previous sub-section
A Ministry of the Environment Comes of Age
next sub-section


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.

previous sub-section
A Ministry of the Environment Comes of Age
next sub-section