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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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