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12. Toward a Sustainable

It was the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah (the Jewish New Year) 1995 when Yisrael Peleg got a phone call from Dr. Dureid Mohasneh in Jordan. Peleg, then Director General of the Ministry of Environment, had become friendly with Mohasneh when they met at the negotiating table during the Middle East multilateral environmental peace talks.[1] Mohasneh, direc-tor of the Port of Aqaba, was calling from his home with some bad news: “There's been a major oil spill here outside our port,” he reported.[2]

Water usually flows in a counterclockwise direction in the Gulf of Aqaba. This means that Jordanian pollution directly affects Israel, whose pollution in turn directly affects Egypt. The proximity and ecological in-terdependence were precisely the reason that the first important environ-mental agreement signed as part of the Middle East peace process was a pact for cooperation in the Gulf. Despite the concern about the ecological damage, the best tiding of the New Year was that the new system seemed to be working.

Peleg already knew about the problem. Elli Varberg, a burly former Navy officer and head of the Ministry's marine protection unit in Eilat (Figure 35), had already alerted him to the situation. Within two hours the Israeli Emergency Response squad was on its way. The squad's five inspec-tors were indeed a seasoned team. In addition to their considerable experi-ence containing spills in Eilat,[3] they had already been through exercises with their Jordanian counterparts in a joint European workshop. The co-operative procedures were to be tested for the first time.

A six-million-dollar Japanese-funded oil spill station was not yet run-ning in the Gulf of Aqaba, so initially the Israelis had to do most of the work. They brought with them their snakelike booms for containment and quickly sealed off the area, confining the spill. Then, using skimmers

and pumps, they began the tedious process of soaking up the oil out of the black water. The team worked well into the night. It soon became clear that the original estimate by the Jordanians of an inconsequential two-ton spill had been optimistic. It was closer to a hundred tons, and much of it was hiding under the piers of the Aqaba port.[4]

Varberg had to sail back to Eilat to pick up heavier equipment. It took three days and the help of hundreds of Egyptian day laborers to bring the situation under control. But the oil spill did not spread, and a catastrophe for the Jordanian coral reef was averted. Removing the thick, gooey mess from the equipment in Eilat took several weeks more. But what Varberg remembered most from the incident was the warm welcome offered the Israeli pollution prevention team by the Jordanian hosts. Not only did they feed them lavish catered meals, but they also made sure that the offending ship's insurance company paid the Israeli unit in full for its work.[5]

Because it happened during the New Year's holiday, the Israeli press did not pick up the story, and the Jordanian press, never particularly enthusi-astic about highlighting the peace process, did not report Jordanian re-liance on Israeli assistance. Nonetheless, it was a landmark event—one about which peace negotiators had every right to be proud. The joint effort stood in contrast to the somewhat fatuous environmental euphoria associ-ated with many of the amorphous and ultimately empty proclamations and regional codes of conduct that had been signed.[6] The environment was finally benefiting from the Gulf of Aqaba treaty.

Even so, bilateral emergency response operations are not a panacea for the Gulf's problems. Rather, they serve only to underscore the inadequacy of present strategies. The diplomatic significance of the cooperation was at least as great as any immediate ecological gain. By definition, oil spill emer-gency responses are not proactive. Little energy went into eliminating the cause of the spill or developing long-term plans to ensure that the unique coral reefs were not devastated by a full-scale, future oil tanker disaster. This time the habitats had been lucky. The three marine protection stations established in Aqaba, Eilat, and Egyptian Nueiba were equipped to deal with only small (two-hundred-ton) events.[7] They could not begin to counter the damage from a spill caused by the Egyptian ship that regularly brought 160,000 tons to Eilat from the Abu Rodeis oil fields.[8]

In March 1995 EcoPeace, a nascent regional environmental umbrella group, convened Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian environmen-tal organizations in Cairo to talk about the Gulf. Participants unanimously called for making the Gulf a tanker-free zone.[9] Most of the exported oil was bound for Europe anyway, so it was much safer to transfer it by

pipeline to the Mediterranean and cheaper in the long run.[10] The proposal was a shout in the desert. This sort of shared commitment to environ-mental protection might impose real expenses on the parties. As such, it was not a realistic subject for negotiation between Middle Eastern governments.

At any rate, such a bold step might ultimately contribute little to the preservation of the remarkable coral ecosystem in the Gulf of Aqaba. In 2001, the Israeli government commissioned a report from an international team of scientific experts to address the growing controversy surrounding the contri-bution of mariculture and fish cages on the northern edge of the Gulf to the sudden rise in coral loss in Eilat. They cited a discouraging list of pollution sources to explain the massive 70 percent death rate: phosphate dust from the port, sewage discharges, siltation, the municipal marina, and port ballast wa-ters, as well as the fish cages. But the most insidious problem was the hardest to regulate. People, not tankers, have brought large areas of the reef to the brink of extinction. The cumulative impact of well-meaning swimmers and divers probably constitutes the single greatest cause of coral destruction. Divers' flippers raise the sediments, which then cover and suffocate the deli-cate reef. Direct contact between coral and hands, diving fins, hoses, or scuba tanks adds injury to insult.

At least on a theoretical level, government negotiators truly cared about their shared aquatic resource. The deep, tropical, salty blue waters of the Gulf support 230 species of coral and nearly a thousand species of fish, thrilling laymen and marine biologists around the world. To preserve this wealth of diversity requires an immediate reduction in the population pressures along the Gulf shore. The subject of carrying capacity, however, was not on the official agenda; in fact, it ran counter to it. The one thing that the governments in the region could truly agree on was that they could make a lot more money and create many more jobs by expanding the respective tourist industries in the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel announced plans for twenty thousand Eilat hotel rooms, Jordan spoke of four thou-sand, and Egypt envisions a whopping one hundred six thousand—albeit dispersed along its much longer Sinai coastline.[12]

Marine biologist Nanette Chadwick-Furman studied the impact of diving on coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands before bringing her expertise to the Inter-University Institute in Eilat. In collaboration with David Zakai, a biologist at the Nature Reserve Authority, she analyzed empirical observations for the first time, confirming what has long been known by seasoned divers in Eilat. The research showed a perfect corre-lation between the number of dives and the extent of the damage to

coral. The Caves Reef, an enchanting labyrinth of marine mystery, is one of the most popular diving sites along Israel's Red Sea coast. It is also the most devastated. More than 60 percent of its total coral has been damaged. In contrast, the Japanese Gardens, with only a quarter of the Cave's divers, is in much better shape, showing only 10 percent losses.[13] Chadwick-Furman then began working with the Nature Reserves Authority to limit the number of visitors who can utilize the one-kilometer-long Coral Beach reserve, even though most of them come to sunbathe and swim, rather than snorkel and dive.

Divers and dive clubs bristle at the notion of reduced access to the Red Sea. Yet the question facing decision makers in the Gulf of Aqaba is simple: Will strict limitations be placed on access to the coral now—while there is still some coral left—or will the public continue to enjoy unre-stricted diving until it wipes out all that remains? Sadly, despite growing concern about the predicament, no city council, legislature, or Ministry has ever seriously deliberated the issue. Preliminary steps, such as bans on diving classes in the reefs until novices develop buoyancy control, have only now reached the proposal stage.[14]

This question of sustainability, or carrying capacity, does not seem to interest government decision makers in any of the Gulf countries. It took almost fifty years for Eilat to build its first eight thousand hotel rooms. Its own plans call for a doubling of rooms within four years' time.[15] This ag-gressive economic strategy may ultimately backfire, as the infrastructure certainly has not kept pace with the growth.

Visitors to Eilat will certainly not forget the summer of 1998, the most scorching in Israel's history. As much as the heat, they may recall the col-lapse of the city's main sewage line, when the northern and central sec-tions of the beach were engulfed in sewage. With bacteria levels fifty times above permissible levels, the Ministry of Health ordered everyone out of the water and relegated tourists to hotel swimming pools.[16] Presumably they will find a more pleasant environment for their next vacation. Even if the city finds the emergency funds necessary to handle the sewage glut, and even if clever promotion can gloss over the fiasco, glib explanations will not correct the ecological reality.

The case of Eilat serves as a microcosm for the environmental dilemmas facing Israel.[17] Eilat is a remarkable success by most of the criteria that guided the nation's founders. Even when geopolitical turmoil has decimated Israel's tourist industry, the city has provided nearly full employment for its forty thousand residents.[18] It attracts billions of dollars in foreign currency from its steady stream of international visitors. The city has a music conservatory, a

small college, a tennis center, one of Israel's best professional basketball teams, and some of the finest restaurants in the country. But unless there is a radical change, Eilat will not have any coral to speak of. Little will remain of the diverse, luminescent fish populations that its reef once sustained. If one wishes to see exotic marine creatures, one will have to visit the town's impressive but pricey aquarium and observatory. Or one can always go see what remains of the magnificent marine fortunes of Egypt or Jordan.

Do the Eilat coral reef and the Yarkon River offer the environmental bottom line for the Zionist dream? In a reversal of the Biblical admoni-tion, have the inhabitants unwittingly devoured the land they came to redeem? After a century of Jewish settlement and over fifty years of Israeli sovereignty, present environmental trends give little basis for en-couragement. As recently as the 1950s, Israel's air, water, and land were generally clean. Today they are not. The earnest efforts and frequent successes forged by Israeli institutions and individuals described thus far have not been able to stem the larger deterioration, reflected in a variety of bleak physical parameters.

In a critical retrospective of Zionism's first hundred years, Ari Shavit, a leading Israeli journalist, wrote:

Zionism is destined to continue to cause an ecological catastrophe in a substantial part of the small and sensitive land that many of the planet's inhabitants still consider Terra Sancta. … In a certain sense Zionism was a grandiose engineering scheme drafted in the final years of the nineteenth century and implemented during the twentieth. A somewhat arrogant scheme whose implementation hinged on a wide-reaching act of development. An act that could not have been nonviolent. An act that would finally, after one hundred years, suc-ceed in submerging most of the valleys and plains and hills of the biblical land under the asphalt and cement of a megalopolis state—thriving, commercialized, and very loud. … The task of settling five or six million immigrants on this narrow piece of land, which measures only twenty thousand square kilometers, required the rape of the land. Ironically it was the success of Zionism that wreaked irreparable environmental damage on Zion.[19]

Shavit's pessimistic analysis fails to mention that Israel's environmen-tal movement has also evolved and come of age. It can yet galvanize Israeli society to confront its environmental responsibilities at last—before it is too late. What must be done then to set the country and Zionism on a sus-tainable track? What new issues, approaches, and vision are required, and is it a realistic mission?



The land of Israel witnessed astonishing changes during the turbulent twentieth century, when Zionism forged the third Jewish State. Battles were fought; empires twice unseated; millions of refugees found shelter and others fled; a democratic state was born. The land and its people were transformed as never before. Once sparsely populated and undeveloped, Israel now teemed with humans, who sought to fill every available space. One-fifth of the entire countryside (not counting the Negev desert) was covered by construction, while only a fifth of the land around cities re-mained as unbuilt open spaces. Trees made a comeback and covered a tenth of the hills and valleys. Although it has retreated as of late from its most prosperous periods, farming still dominated the scenery as never before. At the start of the century, regardless of their origins, most people were in-digent, living at subsistence levels. Now, by global standards, Israelis are wealthy. An agrarian economy has been supplanted by industry—at first heavy and more recently high-tech. But an environmental tragedy has ac-companied the inspiring drama of modern Zionism.

Culturally Israel perceives itself as a Western nation; its best basketball team successfully competes in Europe, and its entertainers occasionally win pop-music contests there. Israeli orchestras, fast food, theaters, websites, ar-cades, hospitals, cable television stations, pubs, universities, magazines, and tattoo and sushi bars may have a Hebrew flair but unquestionably evoke the West. English-language fluency may be higher than it was during the Mandate. Yet the dynamics of environmental protection in Israel are fun-damentally different from those of other First World countries.

In his best-selling and controversial 1995 tome A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, Gregg Easterbrook posited that most Western nations go through an environmental cycle. Relying on trends rather than snapshots, Easterbrook argued that the ma-jority of Western nations have already passed through their most polluted periods and are beginning to exhibit ecological improvement.[20] Empirically the numbers in Israel tell a different story.

Unfortunately pollution has not yet peaked in Israel. The air gets dirt-ier every day, with lead and sulfur dioxide the exceptions that prove the rule. Since 1980, for example, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions dou-bled twice.[21] Estimates of annual air-pollution-related premature deaths in Israel consistently range between three and four digits. Quibbling over whether the actual mortality caused by air pollution is in the hun-dreds or in the thousands, however, misses the broader public-health

issue.[22] Asthma, once relatively rare among Israeli children, is an in-creasingly common trauma for Israeli families. (Between 1980 and 1989 incidence among children increased from 5.6 to 11.2 percent[23] and today reaches 17 percent,[24] bringing respiratory illness to epidemic levels.[25]) Breast cancer incidence among Israeli women ranks among the highest in the world. One in eight women ultimately develops breast cancer, with four thousand cases and eight hundred deaths per year.[26] The 32 percent increase in incidence during the 1990s may partly be linked to early di-agnosis, but the especially high breast cancer rates in Haifa (32 percent above the national average) are certainly a scary reflection of the many years of environmental neglect.[27] Apparently the environment is getting worse.

The largely irreversible deterioration of groundwater continues, although contamination rates may have begun to stabilize.[28] There is much talk of river restoration,[29] but the Australian experience in the Yarkon's toxic waters speaks for itself. Even the JNF, after a high profile embracing of river restoration, has made hasty retreat, apparently finding its restoration projects on the banks futile given the quality of the water. The number of fatal accidents involving hazardous materials remains alarming.[30] As natural habi-tats dwindle, dozens of mammal and reptile species are now listed as endan-gered.[31] Of the 185 bird species that bred regularly at the turn of the century, fourteen have become extinct and fifty-eight are threatened.[32] Israel's urban cat and crow population, however, may be the densest in the world.[33]

The annals of Israel in the twentieth century offer some obvious expla-nation for the legacy of continued ecological deterioration. A population that grew sixfold in fifty years, and with a ravenous ambition for economic development, generated residuals. At the same time, because it was so small, the country did not enjoy the margin of error that allows larger na-tions to make mistakes with relative ecological impunity. Israel never had any spare aquifers to tap. Neighborhoods quickly reached the borders of garbage dumps and dirty industrial centers. For many of the animals, there was literally no place to hide.

During the second half of the century, the environment may have been abused, but it was not forgotten. Even when faced with unparalleled mili-tary threats and relentless waves of immigration, the country still found the resources to make environmental history. Its afforestation efforts began early, picked up momentum, and, within a largely semiarid context, remain unprecedented. Its nature reserves managed to stem the tide of most extinctions and even return a few almost-lost species to nature. The Society for the Protection of Nature emerged as an activist conservation

group, attracting a large public membership a full decade before the mod-ern environmental movement emerged in the West. And almost everyone showered with water heated by the sun.

The environmental successes and failures are in fact opposite sides of the same coin. Both were symptoms of the powerful patriotism that char-acterized the young State. Israelis gave up a national pastime of picking wildflowers; they invested in water infrastructure, ceded considerable pub-lic lands to preserve nature, and planted trees, because they were perceived as national objectives. Like the levying of outrageous taxes or the ra-tioning of food supplies, it was part of the price for restoring the ancient homeland, and most citizens willingly paid. But building the State also meant sparing no expense to create jobs, mining the Dead Sea, granting factories carte blanche to maximize profits, and meeting agriculture's un-quenchable thirst for water. The attendant environmental price was per-ceived as part of the same package.

Conservation and environmental groups conducted countless battles along with their government colleagues, who eventually, languidly, took the lead. Initially these efforts hardly had any effect at all on the larger war over what should constitute Israel's true national interests. Yet the efforts had a slow but cumulative effect that was continuously strengthened by the in-ternational environmental awakening. The shift in this ideological clash probably began in 1961, when Dr. Kanovich's Abatement of Nuisances Law specifically branded unreasonable noise and air pollution as crimes. By the start of the twenty-first century Israelis were aware that their environmen-tal problems would wait no longer. Even industry recognized that no na-tional interest was served by production that made air unfit for children to breathe or by budgets that ignored the contamination of a finite supply of water.[34] Perpetrators of such acts pursued individual or parochial interests rather than legitimate societal objectives. This transition has set the stage for a possible reversal in the way Israel treats its environmental resources.

Israel's environmental history certainly teaches that economic progress has a price and that environmental progress is not automatic. Most areas marked by improvement were the results of clear government policies, supported by an unshakable societal commitment. Polluting facilities such as Israel's electric power stations,[35] oil refineries,[36] and cement plants are cleaner because they were forced to clean up. Looking ahead, there is no reason that a thoughtful but insistent government leadership with a strong supporting role by citizens' groups cannot bring about similar breakthroughs in other troublesome areas. Incremental pollution mitiga-tion, however, may not be enough for many threatened resources and

species. There is such a thing as being too late. Large sections of Israel's aquifers testify to the finality of irreversibility.


Conventional pollution problems are still acute, causing severe health and ecological damage. They cannot be abandoned as environmentalists broaden their menu of concerns. The task is especially formidable because of the change in the country's pollution profile. Reaching the multitudes of non-point-source polluters in their cars, buses, or dry cleaners is quite a regulatory challenge. Yet if government law enforcers finally decide to get tough on polluters, there can be many reasons for cautious optimism.

For most of Israel's history, the “polluter pays” principle was an empty slogan. Almost without exception, pollution paid very handsomely for the scores of industries that knowingly shirked environmental responsibility while continuing to enjoy an economic advantage.[37] Israel's police force, attorney general, district attorney, and judges quite simply had other pri-orities. After forty years, a Ministry of the Environment began to make in-roads. By the second half of the 1990s, the Ministry filed close to two hundred criminal prosecutions per year. Yet the majority were directed at small polluters and litterbugs, whereas larger factories managed to keep regulators at bay.[38] There were many excuses for the gap between the Ministry's stated priorities and its enforcement program—most conspicu-ously, the professional backgrounds of enforcement personnel. The very progress, however, of which it could justifiably be proud when it did enforce the law (such as the closure of dozens of illegal garbage dumps) suggested that the Ministry of the Environment needed to focus its en-forcement energies more effectively. At the same time Israel's Water Commission needed to make “enforcement” part of its vocabulary.

It is not just toughness that is required. Israel's enforcement policy must become more sophisticated in seeking compliance. Enormous technical advances in pollution monitoring—from analytical chemistry field kits to remote and infrared sensing—have yet to become tools used by most enforcement agents. Technology is in fact an ally, not an enemy, in the effort to improve air quality. Cars all over the planet are cleaner than ever and will continue to be so.[39] A recent analysis suggests that when Tel Aviv switches to electric buses, it will save the lives of sixteen people a year.[40] Some even argue that only a few years remain for environmental advocates to use air pollution as a compelling argument for improvements in rapid transport. Although they are not always cheap, technological fixes exist for most of

Israel's air pollution problems. During the same ten years (1987–1996) that ambient nitrogen oxide levels doubled, reaching crisis proportions in Israeli cities, they dropped by 10 percent in the United States.[41] Many local patri-ots bemoan the “Americanization” of Israeli society, but this is surely one area worth emulating.

It is now possible to imagine marshaling the societal resources to make this kind of transition. Money is no longer the problem it once was. Israel was a poor country when it was established. Since then, the standard of living has increased tenfold.[42] From 1989 to 1997, for example, gross domestic product rose by 50 percent, whereas population growth was only 29 percent. In 1995 Israel's per capita GDP stood at $17,200.[43] This com-pared reasonably with Sweden ($18,400), France ($20,000), or Canada ($21,000) and favorably with Spain, which had a per capita GDP of only $14,300.[44] Having for so long gotten the short end of the Israeli economic miracle, environmental protection should begin to enjoy the benefits of prosperity as well. Even though the tax burden that funds high-tech mili-tary capabilities is still considerable, there is ample wealth to sport a First World environmental portfolio. Tourism and high-tech industries, the leading engines of economic growth, offer their own ecological challenges, but each can be leveraged in the service of the environment.

The crisis has too often been framed as a clash between profits for pol-luters and the health of the polluted. Yet, many industrialists have begun to recognize the simple fact that they and their children also breathe the air and drink the water. Moreover, powerful signals have been broadcast by the global economy, which expects environmental performance from industry. International standards such as the ISO 14000 production codes[45] are motivating factories to surpass Israeli government regulatory controls and voluntarily seek improved environmental performance. Some fifty major Israeli factories have joined the voluntary ISO manage-ment initiative.[46] German packaging laws, for example, changed the way Israeli exporters wrap things. European rather than Israeli pesticide residue standards and monitoring drove farmer awareness of this issue.[47] Technology is improving, and Israeli factories will become cleaner, be-cause they need to keep up.

As more factories comply with domestic and international limits, it will be easier to identify and punish the polluting operations that ignore them. The fact that environmental violations are prosecuted as criminal infrac-tions may be the single most important difference between Israeli pollution control law and that of other Western countries.[48] Given pollution's impact on health and resources, such a proceeding is not without justification. Yet

there have increasingly been calls, on pragmatic grounds, to downgrade environmental infractions to civil or administrative offenses. Based on the success of American litigators in securing substantial penalties for envi-ronmental violations, civil penalties might finally produce the badly needed deterrence against polluting activities.[49]

Israel came into being only because for the first half of the century Zionist leaders systematically broke the law. They bequeathed to the pres-ent generation a fast-and-loose attitude toward normative constraints; a self-reliant, self-righteous anarchism remains a characteristic part of Israeli chutzpah. Some nations, such as Japan and Switzerland, may be able to rely on a more submissive civic culture for environmental successes (for years Japan did not even have a recycling law, yet it buried only 20 percent of its trash). Israelis expect their government to set limits and are keenly aware of follow-up. When enforcement is feeble, it sends an insidious mes-sage, rewarding lawlessness and punishing conscientious industries who do the right thing.

In 1997 the Knesset passed a law that jacked up the fines for envi-ronmental infractions of five laws by two orders of magnitude.[50] The press made a point of telling the public that they could now be fined thousands of shekels for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground. Negligence with hazardous chemicals could theoretically cost an of-fending industry over a million shekels. Yet average fines for successful Ministry prosecutions were typically around ten thousand shekels at the end of the century. Despite a growing criminal-prosecution pro-gram, the cumulative amount of penalties collected has never exceeded three million shekels in any given year.[51] If Israeli judges, police, and prosecutors do not share a commitment to going the distance with en-vironmental offenders, having such laws on the books will not help.[52] In addition, enforcement agents in the field must have better biological and chemical backgrounds if they are to enforce standards that are based on biological and chemical parameters.

Over two hundred years ago, Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria first pointed out that it is not the severity of the penalty but the likelihood of getting caught that drives compliance levels.[53] The hundreds of industrial plant operators in Israel who do not bother to transport their hazardous wastes to the Ramat Hovav disposal site know this intuitively. It is aston-ishing that, even at the end of 2001, the Ramat Hovav management still reports that only 18 to 19 percent of the toxic waste that should be deliv-ered to the country's only hazardous-waste facility actually arrives there for treatment or incineration.[54]


Environmental policy-makers and regulators must never lose sight of the fact that their goal should be not to catch violators but to create deter-rence that will prevent violations in the first place. An efficacious compliance program should go beyond enforcement and “self-reporting” techniques to include implementing new standards, launching innovative economic schemes, and trying experimental technology. Treating pollution sources as “clients” at first, providing them with technical assistance in meeting environmental standards, should be the proverbial carrot that precedes the stick.

Finally, a stronger commitment must be made to restoration and repair. Not all past damage can be fixed, but much can be. In 1978 Israel created a fund for restoring land damaged by quarrying activities.[55] Promulgated under the old Mining Ordinance, the fund is fed by a surcharge paid by all quarry owners as a proportion of the materials they extract. The money is used to reimburse the expenses incurred in restoring the quarry lands after they are no longer productive.[56] Although the fund has not grown beyond 150 million shekels, and has rehabilitated only a third of the four hundred sites that require attention,[57] nonetheless some old scars on the land are already starting to heal. For example, in 1993 a quarry that dated from the Second Temple period (operating two thousand years ago) was restored.[58]

Presumably it will not take that long to repair other sites. Writing timetables into permits, and backing them up with surcharges and desig-nated funds, can ensure that garbage dumps are converted into parks after they close. International experience teaches that although it may take time, given real powers and budgets, river basin authorities can bring Israel's weary streams back to life. Animals whose absence was felt for many years have begun to reclaim their natural habitat when given a lit-tle respite in reasonably sized reserves. It is well within Israel's capabilities to lighten the heavy imprint of human progress.


The majority of Israelis have always lived in cities and towns. Between 1936 and 1948, 70 percent of the Jewish population lived in either Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem.[59] In the most ambitious agricultural visions set for-ward in the Sharon plan of 1951, the farming population never exceeded 22 percent, and in reality most people remained concentrated around the big cities. Except for the scenic stony vistas of Jerusalem, however, cities were never idealized in Zionist culture. The dense, high-rise metropolis

was almost an anathema. Planners in the 1950s clung to the inexpensive and flexible model of cottages in garden village settings.[60] As these neigh-borhoods became more polluted, crowded, and noisy, more and more Israelis looked for a way out.

Environmentalists were quick to point out the disastrous consequences for open spaces. At the same time, they avoided the more difficult task of addressing the underlying motivation behind the changing geographic in-clinations. In fact, it should not have been hard to analyze. Environmental leaders' kibbutz affiliations were by now a thing of the past for the most part, yet most Green leaders continue to opt out of the predominant urban lifestyle. Some Israelis were moved by a residual “ruralist” impulse incul-cated by youth movements or school trips and nourished during outdoor military training, and which later came to dominate their leisure activities. Others sought the suburbs because they just wanted a little more privacy, peace, and quiet. Sprawl, after all, is an international phenomenon.

Although tougher zoning and more efficient cities can be called an eco-logical imperative, many Israelis see them as ecological tyranny. Without an attractive urban alternative, limits on development will not last for long in a democratic society. So quality of life in the cities has to be part of an open-space strategy. Immediate measures are also necessary.

People are typically unable to detect gradual environmental harm. The sudden disappearance of vast swatches of land during the 1990s, however, was dramatic enough to jolt the general public. Entire areas, such as the fertile Sharon region in central Israel or the scenic Judean hills, seemed to be swallowed by the deluge of concrete, asphalt, and sprawl.[61] A recent in-ventory suggests that available open space in the greater Tel Aviv region is down to a parsimonious 0.05 dunam per person, and that 23 percent of the land in the center of the country is already fully built.[62] It was not just the swiftness of the phenomenon but its irreversibility that shocked. Entire natural vistas, which had once moved ancient prophets and psalmists as well as more modern painters and poets, simply ceased to exist. In a coun-try dotted with archaeological sites, from prehistoric dwellings to Roman roads or Nabataean cities, Israelis know that construction does not easily disappear even when it is shoddy.

Some experts believe that more-detailed and better-quality statutory plans constitute the most effective strategy for preserving Israel's open spaces.[63] A key first step involves ranking the aesthetically and biologically unique terrain and demarcating large areas that are to be spared the on-slaught of development. National Master Plan Number 35, which is being finalized at the time of this writing, presumably will do a better job of

drawing such a line in the sand. The plan mandates the continued physical separation of different urban enclaves, as well as a “green corridor” that would extend from the Golan to the Negev. Yet a central lesson of the 1990s is that statutory protection is easily circumvented when there is suf-ficient panic about housing shortages, windfalls for developers, or new tax bases for cities. Enforcement of building codes and zoning is often more farcical than enforcement of emissions standards. It is not just high-rise hotels that make their own rules. Meron Chomesh, from the Israel Lands Administration, acknowledges that he does not know of a single quarry that has not pushed out beyond the limits of its licensed zone.[64] The enor-mous profits to be made from breaking the rules, when coupled with the complicity of prodevelopment government entities, offer a temptation that is difficult to overcome. Here again, the rare fine inevitably costs a small fraction of the profit.

Saving Israel's open spaces requires a change of perspective. Since the Israeli government administers 92 percent of the nation's lands, it must decide what sort of landlord it wishes to be. Does it want to maximize short-term profits, or to protect its assets for the future?[65] It is extremely unfortunate that during the modern age of privatization, the Israel Lands Authority is overseen by a Housing Ministry committed to development. Israel's government needs to reconfirm its commitment to preserving land reserves, categorically reject the idea of selling to the highest bidder. It needs to change the institutional bias, which reflects the orientation of politicians who seem to be automatically swayed by even poor-quality eco-nomic analysis.

The signs are so severe that the crisis is even starting to register with senior members of Israel's government. Thus, Shimon Peres, a Ben-Gurion protégé who may be Israel's most durable politician, has come to embrace the importance of land preservation. Peres has gone as far as call-ing the new city of Modi'in, located at the rocky ascent to the Judean hills, “a mistake” and eventually came to oppose massive roadway expansion, such as the Trans-Israel Highway.[66] The passage of the Forestry Master Plan No. 22, or Master Plan No. 31 for Immigrant Absorption, suggests that the professional planning community is committed. Getting maps approved, however, may be the easy part. Catching and punishing viola-tors is harder. Keeping the constraints in place will probably be the tough-est challenge of all.

It is important to remember that top-heavy policies, in a realm that af-fects such a key aspect of ordinary life, have limitations. Government can move only slightly faster than its own citizens. This dynamic was evident

in one failed effort to bolster plans for the greater Beer Sheva metropoli-tan area. Because of the northern Negev's unexploited carrying capacity and land reserves, the city is envisioned as supporting one to two million more people, relieving the pressure in Israel's crowded northern half. To expand employment opportunities, the Israeli Cabinet tried to force a gov-ernment corporation, Israel Chemicals, to move its headquarters south to Beer Sheva. Faced with an open rebellion by its Director General Victor Medina and the management, who insisted on staying in Tel Aviv, the gov-ernment backed down.[67]

Had a high-speed, half-hour train ride to the center of the country been available, the move might have seemed more appealing. At the same time, it may not be an altogether negative change that citizens today cannot be moved about by government fiat as they were during the 1950s and 1960s. If people choose their domiciles, presumably they will stay there and work to make their homes a better place to live. And if the same people choose to make recreation in open spaces part of their lifestyle, presumably they will sacrifice to save these lands.


Almost by definition, Israel's environmental community lives with para-doxes. As environmentalists, they know that nuclear arms production is a nasty business, with waste disposal a conundrum that has yet to be solved. But as Israelis, most understand that without a nuclear deterrent their country may not survive. As Israelis, they long for peace. But as environ-mentalists, they know that development in a tranquil Middle East can bring ecological ruin to resources that would otherwise be safe in times of war.[68] As environmentalists, they believe that if sustainable development is a questionable concept,[69] sustainable growth is an oxymoron.[70] But as Israelis, they are ideologically committed to embracing any of their tribe's exiles who are willing and able to join their ranks. Contradictions are in-evitable and often help define the personalities of individuals as well as so-cieties. Some can be brushed aside as the price of living in a complex world. Others can be ignored only at a nation's peril. The population paradox is a case in point.

The most critical single factor in understanding the downside of Israel's environmental history is population pressure. With an average increase of one million people a decade, the land soon became very crowded. Israel's population density is now roughly 270 people per square kilometer. This is greater than that of India and is fast approaching the density of Japan,

which has 327 people per square kilometer. If one subtracts the generally uninhabited Negev desert, the population density per square kilometer rises to over five hundred, making Israel the most densely populated Western country in the world. It will not be long, though, before today's levels of suffocation will be remembered as the good old days. At present rates of growth, conventional estimates foresee Israel's population reach-ing 8.7 million people by the year 2020.[71] Other estimates suggest that when the Palestinian population is included, the number could be as high as fourteen million between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.[72] By that time, northern Israel will reach the hair-raising density of eight hun-dred people per square kilometer—twice that of Holland, the most popu-lated country in the West.[73]

Almost all the environmental clashes described in this book share a common characteristic. A growing population needed more electricity, more highway capacity, more neighborhoods, more water, and more jobs. Indeed, one longitudinal study analyzing environmental conflicts in Israel showed that they were often the outcome of the residential invasion of once-outlying facilities such as airports, landfills, or treatment plants.[74] A country with abundant land resources might have been able to find a rea-sonable balance and accommodate competing needs. In a tiny nation like Israel, the result was environmental crisis.

It took a while for environmentalists to recognize that they had a pop-ulation problem.[75] But now, at the turn of the century, among themselves, there is growing agreement that if something does not slow demographic growth soon, Green efforts will have been for naught. Population pressure promises to undermine even the most optimistic scenarios. Yet publicly, even nongovernmental organizations remain uncharacteristically timid in expressing their concerns. At most they call for debate about the issue.[76] A few brave souls, however, have gone public with the message.[77]

Israel's population growth has two engines: immigration and an un-usually high birth rate. Ever since David Ben-Gurion called for “internal immigration” and for subsidized fertility treatment through a special fund in the Prime Minister's office, Israelis have been encouraged to have chil-dren.[78] The typical Israeli family has 2.9 children, but this does not reflect the geometric growth in certain sectors such as the Muslim community, where the rate is 4.6.[79] Average family size among ultraorthodox Israelis is 6.9 people and growing; in some sectors ten has become the norm. Religious couples in their eighties often boast a progeny of over a hundred people.[80]


Both immigration and birthrates are linked to broader cultural and philosophical issues. Indeed, Jewish immigration touches the very heart of modern Israel's raison d'être. Similarly, calls for zero population growth clash with Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Jewish traditions. The modern Hebrew expression for a large family is “a family that is blessed with children.” When Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin questioned the va-lidity of the term, an angry public debate ensued about just how great the blessing was.

Public policies certainly contribute to the problem. Israel subsidizes large families with tax breaks and grants the fathers relief from military re-serve duty. Part of the historic rationale for the policy was to provide enough able bodies to defend the country against the overwhelming nu-merical superiority of the Arab countries. (A desire to replace the six mil-lion Jews slaughtered in Europe also remains, at least subconsciously, an important factor.) Yet even if the peace process sputters, high-tech weaponry has revolutionized the military dynamic completely. Moreover, the Arab and ultraorthodox sectors with the highest birthrates do not con-tribute appreciably to local defense capabilities. Other policy areas also af-fect the demographic equation. For instance, a tightening of criteria led to a massive drop in the number of requests to abort unwanted pregnancies—from 44,000 in 1980 to 19,500 in 1996. (Presumably, some abortions took place outside the official system and went uncounted.)

Some politicians began to seize on the issue and play on their public's resentment of perceived ultraorthodox parasitism. Avraham Poraz, a Knesset Member from the radically secular Shinui Party, wrote voters a direct mail appeal, blasting the bias of Israel's National Insurance stipends, which reward large families, most of whom do not serve in the military. A family with ten children, regardless of income, was automati-cally subsidized by a government stipend of over $1200, as opposed to a family of two, which received around $80.[81] Such attacks may not be the most constructive contribution to the population debate; indeed, they may be counterproductive. The human misery and hunger caused by a cancellation of support for large families—many of whom are completely indigent—would certainly be politically unacceptable in a Jewish state that retains its fundamental decency and sensitive collective social con-science. Yet grandfathering present benefits in, while in future eliminat-ing the bonuses granted for the fourth child onward, may prove to be an acceptable alternative. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that the cancel-lation of child support would alter the commitment of religious families

to produce a big brood. The decision is ideologically driven and reinforced by powerful sociological pressures and community services.

A frank presentation of the sociological implications may offer a more compelling case than the narrow environmental arguments. There are doc-umented impacts on equality of opportunity and quality of life. A recent study by sociologists Ilana Broch and Yohanan Peres concludes that off-spring from large Israeli families suffer more than economic disadvantage. The data of Broch and Peres indicate that children from Jewish families with more than six children have an average IQ of 90, as opposed to average levels of 99 among children from smaller nuclear families. Furthermore, lev-els of professional aspiration, as measured in sociometric tests, proved far lower among children from large families.[82] There is probably some basis for finding a cultural bias in such test results. Yet the very fact that these studies made the front page of Ha-Aretz suggests that the secular public is at least ready for a discussion about the full implications of the present levels of procreation.

Eventually the issue will have to be breached theologically. The first commandment in Genesis certainly calls on humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the land.” But the rabbis who interpreted this dictate in the Talmud stated that two children were enough (if one was a son) to meet the religious duty.[83] Moreover, in times of famine, Jews are expected to show self-restraint. Environmentalists have been largely unwilling to make the scarce-resources analogy, proclaim that the land is already full, and suggest moving on to the other 612 biblical commandments that are less enthusiastically fulfilled.[84] Future environmental historians may well look back and identify the present deadlock as one of Israel's great-est tragedies: Attempts to raise the population issue were doomed to be received cynically, as a transparent diversionary tactic in the openly ac-knowledged cultural war between secular and religious Israelis.

Yet ecology will not wait for a religious modus vivendi. With each passing year, the likelihood of reversing the population policy diminishes. Charles Galton Darwin (the grandson of the eminent geneticist) ex-plained that purely voluntary population controls were bound to fail be-cause they rewarded individuals and cultures with a proclivity for large families.[85] If it is serious about solving problems, Israel's environmental movement must embrace the population issue without hesitation while politically there is a chance to change public policy, and let the chips fall where they may.

Immigration is an equally thorny issue that cannot be ignored if Zionism is to forge a new environmental ethic. The negation of the

Diaspora was an integral part of the Weltanschauung for Israel's founding political elite. The Zionist solution for the Jewish problem was in direct competition with alternative ideologies, from Communism and Bundism to the American Dream. This pushed the pioneers and their leaders to pose Palestine as the superior choice, if not the exclusive alternative. But as the year 2000 has now come and gone, a reality check is desperately needed. With a solemn, post-Holocaust resolve, Israel for fifty years sought to lib-erate Jewish communities suffering from persecution around the globe. Today, however, the last Jews who wanted to have already left Arab coun-tries such as Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco. There is an open-door policy among former Eastern-bloc Communist nations. Zionists should be de-lighted that anti-Semitism is no longer a compelling reason to move to Israel.

Demographic trends show that because of assimilation and a low birthrate among North American and other Western Jewish communities, very soon Israel will boast the largest Jewish population on the planet. It is time to bury the old insecurities about Israel's standing in the Jewish world and the obsessive need to validate the Israeli option versus the American, Argentinean, or English alternative. Most mainstream Jewish organiza-tions around the world recognize the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and the importance of the “homeland” for strengthening identity, especially among Jewish youth. Indeed, almost all forums and institutions in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews work together speak of a new, more “mature” re-lationship, based on mutual respect and equality. This is reflected in initia-tives with names like “Partnership 2000.”

If Israel is serious about accepting the legitimacy of Judaism in the Diaspora, it is not clear why it needs to send emissaries to the ends of the earth with a mission of convincing people to immigrate. Sending Jewish educators to support the burgeoning religious school systems would be a far more constructive expression of Jewish solidarity. If Jews feel that moving to Israel is spiritually or professionally edifying, they should be welcomed. Talented individuals can certainly make important contribu-tions to Israeli society. But the land of Israel no longer needs more people.

Eventually, economics, water resources, noise, and the general dys-function caused by unbearable density will push Israel into a confronta-tion with advocates of large families and mass immigration. While Dan Perry was Director of the Nature Reserves Authority, his call for assess-ing options to modify immigration and family size policies was met with outrage from Israel's religious community. Yitzhak Levy, then a mem-ber of the Knesset and later Minister of Education, called for Perry's

dismissal. Perry was upset that the press had misinterpreted his comments. It was not to preserve nature that he called for population policies but to protect humans and save the quality of Israeli life.[86] Environmentalists, however, should not be afraid to speak on behalf of the many natural treas-ures that will otherwise be decimated by the crowds; flora and fauna are the first to pay for human encroachment on shrinking habitat. Future generations will certainly have reason to resent today's deafening silence about Israel's excessive population growth.

There are any number of explanations for the present ostrichlike my-opia among decision makers regarding Israel's ultimate carrying capacity. Religious Jews can fall back on the Talmud, which explains that unlike settlement in other countries, population growth in Israel is comparable to the skin of a gazelle. As a young doe, the animal's skin is stretched so tightly that it seems as if it would simply burst if the body underneath expanded at all. But sure enough, as the gazelle grows, its skin grows with it. And so it is that the Almighty provides for the land of Israel, guaran-teeing space and support for all comers.[87] On the secular side, there may have been residual distrust among Zionist leaders who felt that the British Mandate authorities disingenuously used carrying capacity as a tool for stifling Zionist aspirations. Today's Zionists ultimately are fer-vent technological optimists. It is no wonder that carrying capacity re-mains a nonissue.

The Ministry of the Environment, for the foreseeable future, remains unwilling to define overpopulation as an environmental priority, main-taining that Israel's population limits have yet to be determined. The offi-cial view remains that there is probably room for many millions more in the Negev. Turning Beer Sheva into a Phoenix is an easier operational goal than defining the long-term impacts of unencumbered geometric demo-graphic growth and adopting policies to stay it.[88]

Some environmentalists argue that it is “consumption” rather than overpopulation that constitutes the preonderant cause of Israel's envi-ronmental deterioration. A recent analysis, based on car ownership, water, and garbage production, concluded that consumption is growing faster than Israel's population is, and that poor “large” families may con-sume less than rich “small” families do.[89] Clearly, if the analysis had chosen different indicators (such as disposable diapers, BOD loadings into sewage systems, or even heating oil), the results would have been different. Nor does the “snapshot” analysis attempt to evaluate what the long-term implications of a high birth rate might be. Nonetheless, the choice of indicator is gratuitous, because clearly, both overpopulation and

wasteful consumption patterns are critical environmental issues that deserve much greater attention.


The great American environmentalist David Brower liked to explain that his adversaries were wrong when they claimed he was opposed to every-thing. Rather he was in favor of clean air, clean water, and nature. That makes for good rhetoric, but the critique underscores the need for envi-ronmentalists to articulate a positive vision that can capture the public's imagination. Rather than always saying “No,” Greens need to initiate ideas to which they can unhesitatingly say “Yes.” Given recent experience with products from DDT to aerosol sprays, a healthy suspicion of technol-ogy is well deserved. But this does not mean that technology cannot be part of an Israeli environmental vision.

In Israel at least, it is too late for Luddites, who would quickly find them-selves in a hungry, dirty, and desolate country. Rather than stand aside, skeptically seeking out the holes in new scientific innovations, it would be well for environmentalists to seize the initiative and encourage projects that offer promising ecological outcomes. People often forget that after doc-umenting the hazards of pesticides, Rachel Carson went on in the second half of Silent Spring to describe the alternative biological controls that she so strongly advocated. Although conservation and pollution prevention must be the cornerstones of any environmental policy, it is also true that bold and unorthodox technological solutions will be needed.

Energy towers are one such possible innovation. After leaving the Water Commission, Dan Zaslavsky led a sizable Technion engineering team that designed a potentially revolutionary new source of electricity. Their energy tower is a machine that takes advantage of dry climates to produce huge amounts of power carried by wind. Water is sprayed at the top of a 1.2-kilometer-high and four-hundred-meter-wide tower. The water then evaporates, cooling the air. Because the cool air is denser, it de-scends down the tower, the opposite of the usual air flow (as in a chimney). This inversion can create wind speeds of eighty kilometers per hour. When run through an extensive network of turbines, such winds could run gen-erators powerful enough to produce 17 percent of Israel's electricity needs—without any emissions.[90] The tower might be the answer to prayers for those concerned about global warming. The facility is also being designed to desalinate several hundred million cubic meters of water a year at less than half of present costs.[91]


There are two serious drawbacks to the project: One is its 1.3-billion-dollar price tag; the other is the way it looks.[92] Even proponents agree that although it may be clean, it would be a monstrosity. The tower would be visible from distances of twenty kilometers and would break up the grandeur of the Arava desert plains. The knee-jerk environmentalist re-sponse in the past would typically be opposition in a case such as this, where unproven technology is weighed against certain damage to the landscape. Yet, Zaslavsky's Green credentials and exhaustive attention to ecological details stood him in good stead. Local environmentalists were convinced that the benefits of copious quantities of emission-free electric-ity and fresh water trumped the troubling aesthetics. Whether or not funding for energy towers ever materializes, planners have penciled them into regional development plans in the south.[93]

Large desalination installations will undoubtedly become part of the local water strategy. When he was Foreign Minister, Arik Sharon made a regional desalination vision the sole subject of his presentation when speaking to his fellow Ministers at the United Nations in 1999. Already, 60 percent of the world's desalination capacity comes from the Middle East, primarily from huge water factories in the Persian Gulf.[94] In Israel's Arava desert, for almost two decades, houses have had three faucets: hot, cold, and desalinized drinking water. This offers a vision of the region's future. Indeed, an important opportunity was missed during Israel's housing boom of the 1990s, when seperate drinking-water systems were not installed in new neighborhoods.

Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir, a relatively recent convert to the desalination camp, ultimately resigned his post because of the govern-ment's foot-dragging in the area. Invoking the “precautionary principle,” he called the consequences of delaying “catastrophic” to both the urban and the agricultural sectors.[95] At last, after decades of marshaling cost-benefit evidence against investment in desalination infrastructure, Israel's Ministry of Finance conceded the urgency of the situation in 2000 and sup-ported a government decision calling for facilities that were to produce 50 million cubic meters by 2004. Much more will be needed.

Environmentalists need to think ahead and ensure that ecological con-cerns are duly noted. Reverse osmosis, the most common desalination process, involving diffusion of salty water through membranes at a high pressure, is not without environmental impacts. Beyond the copious amounts of electricity (and, presumably, greenhouse gases) required to squeeze out the salts, the residual brine is typically discharged back into the sea around the plant. The increase in salinity can be extremely detrimental

to adjacent ecosystems, as was shown to be the case after five years of desalination plant operation in Qatar Bay.[96] Security interests will cer-tainly ensure that the dangers of military sabotage to desalination facili-ties are minimized, but will sabotage to the environment receive the same degree of attention?

Environmentally friendly technologies, especially those that are not fully cost effective, can help only as much as public policy allows them to do so. This is one of the key lessons of Israel's disappointing experience with solar power—a lesson that has not really been learned. For many years Israeli solar activities were honored around the world. Israel led the world in per capita hot-water heating from the sun. To this day solar water heaters save 620 kilowatt hours nationally a year, approximately 3.2 percent of the coun-try's total electricity usage. But public policies, largely responsive to oil price drops, did little to bolster expansion of the solar industry.[97] It is one of Israel's great ecological ironies that the largest solar-power projects ever assembled were built in California during the 1980s by Lutz, an Israeli company. Although the technology came from Jerusalem, Lutz never produced a single watt of electricity in Israel and eventually went bankrupt.[98]

The peace process spawned a series of large regional economic gather-ings. All countries in the peace region came with large projects to sell. Jordan's energy projects included photovoltaic solar facilities; Israel's did not.[99] Here again, even as the world rediscovered wind turbines and bio-mass, the Israeli environmental movement's agenda did not seriously push clean, renewable electricity sources. Even if there is no perceived need to preempt the nuclear option, energy remains a crucial factor for both long-and short-term air quality.

As he barnstormed the country, promoting his Master Plan for the year 2020, Technion planning professor Adam Mazor shaped the thinking of governmental and nongovernmental environmentalists alike.[100] One easy adjustment he recommended was multiple-level zoning, where land could find three different designations: underground, on the surface, and in the air. New marginal lands would need to be developed, and the contaminated “brownfields” of the inner city must be restored.[101] Environmentalists al-ready agree that the desert, in particular the northern semiarid regions, needed to be transformed to accommodate millions more people. There is some comfort in the reassurance of ecological experts who insist that words such as “pristine” and “wilderness” are misnomers in the context of a land that for millennia has been continuously inhabited. Still, when de-velopers began to propose artificial islands within Israeli territorial waters, even the broadest environmental visions were challenged.


Ever since Mark Twain quipped that “land is the one thing they don't make more of,” the finite nature of this commodity is an operational as-sumption in most real estate markets. Yet, even in Twain's day, reclaiming land from the sea had already begun. Less famous than Holland's dikes and drainage were its artificial islands. Dejima was built off the Nagasaki coast in 1636 and for three centuries served as a trading post and home for Dutch citizens.[102] Artificial islands are now home to the airports of Osaka and Hong Kong; their areas are in excess of twenty square kilometers apiece—half the size of Tel Aviv's municipal boundaries.[103] In western Australia, small artificial islands have been utilized for purely ecological ends—facilitating the return of fish species, such as grouper and queen snapper, that had disappeared.[104] Japan alone has eighty artificial islands, proving that land prices in coastal cities can reach levels high enough to make the creation of urban enclaves cost effective.

The idea is proposed with sufficient frequency in Israel to suggest that it may well come to be. Architecture students' assignments include de-sign of islands off the Tel Aviv coast. The more ambitious designs visu-alize islands that would be located two kilometers off the sea and offer housing for tens of thousands of people as well as a great deal of retail and office space. Other island proposals are built around a Venice-like matrix of canals.[105] As early as 1997, Ariel Sharon, Israel's Minister of Infrastructure, proclaimed the feasibility of the venture, and Dutch and Israeli companies began preparing specific plans.[106] A typical island is projected to cost a billion dollars. It would provide housing for twenty thousand people, employ ten thousand, and attract twenty thousand more for tourism and business.[107]

The very idea of moving Israel's international airport to a yet-to-be-built artificial Mediterranean island fills the beleaguered residents of Tel Aviv suburbs Holon and Bat Yam with euphoria. For years they and the airport's rural neighbors have suffered from Ben-Gurion Airport's noisy air traffic. Moving the airport to an island would also liberate thousands of dunams in the heart of Israel from their present fate as an asphalt runway.

The Ministry of the Environment has taken a cautious approach to the proposals, making its support for a limited number of artificial islands con-tingent on the blessings of attendant environmental impact statements.[108] Considerable questions remain about a range of technical problems. The two most significant issues are the effect of mining the prodigious quanti-ties of materials required for the islands' underwater bulk and the flow of sediments from the Nile basin to Israel's Mediterranean beaches. Some en-vironmentalists have assailed the aesthetics of an obstructed horizon.[109]

Israel need only look south to the unintended ecological consequences of Egypt's Aswan High Dam to justify mixing in a teaspoon of humility when conjuring up grandiose projects. Yet the world is full of examples of land reclamation projects that today are an accepted, and even cherished, part of the landscape. Years after the pioneer swamp-draining fervor, large sections of Israel's own heartland testify to the possibility of a salubrious transformation, and the potential for humans to be positive actors in the process.


Half of the people who call themselves Israelis are not native, having de-cided at some point in their lives to move to an alternative homeland. With emigration a very real option, the majority of native-born citizens also consciously choose to make their home in Israel. During the 1990s, the number of Israelis living abroad who returned to Israel began to surpass the number leaving. Each year, newspaper surveys report that 91 percent of Israelis are quite satisfied with their country.[110]

The satisfaction is linked to a general sense of quality of life. There are many places where it is easier to become rich, but the ancient land still casts a spell over newcomer and veteran alike. The stimulating lifestyle of-fers advantages that trump military insecurities, overzealous tax collec-tion, and a host of other social and economic maladies. Besides leading the world in registered synagogues and institutions of Jewish religious study, Israel also ranks first in areas as diverse as orchestras per capita, theater subscription rates, in vitro fertilization rates, and dairy cattle productivity. And although the society is not perfect, for most Jews it is still family.

It is important, therefore, to temper any ire toward Israel's ecological negligence with an honest recognition of the material and basic comforts that the Zionist revolution produced. There is a tendency to glorify the first half of the century in a romantic vision of milk and honey—when crystal rivers babbled through ancient wadis to a sewage-free seashore, and fresh air ventilated the soul, unencumbered by lead and nitrogen diox-ide emissions. But Palestine was also a land where scorching summers without air conditioners (or even electric fans) were almost unbearable, where insects and malaria prowled mercilessly, where even a spartan diet was often unattainable, and where plumbing (including indoor toilets) was a rarity. Indeed, the pristine rivers of the land dried up during the summer and became perennial only when fed by a steady source of sewage. Even those environmentalists fully aware of the ecological consequences of the

progress made would be disinclined to turn the clock back and forgo the as-tounding advancements of the twentieth century.

It is precisely because quality of life holds such an essential place in most citizens' values, however, that Israelis are now able to turn their at-tention to their relationship to their environment. Zionism has completed a crucial stage. There are many good reasons for believing that it can evolve to address the new ecological challenges spawned by its own suc-cess. The first is environmental consciousness.

Israelis are beginning to look at the entire planet with new, greener eyes. During summer heat waves, newspapers are suddenly writing edi-torials about the greenhouse effect, acknowledging that Green calls for concern, once dismissed as alarmism, are compelling. The Kyoto climate convention does not require “developing countries” such as Israel to re-duce their greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, by the century's end, the Ministry of the Environment had lobbied other Ministries to support a ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions, both because it was good business and “the moral thing to do.”[111]

Yossi Sarid is the politician who best represented this new level of en-vironmental awareness. He believes that information holds the key to reconciling the Zionist dream and the Green dream. “In the early years of the State there were mistakes made in all areas, not just the environment. (In those days they thought that wars would solve problems. That's why we had five wars.) Even the serious mistakes were understandable during the first stages of the country. People just didn't know. Do you think that Ben-Gurion knew anything about ecology? I can tell you that Levi Eshkol didn't know a thing about it. They didn't know because there was no one to explain it to them. The opposite was the case. They told them, you have to build more and more.”[112]

Sarid is therefore willing to absolve Zionism for many of the ecological follies that were perpetrated in its name during the 1950s and 1960s. He is, however, unforgiving toward political leaders of the past twenty-five years who knowingly did the wrong things in the name of the public in-terest. This public interest has clearly changed: “During my last year as Minister of the Environment, I stopped all development around Lake Kinneret,” Sarid explains. “I saw it as one of my most important achieve-ments. Once, they didn't understand the problems caused by building around the Kinneret. Today building there is actually anti-Zionist. It's not just that the country needs to be a home; it needs to be a home that you can live in.”[113]


Not all Israelis have made this leap in understanding. But a growing number have, and they have the power to help the rest along. When a law banning smoking in public places was enacted in 1983, many Israelis laughed at it, given the pervasiveness of smoking on buses and in restau-rants and public halls.[114] Today, public areas are smoke-free. It was a silent majority that cared quite deeply about the air it breathed, not the govern-ment, that enforced the new norms. In addition, the law pushed ahead a consciousness that was already evolving. Now other areas of Israel's envi-ronment are ripe for such a push. Israelis are looking beyond their physi-cal survival for a better way to live.

There has always been a spiritual dimension to Israeli patriotism. It has taken a new form in the growing number of secular Israelis who seek a re-newed connection with Judaism, in a variety of nontraditional forms. The best place to find spiritual renewal will probably always be in the natural world, just outside the window.

Israel in the next millennium will still be home to rocky hills and ver-dant valleys, sandy coasts and a desert that is both empty and teeming with life. The Israeli instinctively returns to this natural world, finding rest from the cacophony of city life, much as the prophets did when seeking in-spiration in days of old. There is no better place than in the natural world to purge defeatist impulses from the human heart—and indeed, the earth is full of examples of successful cures for each and every Israeli ecological ailment.

Adopting a new environmental ethos can open the public's minds to available solutions, but it cannot minimize the sacrifice required for the common good and for the good of future generations. Clean-ups cost money. The requisite self-discipline in transportation, consumption, and housing is not always convenient. Israel's ultimate national challenge may therefore be to regain the higher sense of purpose that comes from giving to a society that aspires to be a “light unto the nations.” Ecology needs to be a central component of this renewed Zionist dream.

As the twentieth century closed, Israeli society had become more indi-vidualistic and divided over core questions about its collective identity.[115] A growing number of citizens embraced self-indulgence and material ac-quisition over ideological satisfaction, shirked military reserve duty, and voted for narrow sectarian concerns. Yet relative to other countries, Israel still rests solidly on a deep reservoir of common purpose and willingness to sacrifice that has shown little signs of depletion. It is there in the def-erence to the elderly on the buses or to the wildflowers in the fields. It is

there as yet another round of terrorism tests a nation's resolve. Once peo-ple are convinced of the severity of the environmental situation, this spirit will provide the requisite commitment to preserve the water, earth, and air. Regardless of when they actually arrived, most Israelis' ties to the land are deep.

Before he went to his lonely death, Moses wrote a farewell letter to the people of Israel that is otherwise known as the book of Deuteronomy. He offered them the options of a blessing or a curse. The choice has been woven into Judaism's central prayer, the Shema. According to the Scriptures: “The land that you go to possess is not like the land of Egypt that you just left. There you had to sow your seed and water with your foot as in a vegetable garden. No, the land you will pass through and in-herit is filled with hills and valleys, and it drinks the water of the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God cares for. Indeed, the eyes of God are always on this land, from the start until the end of the year. And I will give it rains in their due season, the first rain and the last rain. And you shall gather your grain and wine and oil. And I will send grass.”[116]

If one allows oneself to lapse into a puerile conception of divinity, it is instructive to imagine what the Creator might see, peering down from on high upon this promised land four thousand years later. In the most recent cycle of dispersion and redemption, Jews returned en masse to their an-cestral homeland, making much of it a greener place. The renewed forests, the abundant agriculture, and the reserves set aside for the other creatures would surely be a source of happiness. Yet other omens would be trou-bling. Watering so many fields has sapped and sullied many of the reser-voirs. The toll that the farmers' and the factories' chemicals took would also not be overlooked. Asphalt strips crisscrossing the hills and plains added little to the landscape, except perhaps the acrid exhaust of cars. And all those people—indeed as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands along the seashore.

Even an omniscient Creator might not have anticipated the mischief that civilization was capable of once it forgot that with dominion came re-sponsibility. Who would expect the people to turn the good rivers of their land into streams of squalor? Who could imagine producing such copious quantities of garbage and toxins with no serious plan about how to dispose of them? Or allowing a land so venerated to be paved and built into sub-mission? If one took the biblical admonitions seriously, it would almost seem that the conditional curse offered a few verses later was coming to pass: “And the stranger that comes to your land from afar and sees the

plagues upon the land and the sickness that the Lord has laid on it—sulfur and salt and burning, where the land will not be sown and will not bear any grass…”[117]

Rationalizations would be duly noted. There had been poverty and refugees and wars to overcome; a modern state was created. But these cannot temper a deep sense of sorrow at what has been lost. The trying circumstances serve only to amplify the merits of those who successfully worked to preserve and heal the land. Still, if any dispensation was due to the Holy Land's ecological saints (and sinners), it would have to wait for a world to come. While on this earth, much more was expected.

And so it is important to remember that it is not divine decree, but human ambition, myopia, negligence, and sometimes greed that brought these curses to the land. Precisely because the people of Israel created their many environmental problems, they were also blessed with the collective wisdom, wealth, laws, technologies, and passion to solve them. The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge. More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads—offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This “last chance” to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its envi-ronmental history, Israel will once again choose life.

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