(Solar) power politics

Will the newly formed Green list provide a real alternative for secular voters in the upcoming elections?

jlem solar green (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
jlem solar green
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
According to Naomi Tsur, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's national campaign manager for municipalities, Jerusalem is Israel's first city to provide a true green blueprint, from the successful campaign against the Safdie Plan to develop the hills west of Jerusalem to the preservation of the Gazelle Valley as an open green area. "In terms of the environment, green issues and civil empowerment, Jerusalem's residents have changed the face of things, it is a real enlightenment," says Tsur. And now this achievement might be transformed into a real political asset, with the announced formation earlier this year of a Green list to run in November's city council elections. Tsur, who has been strongly identified for the past decade with the environment and ecology, has been approached by some of the people forming the new list to head it. But for the moment, she says she has still not reached a decision, although she admits "it is a tempting eventuality and the answer could be positive." Whether or not Tsur agrees to lead a section within the Green list or even the entire list, one thing is certain: This list is already attracting a lot of interest - among residents, political parties and activists in the city. Considering that it is not yet clear if Likud, Labor and Kadima are running lists of their own, the Green list could easily become a desirable option for many voters - particularly centrist and leftist voters, but above all secular ones. As for the religious sector, Tsur says green activists have worked hard to demonstrate that environmental issues are relevant to everyone, but acknowledges that it is unlikely that haredim will vote for a non-haredi list. Although Green list members are aware of these considerations, for the moment nothing is being done to reach voters identified with any one of these political parties in the city. Michael Ro'eh, spokesman for the municipal lists of the Israeli Green Party, says: "We are not at all interested in politics or in people who are involved in politics. We are interested in bringing a real revolutionary concept - not only green, but a real, deep and healthy empowerment of citizens, those who have been so totally neglected until now by all the parties and lists. "But Jerusalem is so complex and special, that here, unlike in the other 50 towns and cities across the country where we run a Green list, we look for good people, notwithstanding what they were doing before." Regarding Tsur's candidacy as head of Jerusalem's Green list, Ro'eh says she was offered the position by list cofounder Arieh Hess alone, as the head of the Movement for Jerusalem Empowerment, and not by the Green Party, but adds immediately, "Naomi Tsur is of course a great figure of the green movement and environmental issues and her presence in the list would, of course, enhance it very much." In any case, the final list will be decided very soon, and announced at a press conference in the next two to three weeks. THE IDEA for a Green list is the brainchild of Hess, a former economist and high-ranking employee of the Jewish Agency. An active member of the Zionist Council he once directed, Hess has been involved with many public interest issues - including attempts to check and challenge the state budget in view of environmental and civic needs. His interest in environmental issues, especially solar energy, is relatively recent compared to Tsur's longtime involvement in this field. But as Tsur herself says, Hess has become a completely engaged proponent of the green cause, especially after a trip to Canada, where he was exposed to various green initiatives in Toronto. Hess says that while he is very involved in economic and welfare issues - like promoting more employment among the haredim and Arab residents and the improvement of educational programs - his main interest and focus is on ecological energy and building. "At one of the meetings of the Zionist Council held at Beit Belgia two years ago," recalls Hess in an interview with In Jerusalem, "we created the Movement for Jerusalem Empowerment. Its vision consisted of three major issues: making Jerusalem a green city, promoting the city as a center for science and technology and creating a network of cooperation between the city and its satellite towns to meet the demographic challenges of Jerusalem today and in the near future." At meetings of the Zionist Council and the newly created movement, Hass met a range of Jerusalemites enthusiastic about ecological issues, including city councillor Dr. Dalia Zommer (Shinui), and former principal of the German Colony's Beit Hahinuch High School, Dr. Gideon Stachel. After a while, these meetings led Hess, Zommer and Stachel to the conclusion that perhaps Jerusalem was ripe for a profound change in its local political thinking, and they began to nurture the idea of running on a Green list in the city council for the 2008 elections. "The first thing we did was to reach an agreement with the Israeli Green Party, to prevent a situation in which we would be more than one Green list running for the city council," says Hess. "We have achieved a total success on this front, and just a few days ago, we were officially designated as the representatives of the Israeli Green Party for Jerusalem's elections." The three were soon joined by Nathan Zarfati, head of the City Center Merchants Committee, Danny Weill, founder of Mahshava Tova, a philanthropic association that facilitates computer learning for youth, Gideon Ben-Dror, head and founder of the Jewish University, a project of the Zionist Council that is still in its planning stages, and graphic designer David Shapira, among others. Besides Zommer and Stachel, who are already well-known figures in the city, most of the members of the new list are unknown to the wider public. A second look at the names mentioned above and others on the list shows also that they are all middle-aged people, who belong to different sides of the political map but share one thing in common: "These are all people who care about Jerusalem and wish to do things to improve its residents' lives," says Zommer, who adds that her encounter with Hess convinced her to change her mind about leaving the city council. "I had decided to retire from politics at the end of this term and I even announced it. But upon meeting Hess I changed my mind and here I am, preparing myself for another election." Asked what makes her believe that this almost unknown list has a better chance than other attempts by secular and unidentified politically lists, Zommer says: "Things have changed here, and environmental issues are no more remote and weird ideas; we are very far away from that now." ACCORDING TO Zommer, it is possible to put a finger on the exact moment when things began to change in Jerusalem. "The turning point was, of course, the cancellation of the Safdie Plan [in February 2007]. This huge and almost unbelievable victory over the rich real estate sharks and against all odds led to a radical change in the reality here." The significance of the Safdie Plan's cancellation has not been in the greening of Jerusalem, she says, but rather the victory of the greens and residents against powerful forces in the city changed the rules of the game. Mayor Uri Lupolianski's decision to support the campaign, which played a vital role in the National Planning Council's decision to nix the plan, was a direct result of the greens' strength and an indication that green issues were no longer marginal, she continues. Zommer traces her green agenda to her "Shinui legacy," before the environment captured the public's attention. Fighting on behalf of green issues was much easier when Shinui had Knesset seats and was part of the coalition, she says. "I didn't have to fight the administration and the relevant ministries" as she has to now, she adds. "They were all absolutely green-minded themselves and ready to help and support my initiatives." Among other pressing issues, Zommer points to the urgent need to improve public transportation, including a large reduction of the use of private cars, to plant thousands of trees along the streets, to improve the cleanliness of the streets and to create dozens of public gardens and city parks. "It's [increased public awareness of environmental issues] not only the result of our struggle against the Safdie Plan," explains Tsur. "Since the creation of the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition, we have changed the situation on the ground of the city and if there is one thing I am proud of myself for, it is certainly this. "Today, being green is the 'bon ton' everywhere; everybody is green now, including the mayor, so our problem is not how to tell them [politicians] about the need for green-minded and ecological issues, we're far beyond that," she continues. "But this is not something that occurred overnight, it took time, about 10 to 12 years at least, but we're there now. And we're not talking about traditional green issues only, it's much more than that. We're talking about a deep change in basic values of our democracy: Today, we are moving from a centrist democracy to a participatory democracy, where residents' involvement and participation has become evident. "I am convinced that a great part of this has come as a positive outcome of the civil struggle to preserve the Gazelle Valley and against the Safdie Plan, including the dramatic change in Lupolianski's attitude. Today, the residents of Jerusalem are empowered; they will not retreat from that." Tsur, who began her public career in 1994 as the head of the parents' associations of religious Zionist schools in the city, became identified with green and nature protection issues, eventually heading the Jerusalem SPNI. Today she heads the SPNI's national campaign on green issues and environment quality, which seeks to enhance the inclusion of these issues in all the election campaigns across the country. "It was a strategic decision of the environmental organizations to lead such a campaign. We have a group of leading cities on this issue, with Jerusalem on top, followed by Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, Modi'in and the first Arab locality, Nazareth," says Tsur. "One of the things I will have to decide is if I want to quit this position, since of course I cannot continue to represent the national campaign and head a list at the same time," she concedes. "This is not a case of politics and wooing candidates; we're in the business of creating the messages that will bring together voters for green issues." As representatives of the Israeli Green Party for Jerusalem's elections, the Green list will not be limited to a green platform, but will also hold positions on a range of social and economic issues. The list, however, will not be running a mayoral candidate in the upcoming elections. ALTHOUGH HESS and Zommer say the party's platforms are a work in progress, the main points of the new list are ready and consist of six points: • Dramatically improving the city's public transportation and mobility; • Improving the city's state of cleanliness; • Greening the city, including creating open green spaces and promoting recycling; • Alternative energy (mostly solar); • Green construction; • Education, including environmentally friendly education and enlarging the participation of residents in educational programs. For Zommer, these issues represent no less than the new face of Zionism. "The green salvation is the most appropriate expression of Zionism," she says. "Today, traditional values like love and devotion to the nation and the homeland are expressed in our care for the environment in which we and the next generations will live. In terms of saving our environment, we are in a time of emergency." "WE HAVE a long list of detailed plans of how to turn Jerusalem into a healthy and sustainable green city," adds Hess. For example, "We will propose to residents our plan for solar roofs, which will provide cheap, clean and green energy. We have already achieved it with the roof of Beit Hanassi, and pretty soon a solar roof will also be installed at Kikar Safra; we met the mayor last week, and I can tell you he is on board." Hess provides sums required to implement this plan. "Greening a standard building of say 16 apartments will cost NIS 1 million, which will be covered by the contractor in exchange for greater building percentages. In so doing, we will kill two birds with one stone: adding apartments and saving money and energy with the use of solar energy." Hess is optimistic about the Green list's prospects. "I am sure we can reach at least 25,000 residents with our message, which means four or five seats on the city council. And, most importantly, to be a part of the coalition, including one led by a haredi mayor." Tsur believes the Green list has a chance of becoming the most sought-after list. "We can offer a diverse platform that will appeal to a range of residents - Left, Right, religious, secular, veterans and new immigrants. They can all join and support us, since what we offer suits them all. "We're not talking politics. After all, we all know that there is no chance that the mayor of Jerusalem, regardless of who he might be, will be invited to attend any negotiation team on the future of the city. So whether you believe that the city should be partitioned in two or united for eternity, what we, the greens, are talking about, is relevant for both parties and even beyond," she explains. Regarding the eventual collaboration with haredi parties, Tsur points out that environmental issues are not alien to them, and that tremendous work has been done on that front - and "with considerable results." Through Sustainable Jerusalem, "We have succeeded in reaching the mainstream public with green issues and destroy their stereotypes." Stachel adds: "Our target audience is not haredi, although I must add that we are certainly not against haredim, and we even have quite a large number of modern Orthodox [interested], mainly Anglos, who, despite their religious way of life, have for a long time been exposed to green and ecological issues, and support us openly. "We're talking about issues common to all people - haredim, religious Zionist, secular, veterans and newcomers, Jews and non-Jews alike." As for the best way to achieve the list's goals, Stachel points out that they are not running a candidate for mayor because, for the moment, there isn't a public figure who could draw sufficient support. "We are still considering that option, though it doesn't really sound realistic for the moment, so we're putting all our efforts into the city council elections, with a clear aim to reach the coalition, the only place where you can really change and promote programs. "The fact is that none of the big political parties is offering a mayoral candidate, which has been the case for a few years now," he continues. "I think it's a disaster that no one there [in the major political parties] dares to run as candidate - which might shed light on how much Jerusalem is really important to them. They don't dare to run because they think in terms of saving their career - like if they run and lose, that would have a bad effect on their status at the Knesset. "What can I tell you? It proves that for all these politicians, the importance of Jerusalem they talk about so much is ultimately more a declaration than a real engagement, and the residents are not stupid, they understand that." But for Stachel, most important is improving the education system in the city, namely the introduction of a green curriculum, integrating Zionist values and raising standards of excellence. "Being green means that you want to improve your community. What could be more fitting than the desire to better the education system of your community?" FOR THE moment, the next step, according to Hess, will be the creation of a shadow city council, with the 31 required members, each one holding a portfolio. After Yom Ha'atzmaut, the council will hold regular meetings at Kikar Safra, where issues on the actual agenda of the list and the city's needs will be discussed, in hopes of attracting the largest audience possible. The main problem is that until now, aside from the contributions of a few local businessmen - whose names Hess will not disclose for the moment - nobody knows what amount of money this list is capable of raising for the campaign. Donations have been few and far between, and although Zommer and apparently a few more on the list are close to the Shinui milieu, who form the closest thing to a relatively wealthy middle class, nothing indicates that the city's bourgeois are running to fund this list. But financial challenges don't seem to faze Stachel. "We have had a lot of help and support - not only financially, by the way. People have offered to give us use of their offices, their phones, things like that," he says. "Also it is very important for us to make clear that in any case, we are ideologically against a wasteful campaign, even if we had lots of money at our disposal. We believe that our campaign should be a part of our message: modesty, against waste and based essentially on volunteering and benevolent work."