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The Emergence of an Israeli Environmental Movement
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5. The Emergence of an
Israeli Environmental

It was 1972. General Haim Bar-Lev had just shed his uniform to take a po-sition in Israel's cabinet as Minister of Trade and Industry. A proposal from the Haifa-based Nesher Cement Company reached his desk calling for long-term quarrying rights on the northern ridge of the Carmel moun-tains in Haifa. Although the area had recently been declared a nature re-serve, the Nesher experts explained that the quarry would really only re-move the top forty-six meters from the Givat ha-Haganah peak. Then they would restore it to a condition even better than its present state. The minister was sympathetic; after all, his job was to support Israeli industry. He was also out of touch. A soldier since the inception of the State, Bar-Lev was unaware of the power that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) wielded in a democratic Israeli society.

“In 1972 I was eighteen years old and came to the SPNI rally in the Carmel,” remembers anthropologist Danny Rabinowitz. “Ten thousand people joined to call for the quarry's cancellation. This was before the Yom Kippur War, when mass protests became part of Israeli political culture. It was a real moment in the history of Israeli rallies and demonstrations.”[1]

The rally—and SPNI General Secretary Azariah Alon's inspirational speech—did more than just electrify the participants: The cabinet ap-pointed the Ministers of the Interior and Agriculture to join Bar-Lev on an official committee to assess the issue.[2] It became clear that regardless of its merits, the proposal was illegal and could move forward only after secur-ing approval from several bodies, including the Knesset's Interior Committee. Given public sentiment about the Carmel Park, and given the SPNI's ability to galvanize that sentiment, such approval seemed un-likely.[3] An alternative quarrying site was found in the western Galilee near Tamra.[4]


During the pre-State years, it is not surprising that the Yishuv did not produce a serious environmental movement. With Jewish control of only 7 percent of the lands at the end of the Mandate, there was no clear avenue for public involvement in preservation issues. And of course the public was distracted by the business of national independence. Yet the speed with which the SPNI captured the Israeli public's support during the 1950s sug-gests that the organization answered a deep-seated need to stay in touch with and preserve a precious land.

By the end of its first decade, a young, indigent country, with no model of public-interest organizations, sported a bold and original public-interest Green advocate. For much of Israel's history, the Society for the Protection of Nature (or “the Society” as its members called it) was synonymous with the country's environmental movement.

Not all Israelis adore the SPNI. Some, for instance, do not share its em-pathy for nature and resent its perspective as self-righteous, elitist, and ex-aggerated. “If Michelangelo was born in the land of Israel (in the form of Michael Malachi) and wanted to immortalize David's image in marble,” read one editorial, “the Society for the Protection of Nature would submit a Supreme Court petition against him, arguing that quarrying marble hurts the landscape. … These nature lovers oppose any change in the land-scape, good or bad.”[5]

But the organization is sufficiently venerated to make its iris logo a valuable marketing asset (many types of products brandish its endorse-ment, from cellular phones to credit cards). With tens of thousands of af-filiates,[6] SPNI is the country's largest membership organization. Its liter-ature claims that 20 percent of Israelis are involved in some aspect of its educational activities.[7] The SPNI's budget in 1999 was over 176 million shekels, and it employed over six hundred workers. This is roughly three times more personnel than the biggest environmental organizations in the United States, such as the Sierra Club or the National Audubon Society.[8] It has magazines, international tours, and camping stores and also oversees historic-building registration. In spite of its periodic dis-agreements with SPNI, Israel's government in 1980 granted the Society the country's highest honor—the Israel Prize.

A review of the Society's evolution touches on some of the most im-portant environmental triumphs in the country's history. Yet what began as a nimble, aggressive, improvisational family has burgeoned into a bu-reaucracy that its greatest fans acknowledge can be oppressive. The orga-nization's history can be divided somewhat arbitrarily into the periods be-fore and after the SPNI's receipt of the Israel Prize. Each stage had its key personalities, culture, and dynamics and its defining environmental campaigns.

The story of the SPNI is ultimately one of idealism and idealists who harnessed Israelis' visceral attachment to their homeland, the heart and soul of the Zionist conviction. How they transformed it into a sus-tainable institution for conservation is a remarkable tale.


Conventional wisdom holds that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel came as a response of activists to the JNF draining of the Huleh lake and wetlands during the 1950s. This is true but only indirectly. The Huleh campaign actually preceded the Society, but it had a significant role in shaping the perspective of the SPNI's founders. In fact the organiza-tional genesis is the result of one of the most successful and durable part-nerships in Israeli history: the team of Azariah Alon and Amotz Zahavi.

The two met after the War of Independence in the circle of devoted stu-dents who were associated with the Biological Institute in Tel Aviv. Zahavi (seeFigure 8) worked as a bird guide at the affiliated Kibbutz Seminar Center, where Alon was studying. The attraction was less than obvious: Alon immigrated to Israel at age six, whereas Zahavi was a Sabra. Alon, al-ready over thirty when they met, was a respected nature teacher from Kibbutz Beit ha-Shita. Zahavi, a city boy from Petah Tikva and aspiring graduate student in the sciences, was ten years younger. Alon was a gifted public speaker and a prolific writer. Zahavi was more technical and entre-preneurial. Despite their differences they shared a passion for Israel's nat-ural world and a no-nonsense work ethic. Over the years their combined efforts would produce synergetic results.

Zahavi claims that starting the organization was Alon's idea. Alon counters that their ideas coalesced when the two shared a tent as part of a 1950 delegation that explored possible routes for a new road through the Negev.[9] Although there is a consensus that it was the young upstart Zahavi (rather than Alon) who actually got the ball rolling, they shared a mentor. “Amotz Zahavi is the father of the SPNI—but that makes Professor Mendelssohn the grandfather,”[10] concludes Uzi Paz, often con-sidered the unofficial historian of nature protection in Israel. Fascinated by birds, Zahavi idolized Professor Heinrich Mendelssohn, who was the lead-ing figure at Margolin's Biological Institute. After the War of Independence he began work as Professor Mendelssohn's research assistant.[11]

The outbreak of World War II and financial constraints had for twenty years delayed the JNF's ambitious settlement plans for the northern Galilee.[12] As its first major land reclamation project after Israel's

independence, the JNF announced its intention to drain what it called the “Huleh Swamp” to make way for the agricultural cultivation of one hun-dred thousand dunams. To the JNF, the Huleh region in the northern Galilee was the epitome of forsaken land crying out for reclamation. Insects and dis-ease had kept it nonproductive except for modest papyrus harvesting and some fishing. It was, however, an ecological treasure chest.[13] The valley held the greatest concentration of aquatic plants in the entire Near East, eighteen species of fish, and so rich a collection of migratory birds that, on one October day, fifty different species were sighted in a single place.[14]

Mendelssohn was already intimately familiar with the wetlands, having received the prestigious Bialik Prize for his ornithological research at the Huleh. In 1950 he sent his young aid Zahavi to continue surveying the bird population there. Accepting this project meant that he would have to delay his return to his university studies, which had been truncated by the War. Zahavi was concerned about the interruption but ultimately figured, “To hell with school. Soon there won't be any birds left to see.”[15] With the help of a kibbutz fishing dinghy, Zahavi and his local volunteers overcame the ubiquitous leeches in the water to generate considerable new data.[16](This impulsive decision to choose public interest science over the better-trod academic route would repeat itself during Zahavi's career and was one of the keys to the SPNI's success.)

Since his arrival in Palestine in the 1930s, Professor Mendelssohn had been unwilling to limit his zoological activities to research.[17] He was par-ticularly outspoken on the issue of the Huleh reclamation, calling it a dis-aster for biodiversity.[18] Mendelssohn's was not the only skeptical voice in the scientific community.[19] In 1951 he formed a Nature Protection Committee of concerned scientists affiliated with the National Botanical and Zoological Societies. The Committee's work culminated in a 1953 pro-posal calling for the creation of “reservatim” in areas of the Huleh, the Carmel forests, and the Galilee.

The Committee was not just an academic advisory forum. Its members dug into their own pockets to fund Israel's first environmental media trip, a two-day guided visit for the press to the Upper Galilee to foster public awareness.[20] There was a strong case against draining the Huleh. The orig-inal rationale for the project was in fact no longer very compelling:

  • Malaria was now under control because of the introduction of DDT.

  • The additional reclaimed agricultural lands had little meaning for a country that was so sparsely populated.

  • Alternative lands could be developed at a much cheaper price.[21]


With newspaper coverage and Mendelssohn's lobbying efforts, a reluc-tant Yosef Weitz at the JNF listened to their case. In 1951 he set up a spe-cial committee to consider the appeal. Simcha Blass, head of the Ministry of Agriculture Water Department, chaired the JNF committee. They heard all the experts, including twenty-three-year-old Amotz Zahavi's call for a four-thousand-dunam reserve—eight times the land his former teachers were requesting. For the JNF of the 1950s, the value of eradicating “swamps” was axiomatic. Thus it is hardly surprising that environmentalists lost this round.[22] By 1958 the complex of wetlands and lake was entirely drained. In the most massive reclamation project in Israel's history, the southern di-vider between the lake and the Kinneret was literally blown away. Local residents were stunned by the dramatically altered landscape.

Five years later, the SPNI's unstinting efforts pushed the JNF to stick to its promise to reflood 3100 dunams (apparently based on Zahavi's de-mands).[23] It is unclear whether Weitz was joking when he told Professor Mendelssohn that his motives for reflooding primarily were “to allow fu-ture generations to see how miserable conditions used to be here.” Other signs suggest that his perspective may actually have changed. Publicly, at least, he was not happy with the decision. “Do you know how many fam-ilies could make a living on the lands I'm giving you?” he roared.[24]

In either case, the Huleh reserve declaration in 1964 was an empty vic-tory. In theory, the cumulative years of protest produced the country's first case of land designation for nature protection, but unfortunately the re-serve bore little resemblance to the original wetlands. Under JNF manage-ment it got neither the water nor the infrastructure it needed. Only in the mid-1960s, when the Nature Reserve Authority took over its administra-tion, did the 3100-dunam swamp begin to show signs of rehabilitation. Even though the ad hoc Huleh campaign was not immediately successful, it did serve to galvanize a core of Green activists and set the stage for the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Nature.

Zahavi and Alon did not start organizing from scratch. As Professor Mendelssohn's research assistant, Zahavi was encouraged to launch SPNI through the Joint Committee for Nature Protection, which was under the Zoological and Botanical Societies. After its first taste of action with the Huleh initiative, the Committee was ready for more. Despite his age and junior status as a graduate student, Zahavi was comfortable taking on the role of group organizer.[25]

In fact it took another ten months, until December 1953, to register the group formally as a nonprofit organization (or “Ottoman Association,” as it was called under the old Turkish law still on the books). The group was

restless, frustrated by its lack of influence and a sense of stagnation. When Zahavi raised funds for a half-time “secretary,” Alon pushed the organiza-tion to go public.[26] In June 1954, during the Shavuot holidays, the “Society for the Protection of Nature” held its founding conference at the Oranim Kibbutz Seminar Center near Haifa. Typically Alon and Zahavi have dif-ferent attendance estimates (70[27] versus 150[28]). They agree that it was a huge success. The crowd, composed predominantly of kibbutz members and teachers, left with a sense that they had witnessed a momentous be-ginning. In short, six years after Israel's establishment, it was quite clear that the State's priorities were not always consistent with those of nature. This new organization would put environmental interests first and try to teach the people and their leaders why they should too.


After the initial fanfare, institutional follow-up proved feeble. Initially Zahavi believed that a university student working part time should be able to coordinate the Society's activities satisfactorily. After two or three were fired for poor performance, he saw that his expectations for the job were far greater than he had originally recognized.[29] Azariah Alon, however, was busy teach-ing in the Harod Valley, and Zahavi himself, committed to scientific research, left for a year of advanced study in London for much of 1955. Abraham “Boomi” Toran, a beloved but eccentric teacher from Kibbutz Mabarot, received a year's sabbatical from his responsibilities on the kibbutz to run the organization from Tel Aviv. Yet he lacked the connections and administrative savvy that the unknown fledgling Society needed.

When Zahavi returned from his studies in August of 1955, he found an ailing organization. Boomi Toran had to return to his kibbutz responsibil-ities. No budget had been generated, membership was still marginal, and a replacement for Boomi was nowhere in sight. The SPNI was on the verge of disappearing.[30] Reluctantly Zahavi made a three-year commit-ment to delay his doctoral research, a delay that would stretch on for fifteen more years.

Professor Mendelssohn was again the coconspirator who would revive the organization. These were the early days of Tel Aviv University. As a prestigious zoologist who had thrown his lot in with the school, Mendelssohn was well situated. By the end of 1956, the Society was still without financial resources, and Zahavi had no money of his own left to bankroll his work. Mendelssohn, who never tried to rein Zahavi in, agreed to an “outrageous” idea he proposed: He put Zahavi on the university payroll

as a research assistant (presumably to catch animals in the wild) at the new zoological research facility.

An unprecedented membership campaign began. Later Zahavi would joke that he had no friends left after pressuring them all to pay SPNI dues. If so, he must have started with quite a few. Within three years, five thou-sand people would join the Society.[31] Newspapers offered free publicity in return for a column on nature preservation.[32] When Azariah Alon began appearing weekly on the country's only radio station in 1955, word got out. The simple mission of preserving the birds, trees, flowers, and vistas that the first Israelis had come to love resonated in the young, idealistic country. The SPNI served as an institutional outlet for the “pantheistic Sabra” who was raised on devotion to the natural world. And although po-litical leaders may have found some of their demands annoying, they could not help but admire the young idealists as representing the best of the Zionist dream.

The role of the kibbutz movement in shaping the SPNI's institutional culture during the early days cannot be overemphasized.[33] The organization had a clear hierarchy but socially was classless. Professors mingled with farmers and high-school students. At the same time, as a group it was elit-ist. Just as the kibbutz of those days eschewed titles such as “Director,” the organization was headed by a “Secretary” with its more egalitarian conno-tation. Its members were knowledgeable but decidedly not intellectuals.

The intermingling of the kibbutz with organizational norms had other implications. For instance, the Society resisted being run like a business for years and therefore was perennially in debt. The SPNI still does not offer bonuses for exceptional performance. Benny Shalmon, an SPNI scientist-guide for thirty years, believes that this might be one of the causes for the high turnover rate among the more talented employees.

Amotz Zahavi consulted with experts but made most of the key calls himself. From its inception, he led the SPNI on an aggressive, uncharted path to protect nature and natural resources. Decisions were pragmatic, and Zahavi would cut an imperfect deal if there was no better deal to be had. Yet, given the spirit of the times and the economic conditions in the young State, Zahavi and his crew were also remarkably uncompromising in pur-suing their agenda. Urieh Ben Yisrael, an early SPNI worker, recalls a director of an immigrant camp in Beit Shemesh who came to him in tears. “He said that if we opposed the development of a local quarry, there would be unemployment and suffering there. As in all matters,Amotz was the last word, but he ruled that we were to continue to fight the quarry: ‘The peo-ple in the camp will ultimately be taken care of. Nature won't be.’”[34]



Indefatigable as he was, Zahavi recognized from the outset that he could not do the job alone and needed soldiers in the field. The first group of SPNI em-ployees (alternatively called “rangers”[35] or “regional coordinators”[36]) filled a quasi-government role, preventing illegal hunting and working with plan-ning agencies to integrate ecological considerations. With no money, Zahavi could rely only on chutzpah to recruit workers. Still, by the late 1950s, the SPNI had personnel in the field in the Huleh, the western Galilee, Eilat, Ein Gedi, the Mediterranean coast, the Judean mountains, and Mount Meron.[37]

Unleashing this pack of brash, energetic idealists brought the message of conservation to the Israeli public. Over half of the country's citizens had recently immigrated and were therefore not well informed about the nat-ural processes in their new land. The SPNI created a cadre of young ac-tivists who would form the core of Israel's environmental movement.

The experience of Uriel Safriel, one of the first SPNI “employees,” was typical. Zahavi found the recently discharged soldier a collection of odd jobs, teaching nature in the schools, working as a porter in the Eilat port, and selling SPNI membership cards. Having patched together this motley array of salaries, Zahavi wished Safriel luck and sent him south.[38] Today Safriel heads Ben-Gurion University's prestigious Blaustein Institute for Desert Research. The eminent ecology professor cannot contain the twin-kle in his eye when he remembers the general cacophony surrounding the quixotic crew that set out to protect Israel's natural world. In a young country with relatively few entrenched interests, the young rangers in fact accomplished a great deal. Safriel was supposed to focus on enforcing hunting laws and protecting the coral reef in Eilat, receiving an official ap-pointment from the Ministry of Agriculture to this end. Like the other rangers, he was limited only by his own ingenuity:

Luckily I found a sympathetic Nahal group (military-farming corps) that was patrolling along the border at Yotvata. I'd just hop on the command car and join them for the patrols and then continue to use it as my vehicle for inspections. Later a group of Bedouin were trying to smuggle firearms across the border. The soldiers caught them in an ambush and shot all their camels. All but one, which they gave to me. So I would ride it, conducting inspections up and down the coast, giving out fines to anyone I caught removing corals from the sea.[39]

Safriel also managed to make underwater observations and post signs protecting the rare doum palm trees. Although he sees his effort to fill up watering troughs for gazelles as well meaning but silly, he maintains that other initiatives were important. After he conducted a survey of the Eilat

coastline, the city government accepted Safriel's recommendation for a re-serve. The municipality built a primitive fence around the lands that today are home to Eilat's only official marine and coastal nature reserve. Zahavi found the time to come down and check up on his young ranger three times during this period.[40] Otherwise, Safriel and his replacement, Uzi Paz, operated entirely on their own during the 1950s.

The designation of Eilat's corals as “fish” is one of the more famous sto-ries in the SPNI lore from the period; it offers a revealing insight about the level of collaboration between the organization and Israeli academia. Coral, of course, consists of a hardened secretion that provides an external skeleton for polyps—marine invertebrates and no fish at all. The problem was Israeli enthusiasm for the newly discovered exotic world of the Red Sea. People wanted to take the colorful corals home with them. When the SPNI looked for a regulatory angle to curtail the practice, all they could find was the old British fishing ordinance. The legal staff at the Ministry of Agriculture were suspicious, demanding a written affidavit from a zool-ogist that Eilat's coral were indeed fish. Zahavi approached Professor Shteinitz, a proper academic and German immigrant who ran Hebrew University's Biology Department. “You want me to sign that. You're in-sane,” protested the distinguished biologist. Amotz told him: “Well, you decide then. Either you sign, or the corals will be destroyed.”[41] Shteinitz signed, and the Ministry of Agriculture allowed regulation to begin.[42]

Even with Zahavi's ingenious manipulations, salaries for the growing staff imposed a heavy financial burden on the organization. It was during his early days as Secretary that the SPNI first came to rely on government funding to defray expenses. In 1956, at one of their weekly meetings, Zahavi told Alon that the organization was short four thousand lirot and was unable to pay the regional coordinators. The Minister of the Interior at the time was Israel Bar-Yehudah, a member of Kibbutz Yagur and from the same political faction as Azariah Alon. Alon took the matter up with his friend the Minister, and the money was passed on to the SPNI through the budgets of the Regional Councils funded by the Ministry of the Interior. (It was exactly for this sort of financial patronage that Minister of the Interior Ariyeh Deri was indicted in the 1990s, despite his claims that this was how Israeli politics had always worked.[43])

The same chronic financial woes pushed the SPNI beyond its original nature-protection mandate. As frequently happens, exigency soon became ideology. For instance, the organization entered the world of informal ed-ucation and for-profit tour guiding only as a way to raise money. Prior to this, organized hikes were associated with sports and physical fitness. In 1956 Eli Ronen, an SPNI worker, discovered a transport company that

could offer inexpensive weekend charters. The guided hikes around the country brought Israelis to little-known scenic areas and generated rev-enues for the Society.[44] The menu of SPNI trips soon included family op-tions and eventually international travel. Most important, the Society began to make nature preservation and appreciation the centerpiece of the hikes, supplementing the public-school curriculum. So many SPNI work-ers were eventually employed in this area that education and hiking were quickly seen as an end in themselves. According to a study conducted by Technion researchers, by 1974 only 0.6 percent of the SPNI budget went to environmental protection activities.[45] In one of the great ironies of its history, in 1997 the SPNI was divided by claims that the management had abandoned its original mission of education for nature and Zionism.

From the SPNI's first decade, there may be no institutional innovation more associated with it than the field school. “Patent” rights in fact belong to another long-time preservation advocate: Yossi Feldman. Having just finished working on an experimental farm that recreated ancient Nabatean agriculture at Shivta, the restless, twenty-eight-year-old Feldman arrived at the Ein Gedi kibbutz, facing the Dead Sea and above the scenic desert streams and waterfalls. The kibbutz had recently moved into its permanent housing. Feldman immediately set his sights on its original wooden struc-tures, now abandoned, to create an education and archaeology center for students.[46] He gained the rights to the complex and set about renovating. When Amotz Zahavi suggested a collaboration between Feldman's school and the SPNI in 1960, it seemed the natural thing to do. The partnership between the two men had been established earlier, when Zahavi brought a group of students to Ein Gedi to spend a couple of days clearing out a garbage dump from the entrance to the oasis at Nahal David.

Being close to the border, the field school had a strong military component as well as an archaeological focus. Yet the Ein Gedi facility pioneered some of the trademark field school activities, such as trail marking and hosting school groups. In the absence of any formal government presence, Feldman's outfit took over and set up the trails along the Nahal Arugot and Nahal David streams.[47] During the week-long Sukkot holiday of 1962, twenty-five thou-sand Israelis came out, taking advantage of the newly accessible oasis.[48]

Although the field school was ostensibly a marriage of convenience be-tween an ambitious nature organization and a like-minded entrepreneur, the union had a third partner—the Ministry of Education. The initial sup-port of ten thousand lira from the Ministry of Education for the Ein Gedi facility burgeoned when unexpected government sponsorship changed the scope of this and future field-school initiatives.


The field schools enabled SPNI to reach millions of Israeli schoolchild-ren over the years and present its nationalistic message of love and com-mitment to Israel's natural world and heritage. Yet they also blurred the Society's nongovernmental status. The very fact that in 1997, for the fourth time, Israel's State Comptroller audited SPNI activities and in par-ticular its field schools implies that they had crossed the line and at least legally become an accountable government agency. This is due to the ex-tent of the government subsidy for field schools, which amounted to roughly one-third of the SPNI's budget.[49]

Many of the guides of SPNI hikes and field schools became legends in their own right. Dr. Benny Shalmon, working out of the Eilat field school for close to thirty years, is one such figure. Holding a group spellbound for hours, he points out hidden features of the insects, rocks, plants, footprints, and droppings inside a hundred-meter radius of seemingly barren waste-land. Although his approach is decidedly secular, many people describe trips with him as a religious experience. Shalmon actually sees himself as a second-generation guide and remembers the thrill in the 1960s of finally being old enough to hike with SPNI's first full-time and most renowned guide, Shukah Ravek. Shukah, as he is known, is legendary for his en-durance and apparent invincibility, surviving any number of falls, broken bones, and rappelling disasters. “So he limps a little bit, but you still can't keep up with him. I'm telling you he's indestructible,” marvels Shalmon. Ravek has more than just remarkable stamina. He also has extensive knowledge about natural history. While hiking in Jordan, Shukah actually discovered a species of acacia that had not been identified since 1891.[50]

In 1968 the army began allowing women soldiers to work as guides at the SPNI field school at Sdeh Boqer; today over two hundred women soldiers serve as the SPNI's core educational staff at its schools. Although initially their professional training was haphazard, the present three-month course produces a competent cadre of young nature guides. “Ultimately, it's a very positive phenomenon,” enthuses Benny Shalmon. “First of all, we really get the crème de la crème of Israel's youth. Also, at a time when combat positions for females were unthinkable, it allowed the army to offer women something that was intellectually more challenging than folding parachutes.”[51]

From the 1960s, field schools provided intense educational experiences for Israel's youth and a training ground for a generation of environmen-tal leaders. Danny Rabinowitz's experience as a guide in the Sinai moun-tains field school in the 1970s after his army service was a typically life-changing experience. “It was a breathtaking place, 150 kilometers from the nearest asphalt. Once a week a jeep brought food from the supermarket in

Eilat. Just twenty young people, and all we had to do was some guiding and ecological surveys. There was a sense that we were privileged.”[52]

Field schools offered a compelling educational package, but the primary vehicle for delivering the SPNI message to the public was Azariah Alon, a one-man publicity machine. Paradoxically the founding partner who chose to stay on the farm became the household name.

Azariah Alon has been a member of Kibbutz Beit ha-Shita for sixty years. He always looks the part, showing up in shorts and sandals regard-less of the formality of the occasion. Stocky, with thick, muscular legs that attest to the thousands of kilometers hiked, he is literally a walking nature encyclopedia. He thinks he may be the country's sole university lecturer with only a high-school diploma. In short, if Zahavi was the Society's or-ganizational engine, Alon (see Figure 9) was its trumpet.[53] Thousands fol-lowed when he sounded the call.


Few campaigns are more associated with the early years of the SPNI than the battle to create the Carmel National Park. In the 1930s the Hachsharat Yishuv agency had subdivided lands in the Carmel mountains into hun-dreds of one-dunam tracts and sold them to Jewish workers as Haifa's newest suburb. Roads were even cut through the woodlands to expedite construction. Only the Arab Revolt of 1933–1936, World War II, and the War of Independence delayed development.[54] Hence, at the inception of the State, the Carmel was an anomaly: a scenic old-growth forest, over-looking the heart of Israel's residential coastal region and sloping down the hills to the Mediterranean plains.

Early national development plans drafted by the Ministry of the Interior envisioned a modest portion of the Carmel region as a park. In the initial discussions about the future of the Carmel, nature enthusiasts were too timid to ask for the entire area, but over time the SPNI grew bolder.[55] In 1962 developers began to move ahead with their plans; it was time for the organization to up the stakes. In contrast to the battle over the Huleh, which really involved only three or four academic activists, the SPNI brought out the masses for the first time to further its case for a Carmel park. It was Boomi Toran's idea to turn Tu Bishvat, the traditional birth-day of the trees, into a series of solidarity hikes in the Carmel.[56]

The press coverage of the unprecedented “demonstration of thousands” was extensive. The cabinet responded with a call for a moratorium on all Carmel construction. This government involvement is the most likely

source for apocryphal stories about Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's role in promoting a Carmel Park legacy. In one form of the legend, when Ben-Gurion was taken to the top of the mountain, he looked upon the ver-dant landscape, and declared that the Carmel would remain a park for all future generations. Although Ben-Gurion was clearly sympathetic to Carmel conservation efforts, there is no record of such a trip,[57] and SPNI old-timers dismiss it.

Not until 1971 was the park's status resolved. Although the final bor-ders fell short of the maximalist proposal, it was still a very good deal for nature.[58] It was also more than just a major victory that preserved a lovely corner of Israel—it was a defining campaign. The SPNI leadership imme-diately understood the breadth of public support and their new capacity to take on powerful development interests and win.

It was during this period that the SPNI's historical animosity toward the JNF's pine forests became increasingly influential. The campaigns of the 1960s also provided the opportunity for the next generation of SPNI leaders to cut their teeth. No campaign was more important than the ef-forts that led to the creation of a nature reserve on Mount Meron. The area held the largest old-growth Mediterranean forest in Israel. For almost a decade, the SPNI fought to stop military bases and Druze villages from en-croaching on it. They even resisted the offer of a deluxe field school to be built in the heart of the reserve to replace the collection of trailers and di-lapidated buses that housed the Meron Field School.[59] Eventually the area was declared the largest nature reserve north of Beer Sheva.

As head of the newly formed Meron Field School, Yoav Sagi was the key figure in these struggles. During his days as a military officer for the elite Druze commando “300” unit, he had been frequently stationed in the Negev. After returning to civilian life, he spent a year at his home at Moshav Muledet and then decided to go back to Eilat, where he met Amotz Zahavi. It was a meeting that changed his life, enabling him to “combine business and a hobby.”[60] Zahavi found the twenty-four-year-old Sagi a job helping to oversee the ecological impacts of the National Water Carrier, then under con-struction. Thirty-nine years later Sagi remains a dominant figure in the or-ganization, succeeding Azariah Alon as General Secretary in 1979 and in 1988 becoming the first full-time organizational chairman of the SPNI.[61]

The 1960s were a period when the organization fully defined its iden-tity as an independent advocate for nature. For instance, in 1963 the many years of lobbying led to a prohibition of mining “zifzif,” Mediterranean beach sands. When the sands disappeared, giant sea turtles had no place to lay their eggs. That was also the year that saw the passage of the National

Parks and Nature Reserves Law. Soon thereafter, the SPNI embarked on its most famous campaign of the 1960s: a protracted effort to stop the picking of Israel's wildflowers. (This joint venture with the SPNI's new partners in the Nature Reserves Authority is detailed inChapter 6.)

It was the 1970s, however, that have been called the organization's “golden years,”[62] during which it won a string of key victories for nature. A sampling of the better-publicized triumphs gives a sense of the organiza-tion's enormous influence. In August 1971 Azariah Alon published a position paper calling for a new power station to be moved from its proposed location at the base of Nahal Taninim, or Crocodile Stream.[63] Although no longer a home to crocodiles, it is one of the few streams outside of the Galilee that remains relatively clean. A letter-writing campaign ensued. In April 1972, five hundred SPNI activists turned out for a protest at the site; the result-ing publicity far exceeded the actual size of the crowd.[64] As a result of the lobbying, a committee headed by Professor Moshe Hill was appointed to reconsider the issue. The committee ultimately suggested moving the facil-ity to its present site at Nahal Hadera, which was already heavily polluted from the discharges of Israel's only paper mill.[65] On June 6, 1972, the National Planning Council approved the new location.

In 1974 after almost a decade of hands-on work in the Galilee, based out of the Meron Field School, Yoav Sagi returned from his studies and estab-lished the SPNI's Nature Protection Department (see Figure 10). As he perceived the situation, the emergence of a strong, governmental Nature Reserves Authority had diverted the SPNI from its original mission of na-ture preservation. When a disagreement over the excessive tapping of the Dan streams with the Nature Reserves Authority blew up into a full-fledged controversy, he became convinced that the SPNI could not afford to limit itself to education. (After the SPNI lobbied the rank-and-file members of northern Galilee kibbutzim and eliciting a feasible alternative from government experts, its proposal for a modest “eastern pipeline” was ultimately accepted. With the pipes for a central line already in the field, it was the first of many last-minute victories.[66])

Among the first things he did as he pushed the organization into watch-dog mode was to appoint a staff member from every field school to take personal responsibility for nature preservation in the surrounding area. The theory was to avoid centralized control from the SPNI's headquarters in Tel Aviv, whose perspective might be colored by complicated organiza-tional considerations. Rather, people in the field, who presumably remain truer to the values in question, should drive the Department's agenda.[67] Sagi wanted a rebellious rather than a complacent crew of workers.


The organizational shift was reflected in a series of campaigns between 1974 and 1988, and according to Sagi's count sixteen out of eighteen were successful. One of the first initiatives from this period was the campaign to save the Bulbusim and the surrounding area near the so-called “Hor Har” mountain in the Negev. Bulbusim are midsized boulders, remarkably rounded, that bounced hundreds of kilometers until finally resting like statues on the desert floor. Guides from the Hatzeva Field School noticed surveying work in the area and uncovered a plan to run railroad tracks through the area to support a phosphate factory in Nahal Tsin. Once again, the Nature Reserves Authority was not inclined to stop the factory's ex-pansion,[68] so the SPNI took on the issue single-handedly. In December 1975, a thousand members made the trip down to the remote site to protest. When the factory managers displayed a surprising alacrity to ex-plore alternatives, the Nature Reserves Authority decided that it was an important site to preserve after all. In 1980 a new nature reserve was de-clared at Hor Har, which saved the Bulbusim.[69]

Yossi Leshem has been one of the most colorful SPNI leaders since the 1970s. During the past twenty years no one has had greater success in rais-ing public awareness about any environmental issue than he has in his campaign to protect birds, in particular birds of prey. “He did for birds what Azariah Alon did for wildflowers” is the common comparison. With a Ph.D. in zoology, Leshem fits perfectly the idealized SPNI stereotype of the “scientist in sandals”[70]—with one exception. Leshem is an Orthodox Jew in a predominantly secular organization.

Azariah Alon, who served as the General Secretary of the SPNI when Leshem first began working there, has never hidden his distaste for the re-ligious status quo on which Israel's Orthodox parties insist. For instance, whenever the issue of sustainable transportation arises, he invariably blames public transport's decline on the religious limitations placed on Sabbath travel. But Leshem quickly gained Alon's respect as well as that of the rest of the nonreligious management of SPNI. Leshem rose through the ranks as a guide, field-school director, head of the Nature Protection Department, and ultimately Director, from 1991 to 1996.[71]

Leshem (see Figure 11) has a gift for engaging celebrities. It began when he was hitchhiking home after being expelled from his yeshiva high-school field trip, only to bump into retired Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, with whom he spent the day. Later, as the director of the SPNI, he brought the Dalai Lama to the SPNI's fortieth anniversary celebrations. This was after years of ex-cuses by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which feared an official visit, on account of Chinese sensitivities.[72] More than once he flew international jazz

artist Paul Winter in a glider to accompany birds, inspiring him to play a con-cert for ten thousand nature enthusiasts. Leshem enlisted U.S. Vice President Al Gore in support of his global bird-tracking project for schoolchildren.[73] He drafted Israel's president, Ezer Weitzman, to support any number of SPNI initiatives. He also remains the only SPNI figure to forge meaningful con-nections with environmentalists in the Arab world.

This “chutzpah” characterized his tenure as head of the Nature Protection Department during the second half of the 1970s, after he succeeded Yoav Sagi. Among the most remarkable success stories of his tenure was the campaign to save the Um Zafah forest. The eight-hundred-dunam tract near Ramallah was one of only two pristine woodlands remaining in the West Bank. Declared a forest reserve in 1927, it was a popular resort stop for the senior British officials who expanded its natu-ral growth with cypress and pine plantings. The forest holds the largest natural growth of Jerusalem pines and catalpas in the area, nineteen mush-room types, and countless wildflowers and birds, as well as unique reptiles. Local legend holds that Adam and Eve settled here after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Except for some fire damage done by Iraqi troops who camped there during the 1948 War, the forest was well preserved.[74]

The late 1970s were a period when Ariel Sharon, then serving as Minister of Agriculture, aggressively established Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. A group of Herzliyah residents asked to move to the Um Zafah area. The ministerial committee for settlement was fa-vorably inclined, and Tomi Leitersdorf, a noted Israeli planner, drew up blueprints for a village with one hundred wooden houses in the heart of the forest.[75]

The Nature Reserves Authority, ostensibly independent, was still be-holden to the Minister of Agriculture, who appointed its director and over-saw the agency. Reluctantly the Authority did not oppose the settlement plan, which was quickly approved. Land in the forest was appropriated; building was soon to begin. It seemed a done deal. Leshem first heard about the rapid decision while attending a jointly sponsored conference with the Nature Reserves Authority. Impulsively he chewed out the Authority director for capitulation and set out on a quixotic campaign.[76]

Leshem collected “intelligence” from friends in the army, who con-firmed that the settlement had all the necessary approvals. There were no legal loopholes. Friends in academia, on the other hand, confirmed the uniqueness of the forest and helped him put together a publicity packet re-plete with supporting expert botanical and zoological opinions. Leshem began a frenzied lobbying campaign; he shuttled scientists, politicians, and

reporters to the site in his car. Within two weeks, 150 scientists publicly supported the SPNI's opposition to the settlement. A group from the pres-tigious Technion Institute took the uncharacteristically radical step of writing a letter of protest to Prime Minister Begin.[77]

With West Bank settlement an extremely controversial political issue, it was important that the SPNI's campaign not be misinterpreted. Friends at the Settlement Department helped Leshem find an alternative West Bank site near Nahal Shiloh that was already designated for settlement. When his sources discovered that the Herzliyah settlers were actually white-collar types who were not planning on moving at all but only sought summer cottages in the forest, Leshem and Sagi approached them, to no avail.

To defuse the political issue, Leshem especially sought out backers among right-wing politicians. Knesset members Moshe Shamir and Geulah Cohen were convinced and publicly opposed the settlement.[78] The press was fully mobilized; cartoonists were called into service. Among the many editorials to save the forest was an essay by songwriter Naomi Shemer, a known supporter of West Bank settlement.[79] To preserve the apolitical character of the opposition, when leftist Peace Now activists tried to hitchhike onto the campaign, Yoav Sagi kicked them out of demonstrations.[80]

On June 1, 1979, Sharon relented. Only months earlier he had refused to meet with the SPNI about this issue, but in the face of public pressure he suddenly announced his cancellation of the project. Despite its remote and sensitive West Bank location, the following day three thousand people came to the Um Zafah forest for a demonstration, only to discover a victory party. In 1981 the forest's status was officially elevated to nature reserve.

The campaign was indicative of the SPNI's lack of hesitation about the occupied territories. It set out to protect nature wherever it could. The in-tegration of the Um Zafah forest into Israel's nature reserve system con-tributed to the SPNI's reputation at the time as a right-wing organization. “It is no coincidence that many West Bank and Golan settlements have, as a central feature, a field school set up by the SPNI,” charges Meron Benvenisti. “As instructional centers for Muledet, they were in operation well before the settlements themselves and in some cases served as a guise for projected settlements.”[81] Azariah Alon was director of the SPNI dur-ing the period that followed the Six-Day War. His own inclinations favor-ing a “Greater Land of Israel” were well-known.[82]

Yossi Leshem still lives at the Gilo Field School, one of the SPNI facili-ties located over the Green Line in internationally disputed territory. “It's

nonsense in retrospect to say that they built the field schools in order to create new settlements,” he responds. “At most, the thinking was that if you could bring 150 kids to a site, it created a greater sense of presence. The SPNI has always been apolitical.”[83] To be sure, not only does the SPNI's historical connection with kibbutzim counter such a political generaliza-tion, but so does its membership, which comes primarily from middle-class suburban Israelis, who typically vote for left-of-center parties.[84] Few Israeli organizations have been as successful in reaching out to Israel's Arab citi-zens. The Society also had no compunction about filing a Supreme Court action to stop West Bank settlement when it threatened to compromise eco-logical interests in the Nofim region of Samaria.[85] Nonetheless, for years the New Israel Fund, a liberal philanthropic foundation, refused to donate to the SPNI because of its activities in “occupied territories.”

The campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s were intense, creative, openly political (but not partisan), and conducted with an unselfconscious sense of abandon. They could also rely on the Zionist idealism that pervaded main-stream institutions during the country's first thirty years. Owing to state socialism, in most cases the enemy was either a government initiative or a government-owned industry. Developers had a sense of public duty to which it was possible to appeal. The SPNI leadership was in the right so-cial clique to approach the ruling Labor government and could package its demands in the rhetoric of national interest. At the same time, the Nature Reserves Authority enjoyed its most aggressive and popular period, mak-ing it an invaluable SPNI partner. (The Um Zafah case to a certain extent marked the end of an era.) Most important, the country was not yet as crowded as it was to become. Alternatives still existed.


Danny Rabinowitz brought home a dream when he returned in 1982 from studying in London. The terms of his fellowship committed him to work-ing for the SPNI, and after his years in the field he was happy to be sta-tioned at the Tel Aviv headquarters. Yet he turned down Yoav Sagi's lucra-tive offer to run the Nature Protection Department. A gifted writer, Rabinowitz wished to transform the SPNI's modest printing department into an environmental publishing house à la Sierra Club Books in America. Things did not work out as he hoped. After the intimacy of a Sinai field school, Rabinowitz found the general atmosphere at headquar-ters stifling and was surprised by the rather impersonal relations among

SPNI leaders; for instance, the staff did not really socialize after hours. He also became frustrated professionally by the lack of support and the petty territorial thinking. “All my ideas were squelched by the head of the eco-nomics department,” he recalls ruefully. “When my time was up, I moved on.”[86] Today Rabinowitz is a tenured professor at Tel Aviv University.

The SPNI in the 1980s and 1990s had little in common with the loose band of volunteers that Amotz Zahavi conscripted. Naturally, the organi-zational culture changed, and not always with his approval. “I hate the conferences today where they bring in singers and create a ‘happening.’ If I were the Director, it wouldn't happen. In my day gatherings were simple. Nature was enough.”[87]

But there are far more profound differences than just the evening enter-tainment at educational conferences. The SPNI's main offices near Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv are vast, housing the administration needed to run a company with hundreds of employees. The directors' “thumbnail” synopsis of annual activities runs to sixty pages. Departments include student, youth, and school-age education; thirteen information and scientific research centers about caves, mammals, amphibians, plants, birds, and reptiles; museums; local branches; Arab affairs; publications; computers; construction; historic preservation; membership; security and safety; trail marking; domestic and international tours; insurance; vehicles; and the SPNI's own rabbi.[88] On the third floor of the building across the street from headquarters, on the other hand, sits the SPNI Environment and Nature Protection Department with a nationwide staff that has never exceeded fif-teen people.[89]

This organizational sprawl can be traced in part to a well-meaning openness to fresh initiatives. The organization has always tried to modify and broaden its orientation as new issues emerged. For instance, in 1984 it lobbied the Knesset to established a Public Council for the Preservation of Monuments and Sites.[90] When the Knesset came back and asked the SPNI to place it under its aegis, the leadership was receptive.[91]

One key area into which the organization did not successfully expand was “the environment.” In SPNI lingo, this generic term connotes urban or pollution problems. Azariah Alon tried to push the organization's agenda in this direction, and in 1988 the SPNI executive secretariat for-mally decided to dedicate more resources to environmental issues.[92] The interest in urban problems was to some extent a response to the growing number of SPNI branches that attached greater priority to their own im-mediate environmental health problems than to those of wolf populations

in the Golan Heights. Indeed many of the grassroots groups that sprung up in Israel during the 1980s and 1990s were the work of citizens who had either left the SPNI or established parallel frameworks.[93]

Yet to address pollution issues effectively required training different from that of typical SPNI activists. Besides biologists, the only in-house professionals the SPNI retained were regional planners, who naturally came back to issues involving land use and conservation. Frequently the SPNI lacked the technical literacy to understand, much less participate in, national debates about pollution and environmental health, rendering the organization irrelevant.

Azariah Alon points out that only in the area of biological sciences can the SPNI depend on serious professional assistance from volunteers. Otherwise, it has to buy consulting expertise,[94] and this has drawbacks. The fact that the SPNI's legal advisers remain external and charge per case cannot help but temper organizational eagerness for initiating litigation.

During his tenure as chairman, Yoav Sagi was straightforward about the SPNI's insular organizational strategy, which eschewed the import-ing of senior staff from outside the organization. Leaders needed to be groomed from within, he believed.[95] Eitan Gidalizon may be the best example of this model. Gidalizon led the organization for most of the 1990s as either Deputy Director or Director. (As a sign of the times, dur-ing the 1990s the SPNI's “Secretary” became the “Director.”) A person-able kibbutznik who commuted to work in Tel Aviv by plane from the Galilee, Gidalizon had a long history in the organization and was among the legendary team in the Sinai field schools during the 1970s. But he was also a trained urban and regional planner whose master's thesis on the qualitative ranking of open spaces has been influential in profes-sional circles.

Planning was perhaps the one area where the SPNI made a major com-mitment to capacity building and personnel. Sagi invested heavily in de-veloping in-house expertise through the DESHE framework he set up and runs (the name is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “the image of the land”). DESHE is “a think tank for integrating construction and preserva-tion of open landscape values.” The group attempts to bring influential planners together from academia and government to devise sustainable strategies on a range of physical planning issues.[96] In retrospect these ef-forts succeeded in changing the paradigms among both government and NGO environmentalists, convincing them of the paramount importance of open spaces on the national agenda.


The idea of open spaces, however, remains an amorphous geographi-cal concept, not an activist agenda. In selecting its initiatives, the SPNI has occasionally allowed aesthetics to trump ecological considerations. For example, the organization actually opposed the mandatory installa-tion of solar-water panels on all new buildings and the proposed installation of streetlights on the Jerusalem highway, because they were ugly.[97] SPNI conservation strategies have been criticized for focusing on the at-traction that a given site holds for hikers rather than on the biodiversity it supports.[98]

With so many competing constituencies, it is not surprising that some factions became disenchanted with the organization's specific priorities. Left unresolved, disagreements could mushroom into major political con-troversies. So it was that Tel Aviv's plush Cinerama auditorium became the scene of the most intense internal showdown in SPNI history. The seeds for the controversy had been sown twenty years earlier. In 1978 the Uri Maimon Association, a small network of high-school nature field groups named after a young nature enthusiast from Haifa killed in the Yom Kippur War, joined ranks with the SPNI. They immediately became the organization's elite educational corps. But the “match made in heaven” turned sour. The field groups resented their perceived status as second-class citizens within the organization and demanded more funding. In 1996 the Association left the SPNI en masse, returning to its original independent status.[99] The SPNI responded by creating rival scouting groups and had a thousand kids signed up within six months. Association leaders were dissatisfied with the divorce and sought to seize control from SPNI management.[100]

Unable to contain the acrimony within the family, the SPNI aired its dirty laundry in the newspapers, making SPNI elections a hot item.[101] The SPNI old guard and management claimed that the organization was fighting for its life and soul to stop a hostile takeover by developers. Dror Hoter-Yishai, the founding chair of the Uri Maimon Association and at the time head of the Israel Bar Association, was an unabashedly aggressive developer. Yet the Uri Maimon Association flatly denied Hoter-Yishai's involvement in the elections. Rather, the scouting groups countered that the SPNI had become corrupt, stagnant, and out of touch with its original mission.[102]

The controversy proved to be a remarkable excuse for a membership drive. Amotz Zahavi came out of “retirement” to lead the campaign, which brought thousands back into the fold to give a vote of confidence to SPNI management. On January 13, 1998, chartered buses from kibbutzim in the

Galilee and from the Arava poured into the heart of southern Tel Aviv as twelve thousand SPNI members rejected the challengers.[103] But the great victory celebration by the SPNI management rang hollow; there are no real winners in civil wars. The campaign revealed an organization that was increasingly divided into separate fiefdoms, with little collective sense of a common mission. Most of the scouting groups' substantive complaints about excessive salaries, commercialization, nondemocratic organizational culture, and a diminished relevance to youth were not refuted. Rather, there were promises that change was on the way.


Aware of past ossification, as director, Gidalizon sought to change the per-sonnel strategy of promotion from within and was inclined to seek new blood. In 1998 he began employing staffers with environmental, planning, and even legal backgrounds. Emily Silverman became director of the increasingly activist Tel Aviv branch of the SPNI. She was an example of the organization's new professionals, hired because of her experience as a consultant to grass-roots activists. Under the new management philoso-phy, she downplays past tensions created by centralized control:[104]

Today, if a branch thinks an issue is a priority, it enjoys autonomy. For example, the Jerusalem branch wants to focus on the Jerusalem Forest. The Nature Protection Department sees the Judean hills as a bigger priority, because there's more to protect there. So present thinking says: “Fine, go ahead and do it yourself.” The problem is when there is a disagreement between the headquarters and the local branch over the issue itself.[105]

This was the case in the mid-1990s, when SPNI national leadership de-cided to support Minister of the Environment Yossi Sarid's decision to ex-pand Beer Sheva's sanitary waste facility at Dudaim. The trash from the central Tel Aviv region was to be carted to the southern site. Other loca-tions proposed were deemed worse for a variety of reasons, from issues of transportation and hydrology to national heritage. In contrast, local SPNI branch activists were furious at their leadership for not backing the protests against the decision of the Ministry of the Environment to turn Beer Sheva into a national garbage dump.

The clash of interests may lead to positive results, however. During the 1990s local activists in Jerusalem influenced the headquarters' strategy to prevent development in the Arazim Valley, which lies at the city's western entrance. They argued that the issue needed to be framed in the context of

parks for Jerusalem's public, rather than merely nature protection. The subsequent campaign generated considerable interest in the press, bumper stickers, and even a ceremony involving a visiting chief of a Native American tribe from Canada.[106]

The real challenge has always been getting the branches excited about any environmental issue. During the past twenty-five years, twenty-two branches have cropped up across the country.[107] The larger ones eventu-ally came to embrace activism. For instance, the Haifa branch was a lead-ing player in coalitions that began fighting for improved air quality dur-ing the late 1980s and, more recently, for coastal preservation. The indomitable Tzipi Ron for years ran a militant Jerusalem branch that curbed development, saving historic sites such as the house that once hosted Theodor Herzl.

Most SPNI branches, however, were begun as independent initiatives by locals with their own agenda. Run by volunteers, often retired, they have their own way of doing things. Hiking, not rabble-rousing, is what they enjoy.

By the end of the 1990s, Director Eitan Gidalizon became a strong ad-vocate for more aggressive activism within the organization. During a four-year period of large budget cuts, he increased funding for the ac-tivist Nature Preservation Department threefold: from 630,000 to two million shekels.[108] A hard core of several hundred SPNI members was formed to serve as “organizational shock troops” in the field. It was this cohort who could be called upon to demonstrate on short notice. For in-stance, in the 1998 campaign to pass a bottle bill in the Parliament, dozens of them sent hundreds of empty beverage containers in the mail to key Knesset members to make sure that the issue was not forgotten.[109]

During that year, a new SPNI initiative to foster student activism on campus gained momentum. Eran Benyamini, an ebullient Tel Aviv University undergraduate, had little time to study as he established “Green Course” chapters on every campus in the country; these became increasingly independent of their SPNI patrons.

This new stage reflected the realization that action would not come from the field schools, which had increasingly become commercial entities. In its promotional literature, the SPNI describes them as outposts for con-servation work. In fact, field-school involvement and initiation of cam-paigns became increasingly arbitrary and inconsequential. The change also reflects the makeup of field-school personnel: Despite high turnover, the women soldiers continue to be exceptionally gifted guides and teachers.[110]

They cannot take a leading role in advocacy work against government policies, however.

When the Israel State Comptroller's 1997 report reviewing field schools lambasted the Ministry of Education for offering the SPNI preferential treatment in receiving government contracts, it did not suggest that the Ministry was buying an inferior product.[111] Still, the report revealed a sagging interest among the Israeli public in the “field school package.”[112] The report offered several reasons for the drop. Most important was competition from newer and often less expensive travel companies and kibbutzim, many of whom, ironically, hire former SPNI guides. As a result, many field schools could not cover their expenses.[113]

In response, management scrambled to cut costs and make the field-school operation more efficient. Ultimately it was Director Eitan Gidalizon who made the tough decisions (and took the resulting political heat) for consolidating the field schools and culling the educational staff. The more fundamental question, however, received less attention: The field-school network plays a major role in distracting the organization from its original and officially highest mission—nature protection. As an objective observer, Israel's comptroller called field schools the organiza-tion's central activity.[114]

With the SPNI's agenda still largely one of conservation, other envi-ronmental organizations sprang up, in particular during the 1990s. Wary of competition, SPNI staff were not always thrilled with the new kids in town. During the second half of the 1990s, however, partly owing to the collegial orientation of Leshem and Gidalizon, the SPNI came to embrace publicly the pluralism that emerged among Israel's environmental groups. Naomi Tsur, a convivial British immigrant, a far cry from the stereotypical “Sabra with a backpack” SPNI activist, created a new model for the organization's chapters. Tsur galvanized a motley collection of local groups into a powerful coalition, working together as “Sustainable Jerusalem.”

Even if today it personifies Israel's green establishment, the SPNI experi-ence remains a highly relevant adventure for many Israelis. Membership lev-els, one indicator, remain remarkably high. In the mid-1990s, when numbers dropped 20 percent below 1986 levels, the SPNI responded by offering a basic membership for 20 NIS (six dollars). It allowed for basic affiliation without corresponding services. The move seems to have returned membership to previous levels, which sits steady at thirty-four thousand families.[115] Ultimately membership has more political than economic significance.

Although membership was once a major component of revenues, during the 1990s dues provided only 1 percent of the SPNI budget.[116]

Despite an increase in support from international Jewish foundations, money remains a perennial problem at the SPNI. It is, of course, much easier to smugly criticize an organization's source of support than it is to find alternative funding for it. And given the expectations of the increas-ing numbers of those hoping to build careers at the SPNI, as well as the growing costs in areas ranging from field-school maintenance to sound systems at demonstrations, new moneymaking schemes need to be hatched. One of the early innovations involved the Society's serving as an agency for international travel. This arrangement was reasonably prof-itable and offered a bonus to the SPNI guides who led the trips. Some of the old guard, predictably, could not reconcile themselves to the organi-zation's transformation into something like a business.[117]

International travel packages were just the tip of the iceberg, however, and people questioned what seemed to be a growing commercialization. During the early 1990s it seemed that SPNI sponsorship was available to almost anyone, for a price. Some deals were decidedly ill-advised:

  • The cellular Pelephone and later Cellcom companies enjoyed the Society's endorsement despite growing concern about the technol-ogy's possible association with brain cancer and growing public dis-comfort with the proliferation of relay antennas.

  • During Passover vacation in 1993 the trails of the Galilee were lit-tered with bottled-water containers that bore the SPNI logo.

  • Recently, with much fanfare, the Electric Company cosponsored bird conservation initiatives with the SPNI, although people con-cerned about air quality have historically considered Israel's Electric Company to be environmental enemy number one.

Distasteful “greenwash” perhaps, but these efforts may be critical for reducing SPNI dependence on government funding, which hovers around 30 percent of the overall budget.

When the issue of government funding arises, Director Eitan Gidalizon invariably would tell about his meeting with then Minister of Finance, Avraham “Beige” Shochat. In 1993 the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that required the organization to pay four million dollars to Johnny Cohen, a young American tourist who had become paralyzed in 1981 through negligence on the part of an SPNI guide during a hike.[118] It was a very harsh verdict. Bank credit to make the huge payments was available only if the government of Israel would cosign the loans.


The portly Shochat greeted the SPNI delegates at his home in Arad, clad in undershirt and shorts. On his table were a series of full-page color advertisements that the SPNI had sponsored, lambasting the Trans-Israel Highway, one of the Rabin government's flagship infrastructure projects. “Don't you think it's a little cheeky,” chastened the Minister, “coming to us for help when you're printing this sort of stuff?” Gidalizon calmly told him that one issue had nothing to do with the other and proceeded with the presentation.[119]

The dependence of the SPNI on governmental funding may not affect organizational priorities and positions, but it does make the Society vul-nerable to changes in government proclivities. When Netanyahu's new Likud administration, led by Minister of Education Yitzhak Levi, cut back on SPNI funding and school visits to field schools during the late 1990s, the organization was financially devastated, and hundreds of employees had to be released.

It is not uncommon, or necessarily unhealthy, for organizations to resolve cognitive dissonance by coming to favor what began as a neces-sity. Financial interactions (and personal friendships) during the 1950s cemented close bonds between the SPNI and government managers. Today an “insider's” orientation is a central component of SPNI strategy to influence planning decisions. This reached a peak during Yossi Sarid's tenure as Minister of the Environment in the mid-1990s. Mickey Lipshitz, the SPNI's Director of Nature Protection Department, took a job as deputy director at the Ministry of the Environment. At the same time, Chairman Yoav Sagi headed the government's River Reclamation Committee and was drafted to serve as the environmental consultant on the peace-negotiating team with Jordan.

Since its inception, the SPNI has faced a continuous onslaught of challenges surrounding preservation issues. Like the scrambling hero in an arcade video game, no sooner does the organization fend off one mon-ster than it is beset by three more. It is difficult to identify the specific ramifications of a given effort. Sometimes the ripple effect of a given campaign clearly runs beyond the specific resource in question. For example, starting in 1978, a ten-year fight to reduce the landscape dam-age caused by the Karmiel-Tefen road did far more than just prevent an unsightly scar along the karstic hillsides of the southern Galilee.[120] It also revolutionized the environmental sensitivities of Maatz, Israel's highway construction agency.[121] An in-depth look at three of the leading SPNI campaigns in the past decade reflects the organization's capabilities

and dilemmas and illustrates the fine line it walks as an NGO watchdog and governmental partner.


In 1984, with his reelection assured, President Ronald Reagan spared no expense in his relentless battle to topple the Soviet Union's “evil empire.” In addition to military hardware, reinforcement was needed in the propa-ganda war. The Voice of America (VOA), which sent its message of hope and democracy beyond the Iron Curtain, was called on to augment its broadcasting capacity. It proposed the largest radio transmitter in the world: sixteen 500-kilowatt transmitters, two ground stations to interface with satellites, an extensive control center, electromagnetic monitoring equipment, and forty-seven 180-foot antennas.[122] A location was sought that was well within broadcasting range of the Soviet Union. After Greece and Turkey—not wishing to aggravate relations with the Communist world—demurred, the Israeli option took the lead.[123] A site in the central Arava desert, twenty kilometers south of the Dead Sea and adjacent to the agricultural village of Moshav Idan, seemed the ideal location. There didn't seem to be much there.

Yet though there may not be many people near Idan, there are quite a few birds. As a land bridge joining three continents, the Arava Valley is a key junction for five hundred million birds that migrate from Europe and Asia to Africa and back every autumn and spring. Of the 280 species that have been identified flying over the Arava, none is more impressive than the raptors. In 1988 ornithologists counted 1.2 million of these imposing birds of prey—the largest such migration ever recorded.[124] Yet their breathtaking flight failed to appear on the radar screens of American or Israeli decision makers.

The project brought with it an estimated investment of three hundred million U.S. dollars just for construction by local companies. Its economic benefits, however, were ultimately of secondary importance. After enjoy-ing twenty years of remarkable magnanimity in the form of military and civilian aid, it seemed the least Israel could do for its most generous bene-factor. In 1985 Prime Minister Shimon Peres notified the Americans of Israel's general interest in the project. Yoav Sagi immediately fired a letter off to the Prime Minister on behalf of the SPNI, requesting that the envi-ronmental impacts of the project be considered before a decision was made.[125] But the wheels had already begun to turn. By 1986 Israel's

National Planning and Building Council called for the drafting of a formal Master Plan for the station, as well as an accompanying environmental impact statement. In June 1987 Minister of Communications Amnon Rubenstein signed a contract with the VOA that was later approved by the U.S. Congress.

Sixteen million dollars were appropriated and transferred to Israel for Negev development. (The SPNI would not be bought off, and refused a five-million-dollar grant to renovate the adjacent Hatzevah Field School.) No sooner had the ink dried on the contract than Israel's Ministry of Communications set up a permanent steering committee called Tomer, whose job was to shepherd the project through the local planning and building bureaucracy. It would also try to make peace with potential opponents.

Parallel teams from the SPNI and the Nature Reserves Authority were chosen to prepare the bird surveys that were to be part of the impact state-ment. Developers openly acknowledged ulterior motives behind the selec-tion: Once the leading governmental and nongovernmental conservation agencies signed off on the project, its passage was assured. There was internal opposition within the groups to this cooptation.[126] In retrospect, it seems ironic that slipping through an incomplete environmental impact statement proved to be the VOA's fatal tactical error.

Bilha Givon is one of the few women who managed to survive for any length of time in the predominantly male SPNI hierarchy. A no-nonsense, heavy-smoking, former biology teacher from a Beer Sheva suburb, she cultivates a tough image and obviously thrives on a good fight. It was her successful campaign that saved Israel's last remaining “Great Sand Dune” in Ashdod; planning committees were convinced of the merits of her posi-tion and canceled a proposed neighborhood of apartment complexes to be built there.[127] When she heard about the Voice of America proposal, she decided that she had found her next campaign: “I asked, ‘What's the Society doing about it?’ People said, ‘It's already at the National Planning Council. Peres promised the Americans, we were involved with the bird survey, so it's really going to be hard to object to the plan.’”[128]

If the SPNI was lethargic, developers were not. A Master Plan for the VOA station and accompanying environmental impact statement were completed by April 1989. When the National Planning Council met in July, it decided to pass the plans on to the Southern District Planning Committee for comments before making a final decision.

Despite their isolated desert location, word of clusters of cancer cases associated with high exposure to electromagnetic radiation began to reach

the farmers living near the proposed site. No one denied that the largest radio transmitter in the world would generate prodigious amounts of low-level, nonionizing radiation.

The local Regional Council filed a Supreme Court action to disqualify the National Council's decision on procedural grounds. They argued that the VOA transmitter was not a national issue and should be reviewed only at a local or district planning committee (where the influence of the af-fected residents was presumably greater).[129]

Faced with a specific proposal and the clear opposition of the local resi-dents, the SPNI was forced not only to take a stance but to decide what level of attention it would give the transmitter. During that same summer (1989) the Israeli Air Force requested new training grounds to replace those in Training Area 90, which would be compromised by the VOA fa-cility. The best substitute was identified to the south in the Nahal Nekorot area. Lying near the Ramon Crater, it is an idyllic desert spot with unique geological formations and is a popular destination for hikers.

Givon brought photographers to the existing training grounds on Saturday when military maneuvers were suspended, to show them the likely fate of the Nekorot site. She assisted local residents in setting up an action committee. And she continued to lobby her boss, Yoav Sagi, to take a stronger stand.[130] Sagi relented, launching one of the most sophisticated environmental campaigns in Israeli history.

The international nature of the project and the sensitivity of bilateral United States-Israeli relations was only part of what made it an unusually complicated case. Electromagnetic radiation remains a poorly understood phenomenon, with enormous uncertainty with regard to its effect on health. To discuss the issue intelligently requires knowledge of physics, aeronautical engineering, epidemiology, and ornithology. Outside of birds, the SPNI had no experience in these areas.

Volunteer experts joined the cause, and the Nature Protection Department began to move up the learning curve. By 1990 the SPNI had formulated its opinion—a strong “No.” Substantively the campaign argued three points against the station: loss of pristine open spaces owing to expanded military training; human health damage from radi-ation; and damage to the millions of migrating birds.[131] Of course it was the birds that caught the attention of the press. And coverage was not always sympathetic.

“We haven't lost hope,” mocked the contentious journalist (and later politician) Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. “Maybe it will yet become clear that the electromagnetic field from the transmitters will force the birds to shift a

little to the right, and that surely is reason enough for the station not to be built, and for tens of millions of dollars not to be invested in the Arava and for hundreds of workers not to be employed and not bring in the most sophisticated transmitters in the world and not to fulfill our commitment to the Americans. It's all up to the pelicans—humanity's final hope.”[132]

Tactically the campaign undertook four simultaneous courses of action: political pressure organized by Givon with the local residents; a direct ap-peal to cancel funding in the United States, coordinated by Yoav Sagi with the help of twelve American environmental organizations; intense lobby-ing of ministers and Knesset members, as well as the National Planning Council; and another legal action to enjoin the project based on flaws in the environmental impact statement.

On February 18, 1990, the Supreme Court rejected the arguments of the Arava residents in the original suit and ruled that the unique nature of the project justified the National Planning Council's involvement.[133] When the plan finally came up for the vote in June, Prime Minister Shamir was apparently unaware of the degree of environmental opposi-tion. With a typically poor turnout at the National Planning Council, the majority rejected the plan. Citing the lack of a quorum, Shamir demanded a revote. No chances were taken during the second round, and even peripheral members of the thirty-two-member Council were pressed into service. His office pressured the environmental ministry's representative on the National Planning Council, Valerie Brachiya, to support the project against her best professional judgment. She requested that these circum-stances be recorded in the protocol during the vote, but this time the pro-posal to build the transmitter passed.[134]

The SPNI did not despair. Politically the Israel campaign had run its course, but another legal action was promptly filed to disqualify the Board's decision based on the inadequacy of the new impact statement. At the same time progress on the American front appeared promising. With the Iron Curtain fading into historical irrelevance, the project increasingly seemed to be a boondoggle that would benefit only a few economic special interests. Chief among these was the project's chief backer: the high-profile publishing-magnate scion (and 1996 Republican contender for the presidency) Malcolm “Steve” Forbes. Forbes offered a new rationale for the station, even closer to Israel's strategic interests: broadcasting an anti-Islamic-fundamentalist message to the Arab world.

Yoav Sagi set out for the United States, where a coalition of American groups arranged a high-powered Washington trip. Sagi joined leading U.S. environmentalists before a U.S. Congressional committee, where he politely

told members that Forbes was not telling them the truth when he as-sured them that the transmitter had met all Israeli environmental re-quirements. (Ever the NGO activist, Sagi decorated the staid committee room with posters of Negev landscapes and the Arava.[135]) By the end of the visit he had acquired the signatures of eighteen members of Congress opposing the project. He spoke about the issue on CNN and enlisted an American law firm to prepare stateside litigation. International pressure was elicited in the form of 110 conservation organizations from around the world who joined in the protest. But it failed to move decision makers at Israel's Ministry of the Interior and the Prime Minister's office. With the access road completed and with increasing pressure from the first Bush administration to begin work, it looked as if the transmitter and the ex-pansion of the military training zones was ineluctable. But help came from a surprising source.

Israel's Supreme Court typically does not cancel development projects. It can delay them, however, by correcting procedural flaws. A second im-pact statement had been prepared regarding the lands that were to replace the existing Air Force training grounds. It was a sloppy job, and the SPNI and the Arava residents became aware of it in time to act. On May 20, 1991, in one of her last decisions as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Shoshana Netanyahu ruled in favor of the petitioners, requiring changes in the impact statement.[136] This gave the campaign the additional time it needed. A new bird survey was conducted, this time independently by Ben-Gurion University ecology professor Berry Pinshow and his associ-ates. The survey included 180 days of radar surveillance by the Swiss Ornithological Institute and extensive ground observations.[137]

When Yitzhak Rabin was elected Prime Minister in July of 1992, the political equation changed. During his first visit to President Bush, at Kennebunkport, Maine, the VOA issue came up, and Rabin promised that Israel would keep its part of the bargain.[138] Upon his return, he began to pressure for a decision.

When the long-awaited report from Professor Pinshow arrived in August 1992, it confirmed that the migrating birds flew at a mean altitude well above two hundred meters and therefore estimated that no more than thirty might be injured on an average night during the migration season. Use of appropriate lighting would reduce this number by as much as 90 percent.[139] VOA supporters were delighted with the results and rushed them to the media.[140] Interviews with Steve Forbes, a man used to getting what he wanted, showed a confidence that the project would commence promptly.[141]


The report was a setback, but the SPNI was still undaunted. It redou-bled the media campaign and demonstrations, stringing grilled chickens in front of government offices to dramatize the cruel fate of birds that crossed the transmitter lines.[142] The SPNI took the offensive against Tomer (the steering committee in the Ministry of Communications), charging the council with corruption and falsification of documents.[143]

Although the prime minister may not have been moved by the protes-tations or a petition signed by more than half the members of the Knesset opposing the project, these developments clearly had an effect on a new player in the debate—Yossi Sarid, the recently appointed Minister of the Environment. Unlike his predecessor, Ora Namir, who had a tendency to see the world (and the VOA) in terms of reduced unemployment,[144] Sarid was a great nature lover. He vociferously opposed the project and called for its cancellation, creating the sense that the issue was very much alive. When word of American hesitation started to filter back to Israel, the Minister of Trade and Industry, Micha Charish, demanded an immediate cabinet meeting to expedite the project.[145] On December 31, 1992, the Cabinet overruled the opposition of the Minister of the Environment and officially confirmed its support for the project. But it was too late.

A joint U.S. Senate and Congressional committee had already called for the freezing of funds for the VOA project.[146] Even before the elections, vice presidential candidate Al Gore, who opposed the project in the Senate, wrote to the SPNI assuring them that the VOA project would be canceled if he and Bill Clinton were elected.[147] He was as good as his word. In April 1993, newly elected President Clinton sent the SPNI official notification of the Arava project's cancellation and its replacement by a more modest transmitter in Kuwait.[148] In January 1994, ten years after Reagan's initial overture, the Israeli government agreed to the project's cancellation.

Some critics say that the VOA case should actually be categorized as an SPNI defeat, or that if kudos is to be handed out, it is the American en-vironmental lobby that deserves to be lauded.[149] But this is a twisted in-terpretation of the facts. Without the SPNI involvement, local activism would not have been as potent. The delay caused by the SPNI litigation was crucial, as was its work in convincing the majority of Knesset mem-bers and later Yossi Sarid, that the project was ill conceived. And, of course, the American environmental groups would never have heard of the issue without the SPNI's initiative. The institutional stamina alone is notable, and it can be said with some certainty that the station would be in operation today had the SPNI not opposed it. To be sure, they were lucky. But there are times when delay works in environmentalists' favor.


The point has clear tactical implications as well. The SPNI may formally have raised all the arguments, but allowing the press to depict birds as the centerpiece of SPNI concerns was unwise. While other salient, less eco-centric issues could have led the fight, bird preservation was scientifically indefensible and left the organization open to ridicule and caricaturiza-tions. The SPNI's deep involvement in the original bird surveys for the impact statement may have started the bias. It also served to slow the or-ganization's reaching an independent position about the case. One can also argue that this level of involvement crossed a line. Among the SPNI's long-held policy positions is its opposition to the developers' dominant role in impact-statement preparation. But why should it be assumed that advocacy groups are any less biased?

As in so many controversies, an indignant public, along with vociferous rank-and-file SPNI workers, had a key role in pushing the organizational leadership to take an aggressive stance. This goes back to the most prob-lematic dynamic of the campaign—its slow start. It took five years for an SPNI position to crystallize. Valuable time was lost. In other similar cases, hesitation would be fatal.


The campaign to stop construction of a hydroelectric station on the Jordan River is an unhappy example of an SPNI campaign that made its move too late. Most of the river has been so diverted and tapped by agricultural de-velopment projects as to make it unrecognizable in comparison with its former state. Yet in the northern Galilee, a fourteen-kilometer segment north of Kinneret Lake remained intact. Its steep gradient created the only formidable white-water rapids in the country.[150] For years this area lay below hostile Syrian snipers in the Golan Heights. After 1967 it was con-sidered too wild for most hikers and was physically inaccessible. At the end of the 1980s, however, small, entrepreneurial rafting businesses caught on. As word got out, Israelis began to taste the excitement and the raw beauty of the untamed river.

Kibbutz Kfar ha-Nasi lies a kilometer away from this river segment, which became known in Hebrew as the “mountainous Jordan.” The kibbutz was also aware of the river's potential as an electricity generator. It devel-oped a plan to divert a third of the river's water into a reservoir that sat fifty-four meters above sea level. Taking advantage of a thirty-four-meter drop, the water would be channeled through pipes to turbines. The facility would actually only generate about fifteen megawatts, one twentieth of

1 percent of Israel's annual power production. But this translated into 1.5 million dollars of net profit a year for the kibbutz, a handsome return for a modest four-million dollar investment.[151] With solid financial incentives, the kibbutz guided the project through the labyrinth of government bu-reaucracy.

Kfar ha-Nasi representatives first approached the Nature Reserves Authority about the project in 1985. Tentative agreement was given after the kibbutz promised to spruce up the area around the reservoir, for tourists. After three meetings in January 1988, and agreement of the Water Commissioner, the National Planning Council changed two conflicting national Master Plans, paving the way for approval by the Regional Commission.

An environmental impact statement, prepared by Technion Professor Yorik Avnimelech, did not foresee major ecological damage to the river but expressed concerns about safety. After adding two pages of revisions based on the suggestions of the environmental impact statement, the Regional Planning Committee submitted the program for public com-ments and objections.

The SPNI and the newly formed Ministry of the Environment both filed formal legal objections. The SPNI argued that the change in the water level would damage the biological systems along the river. In dry years the kibbutz would find a way to pump more than the plan allowed, leading to irreversible damage downstream. The issue of the Kinneret's water qual-ity was also raised. Moreover, the landscape itself within two kilometers of the plant would be forever changed, and not for the better. Alongside the ecological complaints were broader issues. The kibbutz, a private corpora-tion, would benefit, whereas the public would lose yet another piece of its natural heritage.[152] And there was the underlying ethical question arising from the fact that this was the last untouched stretch of the Jordan.[153]

But the Regional Planning Committee was not sympathetic. In February 1990 it rejected the SPNI's concerns as unfounded, ruling that rather than damaging the Jordan River, the development would constitute an enormous improvement for hikers and tourists over existing condi-tions.[154] The proposal was sent to Jerusalem for the signature of the Minister of the Interior. After additional modifications, the approved plan was published on December 6, 1990.

Three months later, the bulldozers began the groundwork for the hydro-electric plant.[155] It was only then that environmentalists woke up. In its initial campaign, the SPNI brought twenty thousand people to the site, reportedly the largest rally of any kind in Israel that year.[156] It made no dent, however, in public complacency, and for most Israelis the Jordan River

hydroelectric plant remained a nonissue until June 1991, when the plant became the hottest news item in the country. In the first act of environmen-tal civil disobedience in Israel's history, a group of activists from the area pad-locked themselves to the bulldozers and construction equipment, stopping work at the site. Then they threw the keys into the river.

The environmentalists, mostly radicalized former SPNI activists such as Danny Rabinowitz, were arrested and taken to jail in Rosh Pina. The early morning move was timed to allow television cameras to bring the sympathetic videotapes back to Jerusalem to be featured as the top story on the evening news. The coverage was dramatic and the entire country seemed to share the protesters' indignation.[157]

Officially the SPNI distanced itself from the lawbreakers. Although it opposed the facility, the organization maintained its law-abiding image. The organization had been divided over the appropriate tactics, and it reached a compromise: No top-level SPNI personnel would take part in the demon-stration, but the Society would help organize it and provide publicity.[158]

No one anticipated the reverberations of the protest. The Jordan River controversy became a permanent feature of the evening news, complete with a logo and daily update. Politicians from all sides got involved. The Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee took a field trip to the site, where it called the project a national disgrace. Avram Burg, a Labor politi-cian and later Speaker of the Knesset, went so far as to propose a law that would supersede the planning commissions' approval and cancel the project by fiat. An SPNI petition drive reflected the public's mood. From street cor-ners to book fairs around the country, Israelis called for cancellation.

In contrast to the Voice of America campaign, where litigation was es-sential, in the case of the Jordan River campaign it would prove detrimen-tal. The SPNI and other environmental groups had chosen not to file legal actions, primarily because the chances of winning seemed extremely re-mote. The kibbutz had gone strictly by the book.

But suddenly, the Council for Quality Government jumped into the fray. The Council usually serves as a watchdog for good government, filing high-profile suits against corruption and political excesses. It had never been involved in environmental issues before and never would be again. Yoav Sagi beseeched the Council's well-known attorney, Aviad Shraga, not to file the petition, telling him, “If you lose on procedural grounds, people won't understand. When the Supreme Court doesn't stop a project, [people] just assume that it's fine.”[159] But his protestations went unheeded.

The suit was more ideological than legal, except for a dubious procedural argument claiming that preliminary decisions were made before the impact

statement was prepared. In a ten-page decision, Justice Theodore Or showed little sympathy in rejecting the petition.[160] In addition to losing, the Council was ordered to pay the relatively high sum of twelve thousand shekels to the defendants. The environmental price was much higher.

Once the court became involved, the issue became sub judice, and the press backed off. Politicians, with their keen sense of the spotlight, also lost interest. Why be accused of circumventing the court? And the public's at-tention span, already stretched beyond its normal capacity, dissipated. The ruling came less than three weeks after the court began deliberations, but that was enough. The Jordan River reverted to its previous “nonissue” sta-tus. By the winter of 1992 the station was in full operation, and the SPNI's symbolic protests, staged at the formal dedication in May, only highlighted the failure of the campaign.[161]

The bitterness of an unnecessary loss does not quickly go away, and there have been many retrospective evaluations of what went wrong in the Jordan River campaign. All point to the early “complicity” of the Nature Reserves Authority with developers as a major hurdle in the early stages. But in other campaigns that did not stop the SPNI's more princi-pled position from prevailing. Uri Marinov, Director General of the Ministry of the Environment, argued that once the plant was formally approved, the entire campaign was ill advised. In a 1992 Tel Aviv sympo-sium dedicated to evaluating the Jordan experience, he reproached the SPNI for launching an unwinnable battle that served to publicize environmental vulnerability and weaken the movement as a whole. Developers should never have been given the impression that they could so easily ignore environmental concerns.

Political scientist Avner De-Shalit sees a connection between the outcome and the philosophical basis of the SPNI's campaign. Unable to hang the deci-sion on a public-health issue, it never clearly enunciated an anthropocentric position that framed the problem in human terms.[162] To be sure, these dam-ages were presented from the perspective of people, but De-Shalit doesn't be-lieve the message got through. Danny Rabinowitz views the loss as part of a sluggish strategy and an overall lack of tactical innovation that deprived the issue of the passion it deserved: “If Azariah Alon had begun a hunger strike in front of the Knesset, they never would have built the power station.”[163]

None of these views is wholly satisfactory. For example, in the past, the SPNI never really needed human health damages to win campaigns. Fear about the impact of “lost battles” on Green deterrence is a formula for paralysis, reflecting a governmental rather than a nongovernmental per-spective. Planning commissions are often rigged against ecological inter-ests. If the SPNI accepted unfavorable rulings as final and called off the

troops every time its objections were dismissed, it would have missed many of its most important triumphs. And while officially the SPNI did not partake in civil disobedience, it is unlikely that the illegal protest would have happened without its support. Subsequently, the Society knew how to capitalize on the momentum it created.

The greatest irony in comparing these two campaigns of the early 1990s is that, in many ways, once it got rolling, the Jordan River campaign was more successful than that of the Voice of America. The rallies were bigger, the press coverage was more dramatic, and the swelling of public support and involvement of politicians were certainly more extensive.

The great “what if” of the case involves the ill-considered extraneous lawsuit: Would the outcome have been different if the political campaign had run its course? In short, one could argue that in this case the SPNI was simply unlucky. But when a campaign begins after the bulldozers have al-ready removed most of the vegetation at the project site, there is no mar-gin of error for bad luck.


Another example of a major SPNI campaign, originating in the 1990s, has yet to be fully played out, but many lessons are already apparent. It is not a complacency born of past “come from behind” victories that explains the chronic delays in challenging environmentally unfriendly projects. Rather, the SPNI's penchant to declare war at a late stage of the game can be traced to its involvement in the planning stages. It is impossible to be entirely successful at the bifurcated game of participat-ing in government committees while suing, picketing, and trying to undermine the very project that involvement implicitly accepts. This explains both the SPNI's vacillation and its late entry into the Trans-Israel Highway controversy.

Elisha Efrat, now a professor emeritus of geography, remembers pencil-ing “Highway Number 6” into the National Master Plan for Roads as an afterthought when he worked for the Ministry of the Interior during the 1960s. It was to be a modest north-south route, to the east of the crowded coastal region.[164] When traffic conditions worsened in the bottleneck region of greater Tel Aviv, in the early 1990s, the “afterthought” was revived, but in a much more grandiose form.

The new vision was an eight-lane turnpike stretching from Beer Sheva to Metulah, splitting into two Galilee highways.[165] The 304-kilometer road would eventually gobble up sixteen thousand dunams of land on its route. It was not just the immediate disturbance to the forests, countryside, farming

villages, and Arab towns along the way that concerned environmentalists, but the broader implications: The superhighway would spawn development in some of the last remaining green areas of central and northern Israel.[166] The billions of shekels that went into the highway would probably come at the expense of the country's long-neglected railroads.[167] Israeli dependence on cars would be further reinforced at a time when concentrations of air pol-lutants from automobiles already exceeded ambient standards.

On June 16, 1992, the National Planning Commission called for prepa-ration of a detailed master plan for much of the Highway 6 route. While not opposing the idea, Yoav Sagi, sitting on the Council as a representative of Life and Environment, Israel's umbrella group for environmental organi-zations, requested a broader discussion of the highway's environmental im-pacts and called for a transportation master plan. Sagi's concerns were duly noted but did little to slow the planning process. A government corporation was created to move the project forward, with former military chief of staff Moshe Levy as its chair. Work on the detailed plans began, as did a series of environmental impact statements on different highway segments.

Sagi conducted his own assessment of the highway through the DESHE “landscape preservation” think tank he had established at SPNI. In 1992 the transportation team of DESHE conducted an intense review of the Highway 6 project. The team's perspective was dominated by Ilan Salomon, an articulate and charismatic professor from Hebrew University. Environmentalists became concerned that Salomon might be co-opting the SPNI position rather than the other way around. Professor Salomon had always been pessimistic about the potential of rail transportation in Israel and was an open proponent of the highway and expanded road capacity in general.[168] He even sat on the Highway 6 board of directors.[169] A year later the DESHE transportation team released its Highway 6 position paper.[170] The opening paragraph read:

The team recognizes the need to develop the transportation system and is under the impression that Highway 6 has the ability to do this. At the same time the staff is convinced that determining the characteristics of the highway and the method of implementation requires comprehensive, systemic assessment and comparison of alternatives.[171]

It was not just other environmental groups that were surprised by the submissive tone of the SPNI position. When Mickey Lipshitz, then Director of Nature Protection at the SPNI, met with the Board of Directors at Adam Teva V'din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), in 1993, he quietly urged them to consider the highway independently of the SPNI and hoped that they would reach different conclusions. (Adam Teva

V'din eventually filed two unsuccessful Supreme Court petitions against

the highway. The first, in 1994, challenged the lack of a comprehensive en-vironmental impact statement for the highway.[172])

Frustrated at SPNI indifference, some SPNI staff members even offered to resign and help with alternative campaigns against the highway. This backlash among members had an effect. Within two years the Nature Protection Department declared its antihighway campaign to be its top or-ganizational priority.[173]

The slow start would once again hurt the effectiveness of SPNI efforts. The highway's statutory approval was over and done with by the time the organization began to beat its war drums. SPNI thinking may also have af-fected policies at the Ministry of the Environment. Yossi Sarid, then Minister, consulted frequently with the SPNI about planning matters, and his opinion about the highway also waffled. He was an early supporter of the highway, but in 1996, after the Rabin assassination, he passionately led an unsuccessful fight in the cabinet to cancel the project. When asked about his own vacillations, Sarid insisted that it had nothing to do with having a new prime minister who was less committed to the project. “Here I don't think it was my best performance. It took me too much time to re-alize that the road was a disaster. Not that it would have mattered, because had I made up my mind earlier there was still no majority against the project in the cabinet. Why was I late? Many people misled me. I mistak-enly believed some advisers that supported the road.”[174]

The SPNI continued its efforts, unfazed by the road's apparent progress. It staged bikers' protest hikes along the route and stopped construction equipment.[175] It commissioned an economic analysis that cast doubt on the highway's viability. It invited foreign experts opposed to the road to join in a round of lobbying targeting decision makers.[176] It continued work in the Knesset, leading to a proposed law to freeze the project (the law was scuttled at the last minute by the ruling Likud coalition head, Meir Shitrit). When the bulldozers began running, the SPNI funded a consor-tium of Green groups to set up a teepee at the construction site. The teepee became the launching site for nonviolent direct actions by the Green Course students to stop the work. This time the young radical approach won out, and SPNI Director Eitan Gidalizon, along with other Green lead-ers, was arrested for disturbing the peace.[177] Cumulatively it amounted to a substantial effort, although it seemed misplaced; the right thing at the wrong time—five years late. By the twentieth century's end, Highway Six construction raced ahead, leaving a black partition across the land—a dispiriting testimonial to the collective failure of Israel's environmental movement.


There were many other environmental campaigns during this period, with a mixed scorecard. For example, SPNI efforts failed to prevent the Knesset from extending to the Dead Sea Works a concession that granted the industrial complex de facto environmental immunity.[178] On the other hand, manure runoff from dairies in the Golan Heights, reaching Lake Kinneret, was reduced after an SPNI campaign sparked investment in treat-ment infrastructure.[179] Beach cleanups succeeded in bringing thousands of young people to the seashore, but did virtually nothing to reduce Israel's ugly littering habit.[180] A solid-waste reform initiative was not well publi-cized.[181] Enormous efforts and legal action led to the removal of the illegal “Eddy's Beach” from the Eilat coastline, only to have it replaced, albeit by a more benign substitute. The SPNI's participation in planning subcommit-tees led to improvements in national master plans such as those for quar-rying and forestry.[182] The most important achievement of the 1990s prob-ably was the successful campaign to slow the profligate development of Israel's coasts, which the SPNI entered as part of a broad coalition.

Tactically the biggest change at the SPNI was a retreat from large ral-lies and a movement toward legal actions. In 1997 suits were filed to stop Mediterranean coastal projects as well as residential developments in and around Jerusalem. The SPNI's disagreement with the Ministry of the Environment over resort development adjacent to newly flooded portions of the Huleh swamp, for instance, reached the Nazareth District Court.[183] The first thing Mickey Lipshitz did after assuming the position of the SPNI Director in the summer of 2001 was to file suit against the Water Commissioner for pumping water out of Lake Kinneret below the hydro-logically safe “red line.”[184]

The changes in tactics are, in a certain sense, a sign of the times. Emily Silverman argues, “Let's say we bring a thousand people down to the Dead Sea. Will this really help? Mass demonstrations are not always the right recipe.”[185] The actual efficacy of rallies remains an open ques-tion. While one Trans-Israel Highway demonstration attracted close to ten thousand people, attendance at most of the SPNI-sponsored protests against Highway 6 was pitiful. Clever gimmicks such as painting roads on the green bodies of high school students achieved the same degree of media attention with a fraction of the legwork. SPNI activism increas-ingly relies on behind-the-scenes and formal committee work.[186]


The SPNI's rapid ascent to an exalted position in Israeli society left it vul-nerable. Exciting initiatives were adopted that with time became an economic

burden. The very size of the organization ensured that it could not retain a single operational focus and that divergent and competing inter-ests would emerge. Quality control became harder.

Amotz Zahavi warns against the tendency to glorify the past, saying that “the first 80 percent is always the easy part.” Today's SPNI has far more employees and a far larger budget to focus on nature preservation than ever before, with two million shekels earmarked for activism.[187] Yet although the Society may be more professional than ever, it is also more ponderous. Its very size may have slowed its ability to adapt to the new rules of the game in the rough and tumble of current environmental con-flict. During the 1960s and 1970s developers were unprepared for Green campaigns, and government decision makers largely identified with the SPNI message. In today's conflicts, on the other hand, private developers and industry bankroll a stable of “environmental experts,” motivated by windfall profits. Money talks louder than ever in the game of government lobbying. A new level of professional sophistication is required that runs counter to an organizational culture where workers would rather be out hiking. And often there are just too many holes in the dike to plug.

In a retrospective survey it is always easier and perhaps more interest-ing to highlight failures. The many cases where natural resources were quietly preserved did not often make for good press. Sometimes the price of winning is discretion. All this makes the list of SPNI successes more im-pressive. Mistakes were made, but the overall record is dominated by en-vironmental victories. The map of Israel is literally dotted with lovely cor-ners and even a few species that would have long ago disappeared without the SPNI's uncompromising voice.

The Society has never played entirely by the rules. The positive results it gets by such tactics sometimes surprise even its own veterans. It is pos-sible that it can continue to play its complex game of parallel identities. It may succeed in running an inspirational educational empire and still play the environmental pit bull; it may be able to sit on State committees and enjoy substantial support from government ministries while holding their friends' feet to the fire; it may be possible to be both gigantic and nimble. But the organization may also have to make some hard choices.

Nature protection is a tough business. Veteran activists quip that “there are no real victories—only stays of execution.” For almost half a century the SPNI has been under fire in this rewarding but frustrating line of work. Many national treasures survive as a result. Whether they consti-tute “temporary stays of execution” or not depends on many factors, one of which is the continued evolution and influence of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

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