Behind the Lines: Swallowing their greens whole

Media coverage of the Safdie saga chose to ignore the skyrocketing prices that has made whole J'lem neighborhoods accessible only to wealthy foreigners.

against safdie plan 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
against safdie plan 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On Army Radio on Tuesday, Razi Barkai was about to finish a rare interview with former MK Omri Sharon, when he announced that he was about to end with a sensitive question: "How is Dad?" he asked. There was nothing new to report on his father's condition, said Omri. Ariel Sharon is still in a deep coma. He also said that following the demonstration against the Safdie Plan - the original reason for the interview - he would be visiting the hospital. Barkai, usually the sharpest interviewer in the country, would have been doing his listeners a better service if, instead of inquiring about the former prime minister's health, he had asked Sharon junior what right the owner of a 5,000-dunam ranch - one of the largest private estates in Israel - had to advocate a plan that entails erecting an additional 45,000 homes within the already cramped and building-saturated capital. This was just the most recent example of the one-sided style of media coverage that ran throughout the whole Safdie saga. The stormy nine-year debate on the plan that was drawn up to solve Jerusalem's serious housing shortage over the next two decades seldom touched in the press on the real challenges facing the capital. There was no shortage of green demagoguery, however. Eager journalists prepared colorful reports, replete with pastoral scenes of peaceful valleys, wooded areas and dire predictions of their imminent destruction should the dastardly plan be put in motion. The other side of the coin - the unavailability of decent-sized, affordable apartments for young families; the skyrocketing of prices that has made whole neighborhoods accessible only to wealthy foreigners; and the resulting exodus from Jerusalem of the city's middle-class - simply wasn't sexy enough for more than a mention, at most. To hear various media personalities talk about the Safdie Plan over the last couple of years, you would have thought that it was an evil plot by rapacious underworld criminals to cheat the public out of its last green acre. Needless to say, most of these not-in-my-backyarders live in Gush Dan and have very little knowledge of, and even less concern for, the facts of life outside their charmed environment. I've lost count of the number of times the press, radio and television have run pieces on how hard it is to find an apartment to rent in Tel Aviv. But since their world doesn't extend east of Ben Gurion Airport, it's too much to expect them to make any effort to understand the complexities of life elsewhere. ONE OF the claims made again and again by the environmentalists is that the Safdie Plan was dreamed up by politicians for the purpose of carving up nature and dividing it among well-connected, wealthy contractors. Catchy, of course, but it defies logic. The current situation, in which real estate prices in Jerusalem are constantly on the up escalator, is a bonanza for every speculator, wheeler and dealer. Freeing up land through open tenders, for 20,000 new houses in a desirable location near the city will push down those prices. Another claim is that by building new suburbs, the planning authorities would be delivering a death-blow to the impoverished city center. Once again, this is at best a misunderstanding of urban realities. The neighborhoods envisaged in the Safdie Plan are for families with young children, who wouldn't be interested in living in the center of the city, which should market itself as an address for students and couples without children. The Jerusalem Development Authority, one of the main sponsors of Safdie, is busy with just such a plan to reinvigorate the capital's downtown. The media uncritically accepted the arguments put forward by the plan's opponents, to such a degree that when Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski made an about-face three months ago and suddenly announced he was "freezing" the plan, his move was received with unanimous approval. No one thought to ask why the mayor - who had backed the plan from it start in 1998 (as a deputy mayor in charge of planning never known for having a "green" conscience) - had suddenly changed his tune. It was obviously a publicity stunt that had nothing to do with environmental concerns. The mayor does not have the power freeze a national planning authority program. His PR advisers, though, convinced him that it was the best way to curry favor with the liberals, enraged with his position on the gay parade a month earlier. And they were right. At least Lupolianski's deputy, Yehoshua Pollak, was honest enough to admit that the alternative plan - advocated by the environmentalists and belatedly Lupolianski - to use space within the city's current borders to build 45,000 new homes - was "unrealistic," and offered no solutions to the non-haredi population. But his comments were buried somewhere in the business pages. No one even bothered to ask whether the alternative plan is itself environmentally sound. Jerusalem's old neighborhoods are badly planned and dilapidated. City Hall cares little for preserving historical buildings, while new architectural monstrosities abound. Lack of planning turns every daylight hour on the roads into rush-hour - which can't be good for the environment. How can adding tens of thousands of new homes make the city any greener? Nor did anyone seem to notice that the alternative plan included projects that had already been blocked by the environmentalists. None of these facts appeared to bother the reporters covering the issue, who gave most of their newspaper space and airtime over to the plan's opponents, scarcely bothering to add a short comment from the planning professionals who were backing it. ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS is still relatively low in Israel, but it has risen high enough for the media to begin to latch on to it. As a result, most reporters covering the issue are content to swallow the green agenda whole, making little effort to understand the wider picture. Unquestionably, there are many rivers, beaches, forests and sand dunes that have been destroyed by unbridled development and careless industry, and for too many years this has been going on without any effective opposition. But accepting every green argument unchallenged, and not trying to balance claims of environmental damage with other considerations, is irresponsible. Currently, the media accepts that "Green Is Good," without seeing any other shades. This superficial coverage reigned when the environmentalists tried to block the construction of Road 6, since proven to be a valuable lifeline connecting the Galilee and Negev to the center; the building of a new coal-fuelled power station at Hadera, which not only has caused only minimal pollution, but has allowed the cleaning up of the blighted Hadera River; and the campaign against the fish cages in the Red Sea, which since have been proven by independent research actually to improve the water and reduce pollution. The agenda of Israel's media is overwhelmingly drawn up from a Tel Aviv perspective. From the center of the metropolis, it's always easy to go green. Taking time to consider the problems of the people actually living in those faraway areas seems to be beyond their capabilities.