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A Ministry of the Environment Comes of Age
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9. A Ministry
of the Environment
Comes of Age

The environment is a particularly popular arena for policy enthusiasts, because time and again it has shown that intelligent government inter-vention can produce measurable societal benefits. But the checkered his-tory of Israel's Ministry of the Environment—with corresponding swings in pollution trends and the spirits of the country's environmentalists—suggests that policies are only part of the puzzle. In the somewhat weary debate as to whether individuals or larger social forces shape the course of human events, a decade of environmental inconsistency at the Ministry suggests that individuals matter. Institutional status as well as actual improvement in the country's land, air, and water quality reflect the relative savvy, competence, and commitment of the Environmental Ministry's leadership.

The turnover at the helm of the Ministry has been exceptional. Between 1989 and 1996 the staff had to raise a toast to the success of six different Ministers in almost as many years. Such instability reflects the Ministry's lowly status among politicians and suggests that even in a best-case scenario, environmental gains will be inconsistent. It also makes for a choppy and truncated institutional history. A review of the Ministry's experience during its first decade of work confirms that the personalities of its leaders often had a far greater effect on environ-mental gains than the political configuration or platform of the ruling coalition. Unfortunately it also suggests that even the best Minister of the Environment faces enormous limitations and that the establishment of a Cabinet-level Ministry is only a crucial first step in Israel's battle against pollution.



A swelling of grassroots activism, culminating in the Earth Day celebra-tions that swept America in 1970, led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. President Nixon had little choice but to listen to the pulse of the nation and create a new superagency.[1] In New Zealand, the creation of an independent Ministry of the Environment in 1986 was part of a series of wholesale reforms by the Labour Party, prom-ised in their election campaign two years earlier.[2] The establishment of Israel's Environmental Ministry, however, was a fluke. If the 1988 elections had not ended in a deadlock, the environment might still lack Cabinet-level representation today.

Prior to the elections, the Environmental Protection Service continued to limp along as part of the Ministry of the Interior. Under the adminis-tration of successive religious Interior Ministers, most recently from the ultraorthodox Sephardic Shas party, the Service's future became increas-ingly precarious. Its Director, Uri Marinov, had grown bolder and less diplomatic over the years. He was no longer willing to kowtow to Ariyeh Deri, the upstart party founder who was at first Director General and later Minister of the Interior. When Deri directed him to funnel monies desig-nated for environmental activities to Shas-affiliated religious institutions, Marinov went to the police to complain. Relations that had never been good reached a new nadir. Deri disconnected Marinov's phone and telex machine. Marinov decided to leave government service if things did not change quickly.[3]

Deliverance came from the unanticipated electoral stalemate. As the re-sults of the elections came in, it became clear that neither the Labor nor the Likud party would be able to form a majority government. Once again, Israel's two large political blocs would have to find a way to compromise and share power in a “national unity government.” The principle that drove the negotiations was an equal number of Ministerial posts for Likud and Labor leaders, to ensure a balanced Cabinet. But after all the minority parties had been rationed their portfolios, there was an odd number of Ministries left.

The odd man out was Ronni Miloh, a very bright young politician who often played the role of aggressive hatchet man for the (right-wing) Likud Party. An attorney who had spent all his life in the sophisticated Tel Aviv milieu, Miloh was perfectly comfortable among leftists and in 1994 was elected mayor of Israel's most liberal city. He had been a Likud activist in university politics and for many years remained steadfastly loyal to the

camp affiliated with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. By 1988 he had waited long enough to enter the highest echelons of the Likud power structure. The question was not whether he would be appointed a Minister but what Ministry would be created for him?

Marinov had thought about this from the time election results came in. Together with his legal advisor, Ruth Rotenberg, he prepared an entire plan for an Environmental Ministry, including drafts of all the requisite government decisions for establishing it. Aware of the weakness of politi-cians for homage, Marinov even found room for spacious Ministerial chambers, giving up his own office in the existing Environmental Protection Service. As negotiations for establishing the government dragged on, Marinov had time to refine the proposal and consider who would be its best advocate. He gambled on Miloh, who had been sympa-thetic to environmental issues in the past.[4] It was a prescient choice.

A smiling Miloh appeared on Israeli television on the morning of December 25, 1988. He described the dreidel spin of one of Israel's crazi-est all-night coalitional marathons. At one o'clock in the morning he was going to be Minister of Transportation; then later in the negotiations he was moved to Tourism; then that job was snatched by someone else.[5] At six in the morning, he was to be Minister without portfolio. Rumor had it that the possibility of creating a Ministry of Sports was suggested as a pos-sible area of jurisdiction. It was then that Miloh pulled out Marinov's plan and said, “I want to be Minister of the Environment.” Yitzhak Shamir had already been lobbied intensively on the issue by Josef Tamir, who now served as head of Life and Environment—Israel's umbrella group for en-vironmental organizations. He was very supportive of the idea.[6] It was the easiest solution, and everyone was very tired. Under these inauspicious and somewhat random circumstances, the Ministry of the Environment was born. It was long overdue. Some 125 nations had already created in-dependent environmental bureaucracies.[7]

Miloh's brief tenure at the Ministry (see Figure 24) is remembered fa-vorably for several reasons, one of which was the high-minded profes-sional nature of his selection of personnel. His first act as Minister was to retain Marinov's services as Director General. Other key appointments, like that of Professor Yoram Avnimelech as Ministry Chief Scientist, in-volved experts who were at odds with Likud positions. The choices raised eyebrows in his own party. Miloh recalls that when he told Yitzhak Shamir that he intended to appoint Marinov as his Director General, Shamir questioned the wisdom of the move, as he had heard that Marinov held leftist views. Miloh told Shamir that whatever Marinov's politics

were, he was the best environmental professional around. When Shamir asked whether he did not fear the response of the Likud Central Committee, Miloh told him, “If I succeed at this job, everyone will clap for me. If I fail, they won't forget it.”[8] In retrospect, most people in Israel be-lieve that Miloh did succeed. The degree of his success, however, particu-larly in terms of the institutional mandate he gained for his Ministry, is the subject of debate.


The fanfare surrounding the creation of a new government agency seemed to be an exciting turning point for the environment, both among the pub-lic and within the government.[9] In fact, the new Ministry floundered ini-tially. It managed to win only minimal authorities because of a series of fractious political clashes. By March 1989 no governmental agency had voluntary ceded its authorities to the new Ministry, and Miloh was threat-ening a coalitional crisis. The government appointed two professors of public administration, Abraham Atzmon and Yehezkel Dror, as arbitrators to recommend the scope of the powers that should be given to a Ministry of the Environment.

It took only a few weeks for them to offer a comprehensive and thought-ful ruling. Their promptness was all the more impressive because they worked without the cooperation of either the Minister of Agriculture or the Minister of Health, who refused to appear before them.[10] Both Ministries stood to lose from the creation of a new Environmental Ministry. That, how-ever, was not the real problem: Each was run by a Minister from the Labor Party who wanted to do as little as possible to help Ronni Miloh, at the time a particularly unpopular figure among Labor circles.

The professors prefaced their recommendations with a call for restraint, that is, to grant the Ministry a critical mass of authorities, but no more. After paying this lip service they went on to propose a powerhouse Ministry. It included regulatory control in the areas of water, air, and haz-ardous and solid wastes and overseeing a range of agencies from the Nature Reserves Authority to Israel's Meteorological Service.[11] This turned out to be a futile exercise. Rather than adopt the far-reaching rec-ommendations, Prime Minister Shamir opted to file them away and let each Ministry work the matter out directly with Miloh and his staff.

And so a tedious chain of negotiations between the Ministry of the Environment and its colleagues ensued. It is not by chance that Shamir remembers resistance at the Ministry of the Interior. Ariyeh Deri was

hardly enthusiastic about bolstering the status of Uri Marinov, who took the lead in most of these negotiations. But in the end, Deri was the first to sign an agreement. On April 2, 1989, the government approved the trans-fer of the Environmental Protection Service staff, authorities, and budget (including support for the municipal environmental units) to the new Ministry.[12] This offered a cohesive corps of workers who could hit the ground running in such areas as marine protection, air pollution monitor-ing and regulation, planning, and litter control. The Ministry also inher-ited the EPS offices in the Interior Building. After they had been spruced up a bit, Miloh really did move into Marinov's old offices, according to the script.

The Ministry of Agriculture was next in line.[13] It was not enthusiastic. Prime Minister Shamir transferred the National Parks Authority from his Office to the new Ministry as a gift, but the Nature Reserve system stayed in the Ministry of Agriculture.[14] More important, it maintained its control over Israel's powerful Water Commission. Even though the Environmental Ministry would open an agroecology department, it was essentially shut out of any real influence over pesticide registration and oversight policies. The agreement with the Ministry of Health was the longest in coming and was only approved a year later by the government, on January 21, 1990. Here, the Ministry of the Environment came out ahead. It became the lead agency overseeing the Licensing of Businesses Law, except for products that were designed to “go in people's mouths” (such as food or pharmaceuticals).[15] Those remained under the Ministry of Health's purview. The Ministry of Health also divested itself of responsi-bility for hazardous materials regulation, pest control, air pollution, and other nuisances.[16] As part of the deal, Marinov and the Environmental Ministry inherited much of the same Ministry of Health technical staff with whom the EPS had bickered so consistently in past years, as well as the experienced professionalism of Dr. Shmuel Brenner, a senior govern-ment scientist, and his Tel Aviv University–based analytical laboratories.

When the dust settled, the Ministry of the Environment certainly had considerable power on paper. Formally it held authorities under thirteen dif-ferent statutes. Yet a closer look showed that it was relegated to supporting-actor status on key environmental issues such as air emissions from vehicles, drinking-water and sewage treatment, pesticide registration and usage, na-ture preservation policy, radiation, and, of course, physical planning.

From Miloh's perspective, more important than the statutory limita-tions were the financial constraints. The money allocated to the Ministry left him absolutely no room for maneuvering or initiative. Josef Tamir

fired off a furious editorial, where he branded the twelve million shekels (six million dollars) allocated to the Ministry “embarrassing.” It repre-sented 0.018 percent of the 66-billion-shekel overall government budget.[17] Miloh went to speak about the matter to Shimon Peres, who served at the time as Minister of Finance, and his assistant, Yossi Beilin, who was a strong proponent of the Ministry. For an hour and a half, he and Marinov detailed the objectives and strategic plan of the Ministry. At the end of the presentation Miloh concluded, “Mr. Minister, we are going to need to dou-ble our budget if we are to accomplish any of this.” Peres listened atten-tively throughout. Then he looked at Miloh and said curtly, “From my perspective, the budget can be zero.” Miloh walked out with Beilin chasing after him, assuring him that everything would be fine.[18]


Miloh was impatient to make a statement about his new job and put his Ministry on the map. Once the Interior Ministry transferred the person-nel and authorities from the Environmental Protection Service, Miloh was ready to hit the ground running. By May he had issued a personal decree against the problematic Castel quarry on the outskirts of Jerusalem.[19] He promulgated regulations that made the 1988 law controlling land-based dumping into the sea operational.[20] Other regulations finally made it onto the books to require garbage dumps to take active measures to prevent fires, such as covering trash with a fifteen-centimeter layer of dirt each day.[21] Ironically, if not inappropriately, it was Kanovich's air pollution statute that provided the legal foot in the door to regulate solid-waste facilities. Miloh's active participation in raising money for the trees of the scorched Carmel Forest in a twenty-four-hour telethon on Israel's only television station raised three million shekels, as well as the profile of the Ministry.[22]

But most of Miloh's time went into institution building. For example, he insisted that the Ministry go beyond an advisory role in planning at a regional level and establish formal district offices in each of the six regions of the country.[23] He also tried to push the Ministry's enforcement capability. Miloh had a sober perception of the feudal nature of Israeli governmental culture. It required each Minister to field a private militia to protect his fiefdom. The income-tax people had their commandos. The ultraorthodox had a Sabbath police (run by Druze), which they operated from the Ministry of Labor. Miloh had something similar in mind for polluters.

He went to the Ministry of Finance to negotiate a budget for some reasonable office space and proposed the comfortable Migdal ha-Ir high-rise in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. Predictably, the Ministry of Finance clerks balked at the exorbitant price. Miloh agreed to forgo the offices temporarily in exchange for funds to create an environmental pa-trol, jeeps and all.[24] The five-man patrol was set up initially under the auspices of the National Parks Authority.[25]

The battle over Haifa's air quality, however, was to be the defining con-test of Miloh's tenure as Minister of the Environment. When he asked his new staff what area was ripe for bold action, they did not hesitate: Go after air pollution, they said. They had a heap of unfinished business from the Environmental Protection Service. On April 30, 1989, only three weeks after Ariyeh Deri made Miloh responsible for the country's air quality, the highest sulfur dioxide levels in Israeli history were recorded in Haifa.

Weather patterns usually made air pollution worse during the spring and fall seasons along the coast, but the concentration recorded in Haifa, 2688 micrograms per cubic meter, was genuinely dangerous. It was more than three times the allowable level at the time and five times today's stan-dard.[26] Miloh jumped at the chance to tackle a high-profile problem. But if he was looking for a painless initiation to environmental politics, he had picked the wrong issue. The subsequent effort to improve the City's air quality was indicative of both an Environmental Ministry's potential and the intensity of the political brawl required to green the Israeli govern-ment's public policies.

The problem was the 3 percent sulfur fuel used most of the time by Haifa's power plant and oil refineries. When the winds died down and there was no air dispersion, even 1 percent sulfur fuel was not always enough to keep sulfur dioxide levels within acceptable levels.[27] The Israel Electric Company board responded by falling back on dilution—raising the pollution plume high above the land so that it would disperse before reaching the exposed population below.[28] But because of Haifa's unique topographic layout, the fifteen million dollars spent to raise smokestacks to a height of three hundred meters could not solve the problem.

To give Haifa's air the intensive care it demanded, Miloh first needed to revise Israel's national ambient air pollution standards. The 1971 stan-dards posed an obstacle to progress. First of all, the list was very narrow and did not include such basic pollutants as ozone, the leading indicator of photochemical smog.[29] The World Health Organization recomended a new list of air quality criteria that was almost three times as long.

A national committee of health experts had been comparing it with the allowable air quality levels in Israel and found several Israeli standards to be too lenient.[30] Ostensibly there was no reason that the WHO recom-mendation could not be signed into law.

The new, expanded list of pollutants was prepared for Miloh's signature, with new standards set as absolute ceilings on air pollution levels—unlike the old limits, which allowed for violations 1 percent of the time (a stan-dard that made little sense from either a public health or an ethical per-spective). It seemed like a simple solution. On May 7, 1989, the Minister was only too happy to issue the new standards as the basis for his crack-down on polluters. But the powers-that-were at the Haifa Oil Refineries and the Israel Electric Company had other ideas, and they were used to getting their way.

Under a 1985 Directive from the Attorney General, Israeli government Ministers must consult with all other Ministries that might be affected by their regulations before secondary legislation can come into force.[31] In 1989 Moshe Shachal, a long-time Labor politician, was the Minister of Energy. His job put him in the position of patron for the Oil Refineries and the Electric Company, both government corporations. They told him that the standards would be too tough for them to meet and would cost the government millions. The fact that Shachal lived in Haifa did not seem to faze him, perhaps because his villa was on the other side of the mountain from the industrial facilities. The Energy Minister formally opposed the regulations and prevented their publication.

Miloh did not hesitate to go after Haifa's megapolluters, but these ef-forts were also frustrated. On October 18, 1989, Miloh signed amend-ments to the existing personal decrees (stack emission limits) against both the Electric Company and the Oil Refineries.[32] They were to go into force in three months' time. The new directives forced the Oil Refineries to meet a specific sulfur dioxide emission standard at all times, never spew-ing more than 1.3 tons per hour into the atmosphere. If background air pollution levels went up, the refineries would have to halve their emission levels, to 0.6 tons per hour. Yet once again, the Energy Minister Shachal intervened and brought the issue to the Cabinet.

To avoid a coalitional crisis, a committee of four Ministers was ap-pointed to consider the matter. As the precarious unity government re-quired symmetry in all matters, the committee included two Likud and two Labor Ministers. The political balance once again called into question the assumption that the environment was always a left-wing or liberal issue. Within the committee, the right-wing politicians represented Green

interests, and the leftists backed the industrial polluters. They quickly reached a standoff.[33] So Miloh and Shachal were charged with finding an arbitrator to resolve the technical disagreements. They settled on Professor Haim Harari, a brilliant physicist and President of the Weizmann Institute.

Harari may have been a physics genius, but he was not an experienced environmental regulator. When his report was submitted in February 1990, it failed to make anyone happy.[34] Harari reduced the sulfur dioxide criterion from 780 to 500 micrograms per cubic meter but left it a “statis-tical standard” (allowing for a doubling of the standard 0.25 percent of the time). Sulfur levels in fuels were to be cut immediately to 2.5 percent, and during pollution episodes, 0.5 percent sulfur fuel was to be used.

Miloh took a “damn the torpedoes” approach and left his original per-sonal decrees in place. They were to come into force on March 18, 1990. It did him little good. Both companies immediately brought the issue before the Supreme Court, calling for cancellation of the emissions limits as ar-bitrary and capricious.[35] The Court granted a temporary injunction until it could rule on the matter.

By the time of the Court's judgment, however, Miloh had one foot out the door. With new prestigious Cabinet portfolios opening up, Miloh quickly forgot about how essential an Environmental Ministry was. Miloh was offered the Minister of Police position, and did not think twice before accepting it. Later, he would tell stories about a visit to England in his new capacity. His Ministerial colleagues in London heard of his decision with incredulity. In England the Interior and Environment Ministry is a far finer feather in a political cap than Police Chief. But the political calculus in Israel was different. Looking back, Miloh claims that he reached the de-cision because after two years of internecine squabbling to keep his Ministry running, he was just psychologically worn out.[36]

In 1990 an attempt by Labor Party chief Shimon Peres to reshuffle coalitional loyalties and unseat Prime Minister Shamir failed. Labor was kicked out of the coalition, and a Likud-led coalition survived with a nar-row parliamentary majority. The government was left with a small, poorly funded Environmental Ministry that no one had really wanted in the first place. By default, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir assumed the portfolio and held it until Yitzhak Rabin's Labor victory in July 1992. Fulfilling a debt to the National Religious Party, he eventually appointed Yigael Bibi, a good-natured former mayor from Tiberias, as Deputy Minister. Bibi had excellent intentions but lacked initiative and, unfortunately, did not sit around the Cabinet table (being only a Deputy Minister). He left Marinov

as Director General to keep the place running. In political terms, the Ministry of the Environment had become an orphan.


The epilogue to the Haifa case offers a good indication of the Environmental Ministry's second-class status from 1990 to 1992. Only after a legal action was brought by a new public-interest environmental law group—Adam Teva V'din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense—against the Prime Minister[37] did the government decide to adopt Harari's recommendations. The press declared it an environmental victory. At least publicly, environmentalists were less than jubilant, gloomily calling Haifa's air a symptom of a Ministry without a Minister.[38] It would take another Supreme Court petition,[39] but in April 1992, three years after Miloh had originally signed them into law, the amendments to the personal decrees were published.[40] It was worth the wait. Harari's com-promise formula proved efficacious. Haifa's air quality quickly improved, and levels never again came near the perilous concentrations that charac-terized the late 1980s.[41]

The Ministry, however, was not in good shape. In Jerusalem alone, its workers were scattered across three different offices in as many neigh-borhoods. The budget had grown but was still meager. The general scarcity was especially acute in the operations of the six regional offices. In a typical example, one staffer was responsible for overseeing industrial pollution for the entire northern quarter of Israel. The Ministry could not provide him with a vehicle. Gasoline funding in the budget could barely pay for the trip from his home in the Golan Heights to the Nazareth of-fice. Luckily, his kibbutz believed in his work and bankrolled any travel to the field he had to do.

More embarrassing was the general lack of clout, in particular when it came to enforcing environmental standards. The sewage discharges into the Kinneret Lake during 1991 and 1992 were illustrative. After the sum-mer of 1990, following three consecutive years of low rainfall, the scenic boardwalk of the City of Tiberias sat high above the lake's low waterline. Limnologists at the Kinneret laboratories were stunned in January 1991 when they spotted a serious leak in a sewage pipeline from the tourist es-tablishments; it was jutting right above the waters.[42] Raw wastes were pouring into the national drinking-water reservoir.

The scientists spoke to Tiberias Mayor Josef Peretz, who claimed that he lacked funds for the substantial repairs required. By April 1991,


Figure 1. Rescuers seeking Australian athletes in the Yarkon River after the col-lapse of the bridge in the Maccabiah's opening ceremonies, 1997. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 2. Bedouin herdsmen, circa 1940. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 3. The Reading Power Plant alongside Tel Aviv's Yarkon River, under construction, 1937. Image appears courtesy of JNF Archives.

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Figure 4. First spraying against malaria in the Sharon Valley, circa 1940. Image appears courtesy of JNF Archives.

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Figure 5. Menahem Ussishkin hosting Professor Albert Einstein in Palestine at JNF nursery, 1940. Image appears courtesy of JNF Archives.

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Figure 6. “Father of the Trees” Yosef Weitz inspects JNF forest, 1953. Image appears courtesy of JNF Archives.

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Figure 7. Ussishkin and Weitz at JNF tree-planting ceremony at JNF nursery, circa 1935. Image appears courtesy of JNF Archives.

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Figure 8. Amotz Zahavi, the SPNI's indefatigable founding director and later zoology professor (right), chatting with Israel's President Yizhak Navon. Image appears courtesy of SPNI Archives.

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Figure 9. Azariah Alon, the SPNI's “trumpet” and most elo-quent spokesman for nature in Israel. Image appears courtesy of SPNI Archives.

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Figure 10. Yoav Sagi, first Director and later Chair of the SPNI's Nature Protection Department. Image appears courtesy of SPNI Archives.

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Figure 11. Yossi Leshem, SPNI leader and bird advocate extraordinaire, circa 1997. Image appears courtesy of Yossi Leshem.

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Figure 12. Dr. Uzi Paz, who lobbied to get the Natures Reserve Authority through the Knesset and became NRA's first director. Image appears courtesy of Uzi Paz.

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Figure 13. General Avram Yoffe, who waged war for Israel's nature reserves and won. Image appears courtesy of David Rubin.

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Figure 14. Dr. D'vora Ben Shaul, who came all the way from Texas to be the NRA's first woman employee and first scientist (1999). Image appears courtesy of Jocelyn Sheffer.

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Figure 15. Dan Perry, NRA director and lifelong nature advocate. Image appears courtesy of Dan Perry.

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Figure 16. Hyrax, indigenous desert species. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 17. Professor Hillel Shuval, member of the Ministry of Health's original “sanitation” team and water quality advocate. Image appears courtesy of Professor Shuval.

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Figure 18. Laying pipes for the Yarkon-Negev water carrier, 1954. Image appears courtesy of the Zionist Archives.

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Figure 19. A polluted stream leading to the Palmahim beach, circa 1974. Image appears courtesy of Government Press Office.

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Figure 20. Josef Tamir presiding over the first meeting of the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee, 1972. Image appears courtesy of Josef Tamir.

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Figure 21. At Environmental Day in 1972, hosted by Israel's President Katzir; Green Parliament member Josef Tamir speaking. Image appears courtesy of Josef Tamir.

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Figure 22. Israel's Environmental Protection Service on a field trip to Mitzpeh Ramon, 1982. The director, Uri Marinov, is at far right. Image appears courtesy of Liora Belkin.

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Figure 23. The Haifa Oil Refineries, site of the first major government action. Image occurs courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 24. Ronni Miloh, Israel's first Minister of the Environment. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 25. Yossi Sarid, unlikely Green icon as Environmental Minister. Image appears courtesy of Sarid and his Meretz Party.

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Figure 26. Minister of the Environment Yossi Sarid (left) lobbying Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the field, 1995. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 27. The Hiriyah garbage dump—not only a source of water pollution, odors, and periodic fires, but also a real danger to incoming planes because of the concentrations of birds it attracts, 1980. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 28. Nehama Ronen, who ran the Ministry of the Environment as Director-General, 1996–1999, declaring her candidacy for the Knesset in a new “green” party. Image appears courtesy of Nehama Ronen.

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Figure 29. Firefighting efforts in JNF forest, 1974. Image appears courtesy of JNF Archives.

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Figure 30. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visiting Beit Ja'an, circa 1966. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 31. Bedouin shepherds outside Beer Sheva's bus station seeking pastures. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 32. Herschell and Shirley Benyamin, EcoNet's tireless crusaders, 1998. Image appears courtesy of the Benyamins.

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Figure 33. Reuven Yosef, saving Eilat's bird habitat, with Levna sparrowhawks, 1998. Image appears courtesy of Reuven Yosef.

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Figure 34. A rally by activists protesting against inappropriate treatment of medical wastes in Modi'in's municipal landfill, 1999. Image appears courtesy of the Government Press Office.

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Figure 35. Elli Varberg, head of the marine pollution prevention station at Eilat, inspecting equipment after Aqaba cleanup, 1995. Image appears courtesy of Varberg.

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four months later, they were out of patience and reported the problem to the Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry demanded swift ac-tion but for an additional eight months had no choice but to swallow the Mayor's excuses and apply moral suasion. Finally, on December 2, 1991, Uri Marinov forwarded a formal warning to Peretz, notifying him that the City's evasion constituted criminal activity under the Water Law.[43] Israel's Water Law is a criminal statute but had rarely been used as such. Yet, if knowingly contaminating the national drinking-water reservoir was not a reason to prosecute a polluter, it is hard to think of any case that would be. When the Ministry's formal threat and call for action did not produce results, its legal staff called for the in-dictment of the Mayor and city officials. The Ministry staffers even wrote out the legal documents and put together the list of witnesses for prosecutors. But Esther Gofer, the Northern Region District Attorney, refused to file it.[44]

Eventually, word of the pollution got out. Adam Teva V'din sent letters to the Mayor and government authorities demanding action. When copies reached the press, it reported the case.[45] Things suddenly began to move, but only after the City received one million shekels to undertake the work. The Mayor was eventually indicted,[46] but soon after construction of the pipes commenced, the District Attorney canceled the suit without even bothering to consult the Ministry of the Environment.[47] For two years, the Ministry of the Environment and its Deputy Minister had sat by impo-tently as Israel's largest single source of drinking water was being poi-soned. The Mayor's flippant assumption that the environment was not really a serious matter was confirmed by the District Attorney's com-plicity. It was demoralizing.

The case was not exceptional. It took just as long to convince Israel's Attorney General to prosecute Rafi Hochman, the Mayor of Eilat (the re-sort city on the Red Sea). The farmers in the area were willing to use the city's wastes for irrigation but could not afford the cost of the treated water. For its part, the city was unwilling to pay the expense, estimated at somewhat less than one-hundred thousand dollars a year. Hochman dis-charged his city's sewage into the Red Sea, upstream from his hotel dis-trict, without a permit. Then he openly taunted the Ministry of the Environment in the press to do something about it. The Eilat sewage suit survived a bit longer than the Tiberias legal action,[48] but the judge was openly hostile to the prosecution. After work began on a pipeline to take the treated wastes to the fields of the neighboring kibbutzim, the indict-ment was buried by the legal authorities.



Perhaps the greatest environmental setback of the period came in the form of “emergency legislation” passed by the Knesset in July 1990 that essen-tially eviscerated Israel's planning and building system. The Soviet Union, in its final days, at long last opened its gates, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to Israel.[49] The Israeli government, fearing an acute housing shortage, decided to streamline the planning process for residen-tial units. Benignly titled the “Planning and Building Procedures Law (Temporary Measures),”[50] the law created ad hoc committees known by their Hebrew acronym, the Valalim.[51] These were to replace temporarily the more ponderous regional and local committees.[52]

Dominated by government development interests such as the Ministry of Housing and the Israel Lands Administration, the Valalim committees were quantitatively and qualitatively overzealous in their work. For instance, the government set an objective of forty-five thousand approved housing units for Jewish year 5751 (1990–1991). As speculators cashed in on the real estate sweepstakes, the Valalim committees obliged, by approving 380,000 units.[53] Technically the emergency committees were supposed to review only those housing plans containing two hundred or more units. In practice, plans ranging from small developments to entire urban, commer-cial, and transportation infrastructures sped through the committees. Environmental considerations, impact statements, and common sense were conspicuously absent. Until then, the public usually had enjoyed two months to review development proposals and file objections to problem-atic plans. Under the emergency system, it was limited to twenty days—an impossibly short period to put together a compelling case against a development scheme. A study showed that official review of complex de-velopment plans generally took less than a week.[54]

The legacy of environmental mistakes remains traumatic to environ-mentalists. From 1990 until 1993, when housing starts doubled,[55] all the Ministry of the Environment could do was to catalog them. To name but a few, homes sprang up adjacent to railroad tracks and air strips with no consideration of the noise; neighborhoods were built without sewage systems; and sensitive scenic areas were scarred by the hasty projects. No less important, the law made a mockery of a planning system that for years had been considered a linchpin of environmental policy. It was a free-for-all, and government bureaucracies that had long been stifled by annoying planning procedures were among the most exploitive entre-preneurs.


The law was designed to be a temporary stopgap arrangement, with its provisions in force for only two years. When it expired, a glut of approved housing plans existed. The emergency committees were very popular, however, among developers, inside and outside the government. The Ministry of the Environment staff dutifully tried to mitigate the most egregious plans, submitted reports detailing dozens of abuses, and openly called for the law's natural discontinuation. The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee nodded sympathetically and then proceeded to extend the law's life on four separate occasions.[56]

Faced with the impossible position of having Ministerial responsibility without Ministerial power, Marinov become increasingly truculent. Two decades of fighting for environmental causes with inadequate authority left him with a long list of enemies. They all seemed to surface for a brutal ex-pose in the newspaper Chadashot, which painted a harsh picture of his ruthless management style. However, for Marinov there was some comfort in international recognition: In 1991 after several unsuccessful attempts, he was elected to the Directorate of the Mediterranean Action Plan in Cairo.[57] This was particularly gratifying—since declaring Zionism to be racism in 1974, the United Nations had excluded Israelis from any position of real re-sponsibility in an affiliated institution. And of course, there was the global high in June 1992 associated with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when Marinov and his deputy, Amram Pruginin, sat in for Prime Minister Shamir, who chose to stay home and campaign for the July elections.

But without a Minister, the Environmental Ministry became a throw-back to the days of the Environmental Protection Service. It was mostly the same faces, and they still lacked the power to implement policies that might reduce pollution from pesticides, cars, or industrial waste pipes. In addition, the Ministry seemed incapable of articulating a Green vision that would excite the public. Issues such as public transport, solar energy, eco-nomic incentives, eco-labeling, urban aesthetics, and biodiversity were outside the Ministry's operational and conceptual universe.


The Labor Party victory of 1992 put an end to the orphan period at the Ministry of the Environment. However, the staff quickly came to miss the carefree days when they worked without the heavy hand of a Ministerial parent. In this case, the oppressive mother was Ora Namir. Mordechai Namir, her husband, had been the Mapai (Labor Party) mayor of Tel Aviv during the 1960s, giving Namir access to top-level politicians. After his

death, she embarked on her own political career and was elected as a Knesset representative in 1973. Namir made a name for herself there as a defender of the disenfranchised, particularly in the area of labor reforms and women's issues.[58] She felt snubbed by her former political patron, Yitzhak Rabin, and in 1992 decided to run against him and Shimon Peres in the Labor primaries, where she came in a distant fourth place. It did not improve her standing with Rabin. When the Prime Minister handed out the Cabinet jobs, he kept the Minister of Labor post she so coveted open in the hope of attracting ultraorthodox parties to the government. Namir had to settle for the Ministry of the Environment. Environmentalists were delighted when such a high-profile politician got the job, but they found that her humanitarian public image was a far cry from her private personality.

The first thing she did was fire Uri Marinov out of “managerial” and not personal or professional considerations.[59] It is not unusual for Ministers to appoint Directors from among their political cronies. Still, there was some surprise at the speed and callousness of Marinov's dis-missal. His replacement was Yisrael Peleg, a former head of the Government Press Office.[60] With a doctorate in communications, he had hoped to be appointed head of the National Broadcast Authority, but nev-ertheless jumped at Namir's offer.[61]

In their first impression of Namir in the Ministry, most environmen-talists remember her as being superficial and supercilious. Marinov recalls a post-election meeting. Namir asked what the key environmen-tal problems were. “West Bank sewage” was the immediate response. A few days later Namir returned and charged nastily, “You all misled me. I spoke with a senior military officer, and he claims that the sewage prob-lem has been completely taken care of there.” The group was a bit stunned at her vociferous attack. With nothing to lose, Marinov pointed out that the Ministry of the Environment generally believed that putting waste into pipes was not enough—that there should be treatment at the end of the line.[62]

In her early interviews, Namir actually identified sewage as her top pri-ority, but she did not put together a serious Ministerial strategy to con-front the issue. She returned from a trip to America enthused about trash incineration and was convinced that the private sector would buy a multi-million-dollar technological solution to Israel's garbage problem. Although a number of important regulations were finally passed during her tenure and she seemed to be working hard, Namir is remembered mostly because she managed to alienate people. The Society for the

Protection of Nature in Israel was furious when she chose “employment” over her professional staff's negative position toward the Voice of America. After Adam Teva V'din filed a Supreme Court action against her Ministry, it found that the once-friendly Namir held grudges. She took umbrage easily.

Her staff suffered most of all. Many of the senior officials at first grum-bled at what a bad listener she was. After suffering a few of her legendary temper tantrums, they started to look for alternative employment. Namir seemed to enjoy humiliating her subordinates in public. It went beyond contradicting and insulting them—she went as far as to force them to pick up trash from the floor in front of visitors. When her termagant ways were leaked to the press, her fury reached new heights. Morale in the Environmental Ministry was at an all-time low in October 1993, when Prime Minister Rabin reshuffled his Cabinet.


Yossi Sarid was Minister of the Environment for less than three years, but no one has had a greater influence on Israel's environmental self-image. A brilliant and complex figure in Israeli politics for over thirty years, there was nothing that indicated that he would assume the role of environmen-tal icon for the 1990s. Sarid began his political career in 1964, not yet twenty-five years old, as both a protégé and enfant terrible of the ruling Mapai (Labor) Party. The son of two Hebrew teachers, he inherited their facile rhetorical proficiency and staunch commitment to principles.

After immigrating to Israel in 1932, Sarid's father, Yaakov, moved up the ladder in the Mapai and the Israeli educational bureaucracy. Eventually he was appointed Director General of the Ministry of Education and Culture. (In 1965, it was Yaakov Sarid—not Ben-Gurion—who made the fateful decision to ban the Beatles from playing in Israel, lest they corrupt the nation's youth.[63]) Sarid speaks of his late father with reverence, but one can feel that the high expectations placed on this only son produced competing impulses of service and rebellion. For instance, the precocious youngster was snuck into the Labor Zionist youth movement prematurely while only eight. Nine years later, Sarid was thrown out for smoking in high school, taking him off the well-trod Labor Zionist track to rural set-tlement and the kibbutz.

The army did not know how to take advantage of the gifted but cheeky adolescent. He served for two years, mostly in the artillery. Soon after re-turning to civilian life, he began studying literature and philosophy at

Hebrew University. Sarid's ability to turn a phrase and his sonorous bari-tone voice made him radiophonic enough to get a job at Kol Yisrael, then Israel's only radio station. He worked there for four years, until 1964, when he switched to print media. The Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper hired him first as a court reporter and then as a satirist. Later that year, looking for a hip but loyal media whiz, the Mapai leadership offered him the position of spokesman. He gained their trust, and in 1965 Prime Minister Eshkol made him a policy adviser. Eight years later, at age thirty-three, he became the youngest member of the Knesset.

From the start he was a player. Sarid claims that in 1974 he convinced Pinhas Sapir, the consummate Labor power broker, to back Yitzhak Rabin for Prime Minister, which led to his narrow victory over Shimon Peres.[64] His political future as leader of the Labor Party seemed assured. But Yossi Sarid was too restless and self-righteous to bide his time. He refused to back down in efforts to expedite the resignation of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, whom he blamed for sundry debacles during the Yom Kippur War. He opposed the Labor Party's West Bank settlement policy, arguing that it would be a disaster in the long run. The media loved to quote him, and he always had something clever to say. To many Israelis, he was too smart for his own good. For instance, he took potshots (which he later regretted) at Yitzhak Rabin's drinking problems and was merciless in his attacks (which he did not regret) on religious right-wing chauvinism and the secret reli-gious underground dedicated to killing Arabs.

Sarid himself realized that he was out of step. After the 1984 election stalemate, Sarid declined to support a national unity government with the Likud and resigned the Labor Party to join Ratz, a leftist splinter party run by human rights crusader Shulamith Aloni. Later Ratz merged with two other leftist parties to become the Meretz Party, receiving almost 10 per-cent of the votes in the 1992 elections. Prime Minister Rabin could not form a coalition without Meretz. Initially, Sarid was passed over for a Ministerial portfolio. But in October 1993, Rabin realized he would not be able to expand the coalition. He promoted Ora Namir to be Minister of Labor and gave Sarid the booby prize—the Ministry of the Environment. Sarid was knowledgeable about any number of subjects, but the environ-ment was not one of them.


When Yossi Sarid (see Figure 25) presented his credentials at the Environmental Ministry's headquarters on the third floor of the Interior

Ministry, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the liberated country of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. The mood turned positively euphoric once the staffers got to know Sarid. They found that, in contrast to his sar-castic sound-bite image, Sarid was warm, charming, and genuinely sym-pathetic to environmental interests, (despite his chain smoking). On his first day at the job, he made the rounds of the departments at the Ministry's three Jerusalem offices, introducing himself as the new worker at the Ministry.[65] The staff also learned that Sarid was positively eloquent. At first, however, he mostly listened, absorbing information in an entirely new area. He proved a quick study.

To expand his base of power, Sarid opened his doors to environmental groups, in particular the Society for the Protection of Nature. This an-noyed some of the bureaucracy's old-timers, who resented the promotion of SPNI activists to senior managerial positions, without appropriate aca-demic credentials. Uri Marinov still grumbles that under Sarid, govern-ment policies and orientation were supplanted by the SPNI agenda.[66] The truth is that the organization's natural vision for Israel's landscape ap-pealed to Sarid more than the technocratic, urban perspective that charac-terized Marinov's professional experience. Indeed, Marinov would later argue that Israel had to get used to being an urbanized city-state on the Singapore model.[67] Sarid felt that it was not too late to preserve the open spaces remaining in the land of Israel. He was also ambitious enough to pursue an agenda far broader than the government had envisioned for the Ministry of the Environment.

Sarid also infused the Ministry with an ethos of public service. Mickey Lipshitz coordinated nature preservation at the Society for the Protection of Nature until he became a Deputy Director at the Ministry of the Environment. He was excited to find a Minister who had no patience for bureaucracy, who felt that every single public complaint deserved an an-swer, and whose militancy on environmental issues was typically greater than his own, scolding his deputies that they were “moving too slowly.”[68] Workers at all levels in the Ministry recount the overtime they put in out of a sense of devotion to their new boss.


It soon became clear that as chief eco-crusader, Sarid was having the time of his life. He managed to get the press interested in environmental issues that activists had long forgotten. In one of the most bizarre photo oppor-tunities of the period, he took the press with him to inspect the cleanliness

in gas station bathrooms, a pet peeve of the Minister's; he even issued a few fines.[69] When there were rumors about high radiation levels in the Small Crater[70] coming from the nearby Dimona nuclear reactor, Sarid took a group of reporters with him to measure radioactivity. They found only normal levels,[71] but later Sarid acknowledged that there had been a leak-age of nuclear wastes on August 2, 1992, that was hushed up by authori-ties, including Minister of the Environment Ora Namir.[72]

One four-page newspaper profile of the Minister opened:

Since Yossi Sarid has entered the government, suddenly one hears about the Ministry of the Environment. More precisely, one never stops hearing about it. The hourly news and the newspaper headlines report with an impressive frequency about nuclear waste disposal, sewage treatment facilities, and the Hiriyah garbage dump. Environmental problems that in the past were relegated to bottom priority today are squarely on the public agenda, and Sarid sees to it that they stay there.[73]

The environment ultimately proved too narrow to engage all of Sarid's energies and imagination, and the press followed him to foreign lands as well. Disturbed by the images of starving children in Rwanda, Sarid called Prime Minister Rabin and received his permission to lead a humanitarian medical delegation to the refugee camps in Zaire. Sarid also launched an initiative to save Muslims in Bosnia and bring them to Israel. What really interested Sarid, however, was the peace process. Rabin and Peres passed over loyal Laborites to add Sarid to the inside negotiation team that forged agreements with the Palestinians and the Jordanians.

Some environmentalists muttered that Sarid was really only a half-time Environmental Minister.[74] Sarid dismissed the criticism, explaining that his sixteen-hour-a-day routine allowed him time for everything, and pointed out that the foreign travel log of Ministerial junkets has him among the Rabin government's least frequent fliers. His capacity for work was indeed enormous, and early in his term he was hospitalized with cardiac problems. Still, it often seemed that he canceled as many speaking engagements as he actually attended, because of this or that pressing political exigency.

For the first time, Sarid made ecology a mainstream issue. The envi-ronment seemed a more common Cabinet subject than security, and there was a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes, mostly starring an exasper-ated Prime Minister Rabin, who in each would succumb to yet another Sarid-led subterfuge.[75] If nothing else, Sarid can be credited with provid-ing employment for Green journalists. By the end of his tenure, almost every newspaper had a reporter with a part-time environmental beat.



In perhaps his greatest achievement as Minister, Sarid translated his pop-ularity into money. In 1992 the Ministry of the Environment budget was twenty-six million shekels. By 1996 it reached 231 million. The increase was partly due to Yisrael Peleg's long-time political connections in the rul-ing Labor Party with Beige Shochat, the Minister of Finance. Riding Sarid's momentum, Peleg managed to initiate a four-hundred-million shekel multiyear cost-sharing fund to help Israeli industries pay for pol-lution control equipment.[76] (Under Sarid, 120 million were immediately utilized.) The quantum leap in funding was most immediately reflected in the spiffy new Ministry offices. No longer the unwanted stepchild at the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry dedicated its modern complex on the eve of Passover 1995.[77] Appropriately, it was located at “On Wings of an Eagle Street” overlooking the Angel Bakery. Not long before the move, Sarid had signed a personal decree that led to dramatic reductions in emis-sions at the bakery, a perennial Jerusalem air polluter.

Part of the reason for Sarid's budgetary success was his unique relation-ship with the Prime Minister (see Figure 26). The two men were not close politically or personally prior to Sarid's tenure. Indeed, Sarid had chastised Yitzhak Rabin when, as Minister of Defense, he called for “breaking Arab bones” in response to the Intifada.[78] But something clicked between the two soon after Sarid joined the Cabinet. Rabin never became an environmen-talist, but he did give Sarid and his Ministry unusual latitude.

Sarid was never bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of running a government Ministry. Yisrael Peleg was content to fill this role, happily operating under Sarid's shadow and overseeing budgetary details. It was Peleg who pushed for a comprehensive administrative restructuring. He claimed that despite the professed commitment to decentralized manage-ment,[79] when Marinov was Director General, in addition to his six re-gional coordinators, twenty-nine people were directly responsible to him. Peleg found this to be a managerial disaster and moved to appoint Deputy Directors to control different sectors. Peleg's most important contribution, however, was initiating the Year of the Environment in 1994.[80]


Yisrael Peleg never had any pretenses about his capabilities. He was not an environmental expert. Nor was he a charismatic figurehead—there were plenty of both at his Ministry. Peleg, however, did have some understanding about communications. In September 1992, soon

after Ora Namir's appointment, he pushed her to have the coming Jewish calendar year declared as the Year of the Environment. Every year the Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies picks a national topic for general promotion and public edification. Some subjects are more ex-citing than others (the Year of Democracy was a bit flat; the Year of Jerusalem, during its 3000th birthday, somewhat more flashy). With Peleg working eighteen hours a day as producer, and Sarid playing the starring role, Israel's Year of the Environment burst onto the public consciousness.

In a typical Peleg touch, it began on September 6, 1993, with a symbolic visit by Sarid and Ezer Weitzman, Israel's President, to the Hiriyah garbage dump with cameras conveying everything but the stench into Israel's living rooms.[81] Even Prime Minister Rabin was compelled to speak at the ceremony that evening at the President's house, pledging govern-ment commitment to solving environmental problems.[82]

Sarid's paean to environmental harmony transfixed the audience there:

I see myself going into our national children's bedroom. They all sleep safely, our children, breathing easy; a good smell wafts in the air, for the atmosphere is intoxicatingly clear, the heavens are clean, the stars are out, and there is silence all around. It is possible to hear the waters churning in their channels, all the purified streams flow to the sea, and the sea is no longer dirty.[83]

When Prime Minister Rabin got up for his perfunctory address, he rolled his eyes and muttered that “Yossi was a hard act to follow.”

Peleg brought in marketing concepts that were foreign to the applied scientists at the Ministry. For instance he insisted on using “focus groups” to consider possible logos to accompany the year, choosing a globe with a heart on it and the slogan “To the Environment with Love.” Peleg tried to make environmental jargon more appealing, getting Israel's Academy for the Hebrew Language to adopt his new euphemism matminot (literally, places of digging) for “garbage dumps” in place of an older term that was an acronym for “sites for waste disposal.”

The year was packed with environmental events: concerts for the en-vironment; environmental film festivals; twenty-five specially produced educational television programs; the new ecologo on all government mail; an environmental curriculum for every grade level; soldiers march-ing in the name of environmental awareness;[84] a campaign to draft 250,000 volunteer litter-inspecting “cleanliness trustees” (the 100,000 who ultimately signed up were impressive enough); and the annual Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony featuring unsung environmental

heroes.[85] The Ministry of the Environment was the hottest bu-reaucracy in town.

The country got an intense dose of ecology and seemed interested. Yet environmentalists are paid to worry. When they were not being over-whelmed by invitations to give lecture appearances, long-time activists in-variably turned to each other and asked: “But what will happen next year—when the environmental fad passes?”[86]


Sarid's record as an ecological public relations genius is not questioned. Whether or not he put policies in place that materially improved Israel's environment is a tougher question. Sometimes the Ministry's enhanced status alone was enough to produce positive results. Under the Sarid ad-ministration, the Ministry of Justice was less likely to dismiss pleas for prosecution of egregious polluters than it had been before.[87] Before his tenure, environmental workers were never sure whether there would be political support for them if they stuck their necks out or tackled a power-ful vested interest. Sarid justifiably prides himself in infusing some fight-ing spirit into the Ministry staff. When staffers would come to the Minister with explanations for a polluter's poor performance, he would be-rate them saying, “What's with this empathy? He can do a lot more! The fact is he managed to worry about electricity and hook up the water. Why shouldn't he worry about the environment too?”[88]

Emboldened by the Minister's support and the Ministry's status, envi-ronmentalists became more aggressive. In areas where the Ministry en-joyed regulatory experience, such as industrial air pollution, Sarid took implementation up another level. He issued personal decrees to all the op-erating quarries in the north of the country.[89] When the Haifa Oil Refineries violated the personal decree, Sarid signed an order that would close them within two weeks. The Refineries stopped fooling around and switched to 1 percent sulfur fuel year-round.[90]

On some policy issues, Sarid quite simply was Greener than his prede-cessors had been. He unabashedly admitted to adopting the perspective of nongovernmental environmental groups and praised them as his teachers. It was more than just fatuous flattery. Sarid's handling of the methyl bro-mide controversy is just one of many changes in Ministry policy arising from his instinct to “do the right thing” environmentally.

Methyl bromide is probably the most effective soil fumigant yet to be invented. After it is injected into the soil, practically nothing moves. The

chemical quickly became an essential control for pests in crops such as strawberries or Galia melons. It is also incredibly lethal. Israeli farm work-ers have died when they failed to follow prescribed precautions and were directly exposed to the chemical.[91]

International attention began to focus on the pesticide in the 1980s, when scientists recognized its role in destroying the stratospheric ozone layer. The chemical percolates up through the soil and wafts toward the stratosphere, where it readily bonds with the reactive ozone (O3) mole-cules. Although only about 25 percent of the methyl bromide in the strat-osphere is produced by man (the oceans are the largest generator), it does not take much to upset the natural balance. Methyl bromide, it turns out, is thirty to sixty times more effective at destroying stratospheric ozone than more notorious halocarbon compounds such as Freon-based aerosols. The United Nations brought together a forum in 1992 that included dozens of the world's most influential atmospheric scientists, who reached a consensus. Anthropogenic emissions of methyl bromide used for fumi-gation applications could have accounted for one-twentieth to one-tenth of the current observed global ozone loss of 4 to 6 percent and could grow to about one-sixth of the predicted ozone loss by the year 2000 if methyl bro-mide emissions continued to increase.[92] Suddenly, stratospheric ozone de-pletion became a domestic Israeli issue. The Dead Sea holds the world's richest reserves of bromine,[93] making Israel the world's second-largest producer of the chemical.

Rarely are environmental issues front-page stories in Israel. When Greenpeace did a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggesting that Israel was responsible for 3 percent of the planet's ozone hole, however, it made the front page of Maariv.[94] The Dead Sea Bromide Corporation was not only the producer of a third of the world's methyl bromide. Its company representatives had served as Israel's official delegates at international conferences on ozone protection conducted under the Montreal Protocols of the Vienna Convention.[95]

The treaty led to the international phaseout of CFCs (chlorofluorocar-bons, such as Freons) and was considered one of the outstanding triumphs of international environmental cooperation. Now the parties were focus-ing on methyl bromide as the ozone layer's second most potent enemy. As a developed nation, Israel's ratification responsibilities under the treaty in-volved payment to a multilateral fund to assist Article 5 Parties (develop-ing countries) with projects that phase out ozone-depleting substances. Although Israel wanted to join the ozone-protecting nations, the Ministry of the Environment could not come up with the four-hundred-thousand-dollar

annual contribution. Uri Marinov demanded that the Ministry of Finance allocate the funds, but as always its clerks were tightfisted. The Dead Sea Bromide Corporation recognized the pivotal impact of the treaty on its product's future and offered to help pick up the tab in exchange for a place on the delegation as advisors.[96]

The deal was cut in June 1992,[97] and industry scientists hastened to at-tend the next meetings of the parties to the treaty in Copenhagen in November. Dr. Michael Graber, a conscientious meteorologist who had overseen air quality since the early days of the Environmental Protection Service, requested to attend the meeting, but Ora Namir, then serving as Minister, thought it was a waste of time.[98] The stage was set for a public-relations and environmental fiasco.

Once they got there, the Dead Sea team began to rally developing coun-tries to stop the proposed phaseout of methyl bromide, challenging the un-derlying science.[99] They branded the move as a “Western conspiracy.” Attending U.S. government representatives were stunned at what they saw as a crass disinformation campaign by the Israeli delegation.[100] At the end of the convention, delegates decided only to freeze production of methyl bromide at existing levels and to revisit the issue in 1995 at Vienna.[101] The affair put Israel in the role of an environmental villain who put short-term profits ahead of global survival.

Israeli environmentalists backed Greenpeace's demand for a change in Israel's position. For years the government had been long on rhetoric about its commitment to international environmental protection.[102] Now that economic sacrifice was required, it was short on action. The agricul-tural lobby, however, was unrepentant. Annual bromine production was worth an estimated sixty million dollars, and many Israeli farms were completely dependent on the chemical.[103]

Sarid took a different tack. He wrote Greenpeace that he was deeply concerned with the depletion of the ozone layer and invited it to send its ozone experts to come talk to him.[104] He pledged that he would never again allow industry to represent Israel's national interests. Sarid appointed a committee to study the issue, headed by pesticide expert Professor Yaakov Katan. When the next meeting of treaty nations was held in Vienna, the Ministry's new Director, Aaron Vardi, headed the Israeli delegation. Based on Katan's recommendations, Vardi backed the U.S. position, which called for phaseout.[105] Despite angry protests by farmers, Sarid stood his ground, and the government backed him.[106] The ultimate compromise called for a 70 percent interim reduction by 2003 and phaseout by 2005. (This did not stop Dead Sea Bromide from

circumventing the agreement by creating joint ventures with developing countries, China for instance, that were not parties to the agreement.[107])


Methyl bromide was actually a marginal issue for the Ministry. Soon after taking office, Sarid became convinced that preservation of open spaces was Israel's top environmental challenge.[108] The issue was far be-yond the Ministry's traditional sphere of influence, and Sarid found he was swimming against a very strong current. He seemed to enjoy the exercise.

Ironically, although farmers may be faulted for their contribution to water pollution problems, they also deserve credit for literally serving as a hedge for open-space preservation during Israel's first forty years. Though cultivated farmlands transformed the landscape, they provided a buffer. This was especially important for maintaining local biodiversity in many of Israel's central and northern postage-stamp-size reserves. The weakening of Israel's agricultural sector during the late 1980s would have unforeseen but extremely grave ecological ramifications.[109] Open spaces began to disappear as farmers sold out. A comparison of aerial photo-graphs in the center of the country showed that between 1987 and 1996, the 250 square kilometers of built-up areas were enlarged by an addi-tional 490 square kilometers. If the trend continued, open spaces would be reduced by at least a half within a generation![110]

The influx of hundreds of thousands of Soviet immigrants could only partly explain the phenomenon. Veteran Israelis were happy to sell them their crowded city apartments to buy up and move to more comfortable suburban developments. Villas had once been considered a luxury for Israelis. Most rural cottages were austere, and detached single-story homes constituted only 10 percent of housing starts. Yet, with prosperity, the amount of residential space per person rose steadily in Israel, and by the late 1980s more than 55 percent of the units built in Israel were private houses.[111] The resulting sprawl brought with it roads and a proliferation of industrial areas and accompanying services.[112]

The change in agricultural status, though, was the primary cause. Until the 1980s, farmland hugged the city limits of many Israeli towns, forcing planners to build up rather than out. Agricultural communities themselves remained small—limited in the moshav sector by the amount of cultivable plots, and in the kibbutz by both the public's hesitancy to embrace its social-ist restraints and the selectivity of kibbutz members. Eighty percent of

Israel's sparsely populated lands were under the jurisdiction of Regional Councils that were dominated by rural interests and a Zionist ethos that em-braced agricultural interests as a top national priority.[113] Developers knew they were outflanked and focused their energies inside municipal boundaries.

But all this changed virtually overnight in 1990. When the Israel Lands Administration was transferred from the jursidiction of the Ministry of Agriculture to the Building and Housing Ministry, it was more than a bu-reaucratic shift. Under the pressure of the emergency legislation passed to circumvent the planning committees, all the dams seemed to burst at once. Almost half of the 340,000 new residential units approved for develop-ment between 1990 and 1994 were outside city limits.[114] The Agriculture Land Preservation Committee, which had enjoyed virtual veto power to undermine development in rural areas, was quietly denuded.[115] At the same time, a 1990 decision by the Israel Lands Administration Council completely changed farmers' economic incentives. Rather than prohibiting farmers from converting their fields to a residential designation, compen-sation for doing so was instituted and zoning procedures were simpli-fied.[116] For the many farming communities who were already deeply in debt, whose livelihoods were less and less dependent on agriculture, and who sought to build new neighborhoods for their children, it represented a windfall. For many farmers it was easier just to sell out.

Sarid railed against the disappearing Israeli landscape at every oppor-tunity. He adopted the environmental party line: Only in the desert was there room for suburbia. (Because he was a long-time resident of a north-ern Tel Aviv high-rise, his message did not smack of the elitist hypocrisy that many environmentalists suffered who themselves enjoyed a rural lifestyle but called on everyone else to live in the city.) Sarid did more than simply raise public awareness about the importance of open spaces. He also pushed resolutions through a Cabinet-level environmental com-mittee that carried the force of government decisions. The craters in the Negev were to be preserved rather than used for mining. The Sharon Park, the last open space between Netanya and Hadera, while still mired in private claims, got a major boost from a Cabinet-level blessing. In a Sarid-brokered compromise, a highway that would have cut into the heart of the park was channeled underground. And the emergency Planning and Building Procedures Law was at long last canceled.

In an astonishing departure from Zionist dogma, Sarid also pushed the government to adopt a moratorium on new settlements inside Israel. As he was fond of saying, “There just isn't any room left.” Under a new vertical imperative that many architects with Green credentials called excessive,

city planners were suddenly directed by the government to limit con-struction to high-rises. In an attempt to seize initiative and offer a positive alternative,[117] the Ministry of the Environment's planning department identified a triangle of land in the northern Negev region that was targeted as the next major development zone.[118] Located in an area that was neither hydrologically vulnerable nor a unique landscape, its carrying capacity was estimated at one million people. The Ministry's plan to shift development to the northern Negev region was never actually put into practice,[119] but Sarid got the issue of Israel's open spaces onto the government's agenda, where it needs to remain forever.


Despite the fond memories and the general consensus that Yossi Sarid has been Israel's best Minister of the Environment to date, pollution parame-ters show that his three years in office did not produce a revolution on the ground. Many of his Ministerial failures came down to the old-fashioned issue of political clout. Despite his ability to wield public opinion and his willingness to go head to head with industry on many issues, Sarid would knowingly bite off more than he could chew. His efforts to prevent the passage of the Dead Sea Concessions Law were indicative of the limitations of his Ministry when it clashed with powerful economic interests.

After the British Mandate granted a seventy-five-year concession to the Dead Sea Works in 1930 to exploit the rich mineral resources in the saline lake, the factory steadily swelled until it became an industrial behe-moth. Each year it pulls two million tons of potash and 180,000 tons of bromine out of the water, as well as huge amounts of magnesium, potas-sium, and, of course, salt.[120]

In 1991 the government decided that the factory would be sold to in-vestors as part of the government's general move to privatize. Beyond the annual profit, part of the attraction that the factory offered to buyers was its extraterritorial status. In 1961 the Knesset had passed a law which granted the factory 620,000 dunams of land (3 percent of the entire coun-try) as part of its zone of exploitation.[121] No less important, it seemed to give the factory functional autonomy within this perimeter, even though it included sizable tracts designated as Nature Reserves. For years the Dead Sea Works interpreted the concession as granting it exemption from basic Israeli laws and launched a number of construction projects without both-ering to ask for building permits. The southern section of the Dead Sea came to resemble a chemical production zone, having little in common

with the sea's international image as a unique medicinal resort at the low-est place on earth.[122]

This industrial immunity was called into question by the Moriah Hotel in 1992. It was the first time that conflicting tourist and mining interests ended up in court. When Israel had decided to support a tourist area along the Dead Sea, it picked the area around the western edge of the Ein Bokek Wadi to build a string of luxury hotels, beaches, and tourist shops. The compound is located due north of the Dead Sea industrial zone. The con-stant vaporization process required for mining in the sea necessitates the construction of dirt walls. Over time, these walls had to be raised higher and higher as the beds filled with silt. The Moriah Hotel filed suit in the Beer Sheva District Court claiming that the construction hurt its beach-front and had not been approved under the Planning and Building Law. In August 1992 Judge Yitzhak Ban made a surprise ruling, holding that the Dead Sea Concessions Law did not supersede Israel's Planning and Building Law.[123]

The Dead Sea Works management, along with its government patrons in the Ministry of Finance, recognized that this interpretation could have grave repercussions for the company's net value. They had 860 million dollars' worth of new projects in the pipeline, including a joint magnesium extraction venture with the Volkswagen Corporation. The company pro-posed that the Knesset set the record straight with a special law that con-firmed its extraterritorial status, retroactively grandfathered existing structures, and streamlined the approval process for future initiatives. The government was supportive and drafted a law that created a small rubber-stamp committee to oversee the Dead Sea and its new projects.

The Dead Sea Concessions Law generated considerable media attention, and environmentalists tried to frame it as a “Reading Power Law for the 1990s.” Did Israel really want to grant a factory special exemption from the law simply because it was profitable, or should such businesses meet the same environmental standards as all other citizens and corporations? In the entire Knesset, only one serious dissenting voice was heard. Political science professor Benny Temkin spoke passionately about the rule of law and democratic norms; he submitted environmental amendments and even considered a filibuster.[124] Temkin's losing effort in the Interior Committee found support from an unlikely source. Even though the bill was a government-proposed statute, the Minister of the Environment broke ranks with the Cabinet to fight it. “I was ready to go a great distance toward the factory, but they wanted me to crawl to them, and the Ministry of the Environment has stopped crawling,” Sarid told the press.[125]


In the end, the Dead Sea Concessions Law was one of the environmen-tal movement's many legislative failures during the 1990s. Sarid knew early on that he was beaten but wanted the fight to be as fierce as possible. He personally called environmental leaders, asking that they be more vo-ciferous in their opposition. Sarid quite naturally slipped into his old op-position role, making a stirring extemporaneous speech in the Knesset committee against his own government.

But the Dead Sea Works proved too powerful. The Prime Minister him-self backed Victor Medina, the influential chairman of Israel Chemicals, which owned the Dead Sea Works. Medina walked the corridors of the Knesset, quietly convincing key legislators of the law's significance. Dozens of workers were bused into Jerusalem as a backup, lobbying for a law that was crucial to employment in the economically lethargic Negev region. The Dead Sea Works even painted its facilities in fluorescent (al-most surreal) colors. But it adamantly refused to provide the Ministry of the Environment with the emissions inventory it demanded. Despite the protests of environmental groups, and a late but passionate campaign by the Society for the Protection of Nature (which took the Knesset's Interior Committee on jeeps to view the damage from the plant firsthand), the law passed handily.[126]

Sarid's feistiness was a genuine inspiration to environmental groups. If the Minister of the Environment could fight this hard for environmen-tal interests, then certainly they could try a little harder. Unfortunately, sometimes even the most valiant environmental efforts are doomed to defeat. Sarid's “last stand” against the Trans-Israel Highway was such a case. In 1995, after the highway seemed a foregone conclusion, Sarid drafted Ministers Yossi Beilin and Yaakov Zur, forcing the Cabinet to re-visit the issue. Environmental groups who had fought the highway and lost in the planning commissions and courts were revitalized.[127] Money was raised, rallies staged, and advertisements posted, and a public opinion poll suggested that the Israeli public had actually begun to change its mind. Although the government decided to continue with the highway, the Cabinet vote was surprisingly close, considering the extent of past support for the project. As the elections approached, Sarid even promised to make cancellation of the project a condition of his party for entering a new government.[128]

But Sarid never held those coalitional cards. Although last-minute efforts to stop the project continued,[129] the Trans-Israel Highway rep-resented a glaring example of governmental and public-interest envi-ronmental failure.


Thus, even at the peak of the Ministry's “golden days,” total defeat in seminal issues like the Dead Sea Concessions and the Trans-Israel Highway revealed the marginal place of the environment in the country's overall priorities. For instance, critics claimed that the Ministry of the Environment invariably caved in when the mere possibility of unemploy-ment was raised.[130] Most environmentalists saw merits in Sarid's willing-ness to fight the good fight, even when it was clearly going to be a losing battle. Others preferred Vince Lombardi's slogan—“Winning isn't every-thing; it's the only thing”—and saw such quixotic quests as a waste of time, political capital, and resources.


It was not just political strength but also competency that proved an im-pediment to Ministerial effectiveness. Sarid was a brilliant tactician, but his Ministry often acted without a cogent strategy. There was no effort to quantify environmental risks and to use an analytically rigorous process for setting priorities.[131] Economic instruments were not among the tools in the policy toolbox. “Source reduction,” “clean production,” and “pollu-tion prevention”—the mantras of environmental Ministries around the world at the time—did not really penetrate the thinking at Israel's Environmental Ministry. Frequently the Ministry appeared impetuous, trying to solve all problems at once, with haphazard follow-through.

Indeed, the very breadth of Sarid's agenda tended to diffuse the Ministry's effort. Sarid pulled the Ministry in unanticipated directions. For example, because no one else in government appeared interested in the area (and Sarid was), he adopted the issue of animal rights. A new law was passed that gave the Minister of the Environment power to intervene when animals were being abused.[132] Sarid took the issue seriously; he pro-hibited circus performances with animals and banned filming wildlife out-side of its normal habitat.[133]

It was an admirable initiative, but at the same time the Ministry was making little progress in other, more traditional environmental issues, such as the handling of hazardous materials, the establishment of a new toxic-waste facility to supplement Ramat Hovav, and the guaranteeing of an efficient, integrated emergency response to accidents involving haz-ardous substances.[134] The Hazardous Materials Law that passed in the Knesset fell far short of a modern omnibus cradle-to-grave regulatory scheme. The Ministry staff continued to do the best it could with what was essentially a repackaged ordinance from the British Mandate.[135]


In other areas, it was not lack of attention, but narrow vision that lim-ited progress. Solid-waste policy at the Ministry of the Environment was such a case. The amount of trash generated grew at a steady rate of 5 per-cent per year.[136] Ministry propaganda spoke of a hierarchy of solid-waste management that started with source reduction, recycling, reuse, inciner-ation, and burial as a last resort. While the Ministry helped pass a recy-cling law,[137] in practice, the record shows that the Ministry of the Environment's efforts went into trash burial and not into reducing the quantities of garbage or to treating it as a resource.

Prior to Sarid's tenure, the Ministry of the Environment's Solid Waste Department decided that its priority should be the immediate closing of the four hundred garbage dumps across the country. Staffers argued that the damage from these sites to groundwater alone dwarfed all other associated environmental hazards. Concentrating all of the na-tion's garbage into five environmentally responsible sites would allow for more effective regulation. Sarid agreed and got the Cabinet to adopt the position officially.[138]

When environmentalists brought up recycling, composting, and other treatment alternatives, they were dismissed as premature or even senti-mental. The Ministry favored a more pragmatic incrementalism. According to the prevailing paradigm, Israel's garbage system was at step one, with illegal dumps scattered across the country. A state-of-the-art, in-tegrated waste management strategy was step three. Before Israel could get there, the country had to move to step two—closing the dumps and burying trash in national centers. Only then did it make sense to pursue other waste management options.[139]

This keen sense of its own limitations also seemed to drive the Ministry's policy in other areas, such as hazardous waste disposal. At the Ministry's inception, Prime Minister Shamir endowed it with authorities to oversee the government corporation that ran the Ramat Hovav disposal site. But the Ministry had never been able to upgrade the facility to reach a reasonable level of safety, much less implement environmentally sound practices.

A certain defeatism was in the air when scientists from Adam Teva V'din and local settlements negotiated with the Ministry over conditions at the country's first hazardous-waste incinerator at Ramat Hovav. The American trial-burn techniques demanded by environmentalists would be expensive. The Ministry wanted to keep the costs of disposal low. The en-vironmental activists countered that high prices should actually be seen as

a positive policy outcome, encouraging factories to modify production methods, recycle, and reduce the use of hazardous chemicals. The Ministry's response was that if it could, it would allow free delivery of hazardous chemicals at Ramat Hovav. Well aware that over half of Israel's toxic wastes were not getting to the Ramat Hovav facility anyway, the Ministry felt helpless to root out this environmental lawlessness and pre-ferred to concentrate as much hazardous waste as possible in a single dis-posal safe.

But this pessimism meant that the Ministry spent its limited resources on the symptoms rather than the causes of Israel's garbage crisis. For ex-ample, the Ministry made battery collection one of the Year of the Environment's key community gimmicks. Stores across the country kept boxes in which conscientious citizens could drop off their used batteries. They were then taken for burial at the Ramat Hovav hazardous-waste site. But a “pollution prevention” orientation might have pointed to the sim-pler route of banning mercury in batteries and providing tax incentives for using rechargeables. Europe had been doing it for years. Similarly, well-publicized beach cleanups seemed to accomplish little, as the litterers were not among the diligent volunteers. Within a few weeks, the debris would be back.

Thus, conceptually, the Environmental Ministry became locked in the vicious throwaway cycle that was the heart of the problem. It seemed to scoff at the laws of thermodynamics and at the ecoslogans such as “every-thing must go somewhere” that it had always told the public. The fact that Israel buried an astonishing 94 percent of its trash (as opposed to countries such as Switzerland, for which the rate was 17 percent)[140] was somehow considered immutable or an issue to be put off until the future (see Figure 27). Rather than framing recycling and reuse as a moral and civic duty and a tool to teach about scarce resource preservation, the Ministry caved in to narrow economic analysis.

This was a reversion to the “cowboy” or frontier economics of Israel's Ministry of Finance, rather than the spaceship-earth approach to econom-ics that environmentalists around the world worked so hard to promote.[141] With efficiency as the criterion, recycling was not an end in itself but only a tool for increasing landfill longevity. “Our job is to extend the life of garbage dumps as much as possible,” wrote Yossi Inbar, head of the Ministry's Solid Waste Branch.[142]

By the fall of 1994, Sarid himself went on the record, calling to stop re-cycling's momentum:


Under present conditions, the great mass of garbage won't be recycled. It is certainly a retreat from what we thought in the past. Now that we have clearer concepts about the economic side of waste treatment, it's clear that things have changed. Should we go into mourning because it became clear that trash burial is cheaper? No, the Ministry of Finance should rejoice at this, and all of Israel should rejoice.[143]

The Ministry's position was especially peculiar, because it came at a time when world markets for recycled products had reached an all-time high. The price of plastics, for example, had doubled. Recycling initiatives around the world that for years had operated in the red suddenly became profitable. Indeed, in the absence of local collection, the Ramat Hovav-based Aviv factory imported 960 tons of discarded plastic from Germany for production.[144] The Ministry's 180-degree turnabout was among the several political (rather than environmental) decisions that prompted the resignation of Chief Scientist Yoram Avnimelech.[145]

Sarid's great disengagement on the garbage front disappointed envi-ronmentalists, who felt that it undermined years of public education. But it absolutely outraged the residents of Beer Sheva, who were unwilling to pay the price for the Environmental Ministry's optimal scheme for burying the nation's garbage. Beer Sheva had been chosen as the final destination for Tel Aviv's garbage, after an alternative site near the newly declared Beit Jubrin Caves National Park fell through. The vocif-erous protestations of the nearby city of Kiriyat Gat and of the Society for the Protection of Nature had persuaded the Ministry staff to go fur-ther south.

Sarid backed their proposal to convert Beer Sheva's existing municipal Dudaim sanitary landfill into a much larger national site for the garbage of the Tel Aviv region.[146] The Ministry argued that the Dudaim site was not in a sensitive hydrological location and that it was a safe seven kilo-meters from the heart of the city. Moreover the landfill was already up and running, offering an immediate solution to the Hiriyah mountain, whose bird population increasingly posed a hazard to incoming planes.[147]

A broad coalition of Beer Sheva interest groups joined together to protest what they perceived as a classic environmental injustice. Unimpressed by long-term promises to turn the Dudaim site into a park, they argued that the odors and stigma from the facility would stymie fu-ture growth in precisely the area where the city needed to expand. Moreover, Beer Sheva residents resented the fact that the politically pow-erful Tel Aviv region was exporting its trash and turning the Negev into the national waste bin. Miriam Turkel, the independent City Councillor

who led the fight, argued that Israel's trash problem ultimately was not a scientific issue. “It's a social conflict between the poorer and the richer; be-tween Israel's bottom and its top.”[148] When Sarid came to visit Beer Sheva, he was met by angry demonstrators who pelted him with tomatoes.

Sarid pushed ahead. The National Planning Council gave its approval, and a tender for managing the site was issued. Enormous efforts were spent in trying to sell the Ministry's position. Initially, the policy sput-tered. Legal challenges were filed against the Ministry. With elections in the air, no party wanted to alienate a large voting bloc, and the Knesset supported the local Beer Sheva position. Then Tel Aviv refused to pay the transportation costs to Beer Sheva and expressed its solidarity with its southern brethren.[149] Finally, the losers in the tender sued for an injunc-tion, claiming that their proposal was better and thirty million shekels cheaper.[150] Despite Sarid's pledge, it was not clear when Hiriyah would fi-nally shut down.

Even when progress was made in the solid-waste area, the Ministry did not always move to consolidate it and prevent backsliding. The case of bev-erage cans is illuminating. Aluminum made from recycled materials is far cheaper and less energy-intensive than that produced from virgin ore.[151] That is why many recycling programs begin with aluminum cans. Environmentalists called for regulations to require aluminum can produc-tion, but Sarid countered that the same results could be reached through moral suasion. And initially he delivered. The Caniel Corporation, pro-ducer of over two hundred million cans a year, agreed to change its pro-duction process (the alloy of aluminum, tin, and zinc that it had been using was not recyclable).

Because of the lower production costs of recycled aluminum, it was as-sumed that the used cans would generate their own market. With great fan-fare and at an expense of three million dollars, the factory made the transition.[152] It was a small but highly visible improvement. Unfortunately, the invisible hand of the market remained hidden. Without the logistics of a deposit and collection system or a bottle bill in place, Caniel's aluminum cans ended up in the trash. Within a year, with the price of aluminum skyrocketing and practically no recycling taking place, the company quietly returned to its old, unrecyclable production materials.[153]

When Sarid left office, he could justifiably boast that dozens of pollut-ing garbage dumps had been shut under his tenure. But no sustainable pol-icy alternative was in place. Three thousand tons of trash still rolled up the eighty-four-meter-high Hiriyah garbage mountain every day. The garbage finally toppled over into the Ayalon River during a rainstorm in 1997.[154]

Medical waste remained completely unregulated.[155] And “recycling” seemed like a word from a foreign language.


In many areas, Sarid simply ran out of time. It was impossible to follow through on the countless hastily launched initiatives. “I need a new envi-ronmental impact statement law immediately,” he would charge his staff. They would work around the clock to produce an imperfect but improved proposal. Then it would sit around for years while other distractions took precedence, and never even be submitted to the Knesset for a preliminary reading. Car emissions pushed concentrations of oxides of nitrogen to new highs, and there were on average three hundred air quality violations a year in the Tel Aviv area. In April 1996, Sarid promised environmentalists that he would circumvent the Ministry of Transportation and use his au-thorities under the Kanovich law to sign new auto-emissions standards into force as soon as a version that his staff approved would reach his desk. Regulations were quickly drafted, but he did not get around to signing them. Eventually environmentalists had to sue for modern motor vehicle emissions standards.[156]

Perhaps the most important of Sarid's unfinished business was gaining formal, statutory authorities to tackle the broadened environmental agenda he had already begun pursuing. This has been the most basic ob-stacle faced by Israel's Environmental Ministry from its inception. New and expanded drinking-water standards were stalled at the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Transportation did not seem to care about air quality but remained the vested authority for overseeing the inspection of car emissions. The Minister of Agriculture and his Water Commissioner retained the authority to enforce water quality standards. When the Environmental Ministry proposed a map of sensitive karstic and sandy hydrological zones in which no wastewater should be used for irrigation, it was not taken seriously.

No one could castigate polluters in the press like Sarid or make better use of public forums to vilify them. But without full executive powers, his Ministry could only push through a handful of legal actions against water polluters. Sarid was quite aware of the constraints and sought to change the situation, but efforts to convince the Minister of Agriculture to bring the Water Commission to the Ministry of the Environment fell flat. Sarid claims he never had time to realize his vision of an “environ-mental empire” to be built with authority from the Ministry of the

Interior and the Antiquities Authority, which could stop any construc-tion project.[157]

Finally, Sarid's ingenuous faith in the powers of an Environmental Minister inevitably led to disappointments. In other words, if he had not been so ambitious, he might have looked better. It seemed that the Minister was unable to pass up any issue that involved unfavorable envi-ronmental results. Profligate coastal developments, the Trans-Israel Highway, and the Dead Sea Concessions were among the many issues that any other Environmental Minister would have conceded when faced with such poor odds. But many of his assurances—like the one he made to be-leaguered neighbors that the gigantic (and noisy) central bus station in Tel Aviv would not be allowed to open—were empty promises.[158]

Yet even when Sarid failed to attain his immediate objective, his efforts usually produced some favorable result. At the other end of Tel Aviv he tried to ban nighttime domestic flights at the Sdeh Dov Airport and even close down the terminal, which is located adjacent to the Ramat Aviv neighborhood where he himself lives. Once again he was ambushed by the Ministry of Transportation. Nevertheless, he imposed a gentleman's agreement on the airlines: Flights leaving after ten o'clock were to be towed out to the runway by a silent electric cart (Sarid was well aware that every night, delayed passengers “made mention of his mother”[159]). Eventually, the parking area for planes was moved west, adjacent to the sea and away from the residential areas—a small but key step toward im-proved quality of life for thousands of Tel Aviv residents.

In the final analysis, given his point of departure, it is harder to imag-ine a much better Environmental Minister. Sarid left a stronger, more ef-fective, and more confident Environmental Ministry than he received. Israelis' attitudes to the environment were, often unwittingly, touched by the ardor of his three years in office. So were the many corners of the country that were left healthier and cleaner after Sarid's efforts.


Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud's election victory on May 29, 1996, brought the Sarid era to an abrupt end. Environmentalists lost no time in lobbying for an appropriate replacement, but it was hard to find a politi-cian who wanted the job. To keep the Cabinet size down, the Tsomet Party's Rafael “Raful” Eitan agreed to return to the Ministry of Agriculture and serve simultaneously as Environmental Minister. (The position of Minister of Police that he truly coveted was blocked because

of an indictment filed against him that was eventually dismissed.[160]) At first it was not even clear whether the Ministry would survive as an independent entity. It did, but Eitan's background as a farmer suggested where his real interests lay.

Like Sarid, Eitan was head of a small ideological party. Both were known for their commitment to principles and were famed as entertaining storytellers. But all similarities stopped there. Eitan was a retired general and had served as the Israel Defense Force chief of staff. Sarid completed military service as a private. Eitan was the consummate hawk and Sarid the original dove. Sarid waxed prolix while Eitan was laconic and blunt. Yet, there was ample reason to believe that Eitan was a strong appoint-ment. As Minister of Agriculture during the early 1990s, he had stood up to agricultural interests and pushed through a more sustainable water pol-icy. Environmentalists hoped that he would continue Sarid's independent tradition of advocacy.

By the time of the elections, Yisrael Peleg had resigned as Director General of the Ministry to make an unsuccessful run in the Labor Party Tel Aviv primaries. Aaron Vardi, a straight-talking retired military officer, replaced him. Once elected, Eitan immediately replaced him with his per-sonal assistant, Nehama Ronen. With Eitan distracted by partisan politics and another Ministerial portfolio, Ronen overnight became the central fig-ure in the Ministry.[161]

Expectations were low, because Ronen had no substantial administra-tive experience beyond working within Eitan's Tsomet Party apparatus. An attractive blonde who looked younger than her thirty-five years (see Figure 28), she was well aware that her appointment was greeted with skepticism. The story quickly circulated that Eitan (an old paratrooper) had hired Ronen fresh out of the army in 1984 primarily because, as a clerk for the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion, she had jumped out of planes.[162]

After thirteen years of intense political activity, and a strong sixth po-sition on the Tsomet Party list, Ronen was confident she could manage.

People dealt with me more cautiously, not only because of my sex but because of my age. Most of the people had been working in the field for many years and I didn't come from the environmental world. But today it is easier to see women in key positions, and I think they began to judge me according to the results.[163]

Ronen brought a pragmatic, no-nonsense style to the job, gaining her the grudging personal respect of many within the environmental community.[164]


Given the Ministry of Agriculture's lackadaisical record in the area of water quality, environmentalists were quick to seize on the potential con-flict of interests between Eitan's dual Ministerial loyalties. Ironically, Eitan was deprived of the best opportunity for Ministerial synergy when the Water Commission was transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture to the newly created Ministry of Infrastructure. Meir Ben Meir had been reappointed as Water Commissioner and from the start was perceived as uncooperative with the Environmental Ministry's staff. The Commissioner's powerful investigative and enforcement powers were never marshaled for environmental ends.[165]

In her public presentations, Ronen tried to paint the fact that her boss wore two hats as a source of opportunity. She cited initiatives to solve dairy farm runoff in the Golan Heights and a continued commitment to meet a 2004 phaseout deadline for methyl bromide as examples of envi-ronmental dividends her boss had delivered.[166] In retrospect, however, Eitan was rarely inclined to take advantage of his agricultural portfolio to push farmers seriously toward reducing fertilizers and pesticides and to-ward other sustainable management practices. Pesticide usage in Israel is still among the most intensive in the world; practically no oversight of ap-plication takes place in the field, and cancer rates among farmers remain high.[167] Agricultural pollution is an environmental problem that requires rethinking and innovation. Providing farmers with economic incentives helps but may not be enough. International experience suggests that the proverbial carrot may actually be less effective than the stick of regulatory demands to change farm practices.[168] At the same time, the sheer number of agricultural polluters makes command and control regulation a difficult policy to impose on Israel's farmers.[169]

On the whole, Eitan proved capable of leaving his competing interest at the door when he approached his environmental duties. Although he did not exploit his environmental post to further agricultural interests, neither did he create a meaningful new ecological initiative in Israel's rural sector. In the long run, Israel's farmers are certain to be the losers with regard to the lack of a serious policy response: It is their land and water that sustain the greatest damage, as well as their health.


Just as anyone would have been popular in the Ministry after Ora Namir's reign, it was tough coming on the heels of a beloved figure like Yossi Sarid. There was a very conscious decision by Ronen not to compete

with his “greener than thou” orientation. The cozy relations that existed between environmental groups and the Ministry provided one such example. Only two months into the job she told the press, “Green organ-izations will no longer have free run of Israel's Ministry of the Environment.” While she wanted good relations with environmentalists, she made it clear that it was unacceptable for them to be as involved in the Ministry's decision making as they had been under the previous administration.[170]

The issue came to a head over the development of a newly reflooded lake in the Huleh region. Much of the agricultural lands redeemed by the JNF after the swamp was drained proved to be useless to farmers (the underlying peat smoldered and collapsed once the protective layer of water was removed). In June 1994, a thousand dunams of lands in the Huleh Valley were once again flooded.[171] Although this was only 1 per-cent of the greater Huleh area, the effect of the re-created wetlands was astonishing. Within a year, tens of thousands of cranes returned to the new winter resort, apparently en route from Finland.[172] The farmers who had lost fields to the project were promised the rights to establish a guesthouse near the newly formed ecological attraction.

The Society for the Protection of Nature, with its unique historical re-lationship to the wetlands, opposed any contiguous tourist development. It called for accommodations to be concentrated in existing communities.[173] Ultimately the conflict centered over the appropriate definition for the term “ecotourism.”

Although close to ninety years of age, Heinrich Mendelssohn still pulled no punches on ecological issues: “What they are doing is stupid, be-cause all the beautiful birds that people will come to see just won't be there. They will fly off. And then the guests will of course suffer from the mosquitoes so they will have to use insecticides—causing irreparable dam-age to the site.”[174] Sarid had backed this position, but Rafael Eitan had more empathy for the plight of the locals. The Ministry supported a com-promise that moved construction away from the water itself but allowed it in the general vicinity. The SPNI denounced the retreat, and the new Ministry management returned fire with fire.

The heart of the disagreement seemed to be the appropriate role of an Environmental Ministry within Israel's executive branch. The Eitan-Ronen administration believed that the Ministry of the Environment agenda should be broader than those of nongovernmental groups and should include general public concerns.[175] In contrast, Sarid took a plural-istic view toward government, arguing that in light of the severity of the

situation, environmental agencies should harbor an uncompromising eco-logical commitment.[176]

Administratively the new leadership also began to chart its own course. It did not seem to mind if the Ministry lost the affection of local governments, and it began to divert funds away from municipal environmental protection units. Environmental enforcement, arguably the Ministry's greatest weak-ness, presumably was better served by this move, and the number of enforcement agents in the environmental patrol was doubled twice.

Substantively, the Eitan-Ronen administration made some changes in priorities. Cleanliness seemed to have a visceral appeal for the Minister. Considerable funds were allocated for a major antilitter campaign. Some, however, found the poster girl's ubiquitous admonition “Whoever dirties is trash” more annoying than adorable. The campaign certainly caught the attention of the public, but follow-up surveys failed to detect any change in societal attitudes or practices.[177] Ronen explains that the campaign was part of a broader educational orientation at the Ministry:“I believe that this sort of campaign will ultimately lead factory owners to begin cleaning up.”[178]

On most substantive issues, however, there was no detectable shift in formal environmental public policy. The Environmental Ministry was still officially opposed to the Trans-Israel Highway, and Ronen even ventured the view that if there had been a concerted effort against the highway from the outset, the project might have been stopped. The Ministry certainly did not become soft on pollution. Once she became acquainted with the situa-tion, Ronen took a hard line on industry, finding funds for more inspectors in the Ministry's field enforcement unit. “I quickly learned that factories won't invest in pollution control technology unless they are forced to do it and see that their friends have been fined for polluting,” she ex-plained.[179] But resources were still inadequate to take on the enormous task of turning things around.

The problem was not just quantitative but also qualitative. Tackling serious water and air polluters requires regulators with strong science back-grounds. It is little wonder that the vast majority of the prosecutions initiated by the enforcement branch in the Ministry involve littering, where it takes only a camera to catch a violation.[180] In this sense, the Ministry's inability to turn the Maccabiah disaster (discussed in Chapter 1) into a serious enforce-ment initiative or a turning point for river restoration was as much an example of inappropriate skill sets as it was flimsy political will.

After the initial purge of SPNI influence, cooperation between the Ministry and environment groups resumed, although it had a more cir-cumspect tone. Even watchdog Adam Teva V'din took time off from its

legal petitions against the Ministry to run their fifth Environmental Film Festival together.

Nonetheless, Yossi Sarid's exit left a gaping hole in the Ministry's image and initiative. The lack of a full-time Minister was a blow to the Ministry's prestige. The change in intensity was felt outside the Ministry as well. The environment was no longer an issue that got the press excited. It was also not on the Cabinet's agenda.

The new Ministry of the Environment's administration was by no means a pushover. (It was Ronen and not Sarid who closed down Tel Aviv's Hiriyah garbage dump, and she was crucial in a battle to stop the estab-lishment of a unsightly marina in Haifa.) Rather, the general stock of “Israel Environment, Ltd.” had taken a dive.

When Daliah Itzik, a forty-seven-year-old teacher turned Labor politi-cian, was appointed Minister of the Environment by newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the summer of 1999, she was vociferous in ex-pressing her disappointment. Anticipating the Education portfolio (which ironically went to Yossi Sarid), she pouted about Barak's “betrayal” on the front page of every newspaper.

Itzik eventually offered up the requisite lip service about the impor-tance of her new post[181] and showed considerable savvy with the press. But like the “National Environmental Council” she sponsored (which lacked any discernible authorities), her efforts often seemed largely symbolic. She brought together a Ministerial Committee on the Environment that put on an impressive show in the Knesset with the participation of the Prime Minister but which was quickly forgotten. Itzik gave superb speeches against the Trans-Israel Highway and even brought blankets to protesters camping out by the construction site, but for months, while the bulldozers rolled, she was unable to get the issue on the Cabinet's agenda. Eventually, her bid to cancel the highway was voted down in the Cabinet, seven to five. Itzik also had the good sense to appoint Yizhak Goren, who had successfully served in several top regional and national positions since the Ministry's inception, to the position of Director General. But she often apologized to environmental leaders that she was too busy with other responsibilities in government to meet with them. They could not help remembering that Sarid had always found time for them.

Then, just as quickly as she appeared on the scene, Itzik was gone, leap-ing at the opportunity to serve in the new Unity Government cabinet in a “real job” as Minister of Trade and Industry.

Tzachi ha-Negbi rose quickly in party ranks as a “second generation” Likud politician, the son of the legendary Jewish underground radio

announcer turned right-wing ideologue, Geulah Cohen. His appointment as Environmental Minister in March 2001 was ostensibly a demotion, after his previous post in the Netanyahu government as Minister of Justice. But if he was disappointed with the post, it never showed. His start was encouraging for the Ministry staff that found him to be smart, an ex-cellent listener, and perhaps the first Minister of the Environment who was actually an avid hiker, born into a more environmentally aware genera-tion. More than any other previous minister, he consistently consulted with the full community of Green organizations and sought their input.

Beyond his affable style, his initial decisions were also praised by the environmental community: imposing tough air quality emission permits on the Dan and Egged bus companies, or convincing the Cabinet to adopt a “green government” policy that promotes recycling and other environ-mental practices. Ha-Negbi hailed in a “recycling revolution” and person-ally pushed through an ambitious program to increase national recycling rates, which jumped to 15 percent in 2001, to 45 percent by 2005. When he appointed Bina Bar-On, a highly effective Deputy Director, to oversee en-vironmental education, the subject finally began to recieve serious re-souces and senior level attention. Still, it is not yet clear whether he will be willing to take a defiant stance when his government moves to adopt anti-environmental policies.[182] And, of course, after his many predeces-sors' ephemeral tenure the real question seems to be whether he will be at the helm long enough to make a difference.”

In retrospect, of the many Ministers who have taken the position, only Yossi Sarid seems to have left a serious imprint on the Ministry of the Environment. But Sarid's tenure seems to have been an anomaly—a brilliant vignette that inspired briefly but did not change the larger, discouraging nar-rative. It produced the media saturation necessary to let Israelis know that their environmental problems were serious, while conveying a can-do opti-mism that they could be solved. For a few years, the Ministry of the Environment turned environmentalism into a mainstream concern and gave activists the sense that Israeli public policy might one day move in a sustain-able direction. But a new environmental ethic did not have time to coalesce.


Ironically, in many instances environmental progress during the Ministry's first decade had little to do with a given Environmental Minister or his or her policies. Israel's expanding high-tech industry helped. Factories such as Intel's Jerusalem plant brought with them an

American commitment to clean production that went beyond the factory, even including a phaseout of CFCs from the company's dining room re-frigerators long before it was required by law.

Sewage treatment, for example, finally began to make the necessary quantum leap forward in cities like Netanya and Kfar Saba. Ministerial pressure and a series of related lawsuits were assisted by the attractive funding schemes offered by a new Sewage Administration established in 1993. But the Administration was run out of the Ministry of the Interior by an obdurate but highly effective engineer, Yehudah Bar. By 1997, his agency had doled out more than 1.5 billion shekels in loans and grants for sewage treatment—an unprecedented sum.[183] Bar cajoled, persuaded, and pressured mayors to get serious about addressing this environmental health hazard, and many did. By 1995 he could promise that within three to five years sewage would no longer be flowing into the Yarkon, Ayalon, Poleg, or Alexander Rivers.[184]

Similarly, the most dramatic reduction in air pollution during the 1990s came as a result of new European emissions standards for motor vehicles. The European specifications, adopted almost twenty years after similar American prescriptions were enacted, led to the installation of catalytic converters in European automobiles. After years of lobbying by environ-mentalists, the Ministry of Transportation finally agreed to import the Europeans' new standards along with their cars. The more stringent carbon monoxide standards were phased in on new vehicles over a three-year pe-riod, beginning with the largest engines in 1991.[185] Because lead destroys catalytic converters, gas tanks in the new cars were built to reject the noz-zles for leaded gasoline. Slowly but surely, Israel's fleet switched to un-leaded fuel. As anticipated, lead levels dropped precipitously in the cities.

If population, affluence, and technology are the ultimate determiners of environmental quality, then it is little wonder that Israel's pollution pro-file got worse. The Ministry of the Environment was created because these factors had affected the country's environmental indicators so dramati-cally. When it was on track, the peace process only provided an additional push. As McDonald's and Burger King came to replace falafel stands, the country relished the normalcy of being just another twentieth-century consumer society. Yet the suddenness of the nouveau prosperity was such that Israeli urban culture did not have time to develop the accompanying ecological self-restraint, so much a part of progressive Western nations.

Israel had changed and yet had stayed the same, with the environment losing on both ends. A wealthier nation still loved its land and could vis-cerally agree with a heartfelt pitch for open spaces. But at the end of the

day, it was this very impulse that pushed people to build suburban homes with a half dunam of land, converting orange groves and meadows into concrete and asphalt. Even the best environmental communicator could not convince Israelis to leave the car at home and get back on the bus. Nor did anyone even try to touch the issue of overpopulation or the range of fiscal and immigration policies that encouraged it. Israelis no longer denied that pollution was a problem. Rather, environmental issues belonged to that category of problems that were everybody's in general and no one's in particular.[186]

After more than a decade of work—often very hard work—the Ministry of the Environment had grown. Unfortunately, so had most of Israel's environmental problems. In comparison with most government bureaucracies, the Ministry of the Environment was still a young, com-mitted, and smart place. The public was well aware of its existence and even slowly began to expect environmental services. Certainly they knew where to point a finger when another fire raged at the Ramat Hovav hazardous-waste site[187] or when they read that despite local efforts, the United Nations still called Israel one of the biggest Mediterranean pol-luters.[188] Sadly, the environment once again lapsed into its old role as a minor issue, to be overseen by Ministers who saw it as a part-time job or as a political insult. In its first twelve years of work, no fewer than eight individuals held the post. This is certainly a reflection of the instability in-herent in Israel's governmental system, but also of the alacrity with which politicians fled the position to more attractive Ministerial jobs. The Ministry of the Environment's 230-million-shekel budget for 2002 lagged far behind those of most Western countries on a per capita basis. It was a mere seventh the size of the funding at Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs.[189]

Israel's environmental experience during the 1990s can alternatively discourage or offer hope. It certainly proved that the mere existence of a Ministry did not guarantee improvement. At the same time, it was clear that the country's pollution problems would not be solved without a pow-erful and sophisticated Ministry of the Environment.

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