get into the Knesset with Benny Gantz last year - this year he claims to have received backing from MKs in Blue and White.
“It’s really an agenda for change,” says Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh. “The miracle that is the State of Israel at 72, which has benefited from physical infrastructure that has been laid down, is ready for all of us to take responsibility to take that forward, to what I call spiritual infrastructure.”
Last week, 24 leaders of Israel’s large environmental organizations, which represent more than 100,000 Israelis, sent separate letters to Defense Minister/Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid, asking them to support Tal. The list of supporters includes the heads of Adam Teva V’Din, Life and Environment, the umbrella group for over 130 Israeli green NGOs, the Israeli Ecological Association, Greenpeace Israel and the Israeli chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology.
WITH LITTLE time to spare, Tal has already compiled a list of goals for the organization. At the top of the list is to protect Israel’s forests and forestry budget, and to reinvigorate the spirit and efforts needed to save forests that previous generations planted and nourished. Other items include to become Israel’s preeminent promoter of solar energy; to enact a new and modern Forestry Law; to expand bike lanes in Israel’s forests; to help cities adopt internationally accepted 40%-shade standards; to cooperate with the environmental movement; to strengthen ties with branches worldwide; to expand outreach to Africa and developing countries, particularly when it comes to afforestation; and to hire more foresters.
Tal says that for all the goals he has for the organization, it is not without recognizing the good that has been done so far. He notes that KKL-JNF has done an impressive job of investing in the periphery.
“One of the good things we’ve done is development funding for the periphery, for the Negev and the Galilee, that’s very important,” he said. “It’s not wise to concentrate it all on the center of the country, and there’s something to continue.”
Tal himself is also well acquainted with the periphery. From 1996 to 2004, he served as founding director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava. The center’s program for Middle Eastern and international university students focused on regional environmental issues, as well as bringing together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli students who may not have otherwise had the chance to encounter one another.
TAL IS is now focused on campaigning for the chairman position. He has meetings scheduled with the Reform and Conservative movements, of which he is a member. Tal said he views these groups as crucial to the future link between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
With environmental issues so dear to both factions, along with Tal’s personal record and affiliation with the Reform and Conservative movements, he is optimistic of their support.
Tal wants to use the role to try and mend the ties between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.
Cotler-Wunsh, who returned to Israel after growing up and studying in Canada, says Tal’s ties to North America bring him a large advantage in many ways. “I think new and veteran immigrants, like Alon is, and I am, have an advantage of bringing multiple identities, which enable them to be bridges between the communities in Israel and abroad,” she says.
In the end though, Tal will face Atar as his opponent and according to political insiders, the current chairman will be difficult to defeat.
The race is just a few months away. Stay tuned.