Haifa’s mayor represents turning point for environmental activists

A clean-air activist’s surprise election as Haifa’s mayor is a turning point for Israel’s environmental activists, following decades of struggles with the powers that be.

A view of western Haifa from the air (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A view of western Haifa from the air
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With a pair of luxury apartment towers already pointing skyward from the majestic Valley of the Cross, and with traffic bustling below on a newly paved four-lane artery, enraged activists cried out that developers might kill Jerusalem’s fabled skyline, splendor, and calm.
It was 1971, and that particular cause had been lost – the pair of highrises known as the Wolfson Towers soon became five whose 300 apartments were belted by 50 terraced cottages – but the struggle’s new focus, a strip of olive groves facing the Old City’s walls, would be crowned a success.
Challenged by residents’ demonstrations joined by literati and backed by the press, plans to build eight apartment towers and two skyscraping hotels overlooking the storied Montefiore Windmill were ditched, replaced by today’s Liberty Bell Garden, Bloomfield Park, and the Inbal Hotel, which was redrawn to be wide and low instead of slim and tall.
It was a landmark for Israeli environmentalism, whose agendas had never dominated public debate, and whose activists now celebrated their first-ever defeat of apathy, money, and politics.
Nearly half-a-century on, after having pursued multiple scenic and industrial causes, Israeli environmentalism’s struggle has climbed a new summit by winning an electoral showdown in a major city, Haifa, whose mayor of 15 years was unseated by a little known clean-air activist and urban planner.
AWARENESS of scenic neglect harked back to British-era Tel Aviv, when poet H.N. Bialik lamented “the great shame” of the city hiding its waterfront from many seaside streets. “The beach” he demanded, should be expanded in order to create a handsome promenade, “like in Europe.”
The revered (and by then deceased) writer’s quest was heeded in 1939, when Tel Aviv inaugurated its first promenade, a stretch of elevated pavement hardly one kilometer long, laced by a string of cafés, restaurants and dance clubs between today’s Dan and Herbert Samuel hotels.
Still, that early achievement was the exception in an era when politicians, voters, and the media lacked environmental sensitivity, so much so that Tel Aviv spilled its industrial waste, in broad daylight, directly into the sea.
While this atrocity happened chemically, planners were also blind aesthetically, as Tel Aviv let developers raise the belt of hotels that now add up to a concrete fortification blocking much of the inner city from the sea’s fragrance, color, and breeze.
Nationwide impatience with such flawed planning grew in the wake of the struggle over Jerusalem’s skyline. Activism steadily intensified, organized, and spread while political flashpoints multiplied.
Tel Aviv’s beachfront hotels were too big and numerous to remove, but the promenade was gradually remodeled and extended, now sprawling from Bat Yam, south of Jaffa, to Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, a 20 km continuum that forms one of the world’s longest and most pleasant esplanades.
Even so, due to its centrality and length – 196 kilometers – Israel’s coastline remained vulnerable to entrepreneurial brutality. That is how the mother of Israel’s beachfront abominations, the Carmel Beach Towers, emerged in the 1990s a short stroll from the waves of Haifa’s beach.
A 16-story fortress, wide as Buckingham Palace, checkered by hundreds of identical square windows, punctured by a 10-story “door” to the sea, and called by locals “the monstrosity” – the project sparked an environmental outcry on par with Jerusalem’s a generation earlier, only with more dramatic results.
The capital’s struggle produced a local deal to protect Old Jerusalem’s skyline. The eyesore in Haifa inspired national action, the 2004 Law for the Coastal Environment’s Preservation, which bans construction within 300 meters of Israel’s entire Mediterranean coastline, from Lebanon to Gaza.
Though far from perfect – the new law excludes Tel Aviv – its passage emboldened Israel’s environmentalists, who realized that their cause, having been backed by politicians from Right and Left, transcends Israel’s time-honored political fault lines.
Energized by this tailwind, the struggle now shifted back west, as activists warned that two mega-projects threatened to wound the Judean Mountains, on both sides of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
To the road’s north, plans for Israel’s first fast train intended to plant in the mountains east of the Sha’ar Hagai pass a broad, concrete bridge between the Yitla Creek’s tranquil slopes, where there has been no human settlement since antiquity.
The activists managed to stall the project for several years through appeals to the High Court of Justice, ultimately forcing the planners to relocate and reduce the number of the bridge’s cement pillars – and thus minimize its disruption of the wildlife in the creek below – and also to restore the flora uprooted from the abutting slopes in the course of the construction.
All this dwarfed what happened across the highway, in terms of both planning and its aftermath.
FIFTEEN kilometers southeast of that railway bridge, in the pine forests rolling west from Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem’s municipality planned to carpet 6,500 acres with 20,000 housing units, hoping to stretch the capital westward, and thus attract the young professionals it was losing to Tel Aviv.
The blueprint, drawn by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, stirred broad opposition joined by unlikely bedfellows like MK (United List) Dov Hanin of the far left; Omri Sharon, son of Ariel Sharon and then a lawmaker for Likud; former minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, of Labor; Zevulun Orlev, then head of the National Religious party; and former head of the Shin Bet secret service, Karmi Gilon.
With its political support so multi-partisan, the environmentalist cause was now gathering serious clout, helped by dozens of organizations like the Nature Preserves Authority, which is a government agency, and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, a non-governmental organization that deploys lawyers, scientists, researchers, and spin doctors.
The struggle climaxed in the fall of 2006, when the National Council for Construction and Planning met in the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem to decide the Safdi Plan’s fate, while hundreds of demonstrators outside the building – backed by a battery of literati, economists, and academics – demanded its cancellation.
The pressure worked. The Council decided by a vote of 24-3 to nix the plan.
Between them, the retreats imposed since the 1970s on developers in Jerusalem, along the coastline, and across the Judean Mountains added up to a new power, one that both transcended and defied politics, but never defined it; never, that is, until autumn 2018.
STUDDED by a dozen of Israel’s most notorious polluters, Haifa Bay’s thicket of toxic waste, smoking chimneys and odorous emissions became over the decades a hallmark of Israel’s third largest metropolis.
With its polluters ranging from Oil Refineries Ltd., which processes most of Israel’s crude oil, to ICL (Israel Chemicals) Fertilizers, a world-leading producer of agricultural additives, to Hod Assaf Industries, which smelts steel and makes construction inputs, Haifa Bay’s pollution is not just unpleasant; it kills.
Suffering Israel’s highest cancer rates and pollution-related deaths, and having learned that half the local children’s cancer cases stem from the city’s pollution – Haifa’s residents began demanding change.
One of the new activists was architect Einat Kalisch Rotem, a Haifa native and Technion graduate who lost to cancer, within one year, her younger brother, who was 19, and their mother, who died at 54.
Now 48, Kalisch Rotem joined the Coalition for the Public’s Health, an NGO that monitors Haifa’s environmental hazards and demands their treatment, a decade ago, before failing in her first mayoral bid, but at the same time becoming a councilwoman, in 2013. Her charge on longtime mayor Yona Yahav’s seat began the following day.
Yahav, 26 years older than his successor, claimed Haifa’s air is clean, and its problem is less about health and more about image. A lawyer by training, Yahav’s case unraveled when the Health Ministry stated in 2015 that 16 percent of Haifa’s deaths in the decade ending in 2007 were caused by its polluted air.
Yahav’s response was to make a U-turn and reinvent himself as the environmental cause’s leader, once by blocking with trucks the entrances to the polluting plants, and then by demanding that a huge Israel Chemicals’ container filled with toxic ammonia be emptied.
Still, Yahav’s image as the polluters’ ally proved too strong to erase, and his rival’s credentials as an environmentalist crusader proved too strong to defeat. On November 3, Kalish Rotem upset frontrunner Yahav by a margin of 57%-38% (the rest was split between three more candidates).
A MOTHER of two boys and wife of a mechanical engineer, Kalisch Rotem dreamed since her youth of becoming an architect, and never imagined joining politics – until pollution invaded her life. Having said this, her commitment, and expertise, are less about pollution and more about urban renewal.
Haifa’s pollution problem is older than Israel, and larger than its mayors’ funds and sway. The bay’s role as the heart of Israel’s heavy industry and its major wellspring of toxins harks back to the 1930s when its new, deep-water port became a regional hub for Britain’s imperial commerce. It made sense to position refineries where oil arrived in a pipeline from Iraq, and it was logical to attach to the refineries a fertilizer plant that used the refineries’ waste.
It took decades, but ultimately the government made a move, just like greater Tel Aviv’s industrial waste was rechanneled in 1969 from the sea to the Shafdan recycling system.
In Haifa, it took another half century, but the activists’ struggle produced in 2015 a government plan to clean the bay’s air by imposing on its polluters European standards of emission and treatment, and by making them shift from fuel and coal to natural gas.
This thinking is in line with Kalisch Rotem’s vision, which is that rather than relocate, polluters should cease to pollute, and continue to feed the local economy. It is part of a broader vision she developed when she lived in Zurich while earning a PhD in urban planning at the Federal Institute of Technology.
Having seen in Switzerland how public transportation can be smooth, rapid, omnipresent and punctual, the new mayor intends to replan the city’s public transportation; pave bicycle roads; connect the city to Europe by developing its airport; and rejuvenate its historic heart.
Hailing, with an architect’s eye, Lower Haifa’s blending of Bauhaus and Arab architecture, Kalish Rotem told Haaretz she wants Haifa’s original nucleus declared a UNESCO heritage site, and revived by creating there new, affordable housing, and by resurrecting small shops, at the expense of big malls.
A resident of an ordinary apartment building, Kalisch Rotem led urban planning projects on the Golan Heights, in the western Galilee, and on Mt. Gilboa. She therefore arrives at her new job educated, experienced, motivated, and – after five years on the City Council – politically ripe.
Even so, what catapulted Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem to the mayor’s seat was not her professional background, but the activism sparked by a personal encounter with her beloved city’s contaminated air.
For better or worse, hers will be recalled as the moment in which Israel’s environmental activism came of age; the moment when the city of her childhood, adulthood, pain and passion became the testing ground where one pollution victim could no longer criticize the driver, having become the driver herself.