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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V'din eventually filed two unsuccessful Supreme Court petitions against

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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