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Israel's Urban Environment, 1948–1988
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No law was more important from an environmental perspective than Israel's Planning and Building Law, which passed the Knesset in July 1965 after twelve years of preparation. It was an original Israeli statute that re-placed the 1936 Town Planning Ordinance.[48] By Israeli standards, the law's two hundred provisions were positively prolix. The law institutionalized Israel's three-tier planning system: The National Planning Council deter-mines policy and general zoning for sundry activities, from roads to garbage disposal. The six regional planning committees translate the na-tional plans into specific land allocations and oversee the zoning decisions of the sixty-eight local committees in their jurisdictions. The Ministry of the Interior runs the system, and its Planning Administration drafts the specific national and regional master plans.[49]

Although the word “environment” was not specifically mentioned in the statute, certain innovations had direct implications. For a government bureaucracy that harbored a healthy Eastern European suspicion of public involvement, the law was remarkably democratic. It attempted to make the planning process transparent. The law provides that plans submitted to planning committees be published in newspapers (including an Arabic newspaper for projects that might affect Arab communities); the public is empowered to file formal objections to projects that might affect them. And, finally, the Israeli government had to comply with its own zoning constraints in its many construction projects—or so the law implied.

The establishment of Tel Aviv's Reading D power station was un-doubtedly the single most controversial air quality issue of Israel's first thirty years. The extent of the public opposition to the project was more surprising than the ultimate outcome of the debate. The case, for the first time, highlighted air pollution and its effect on the urban quality of life. It also showed the vulnerability of the democratic character of the new planning law.


By the 1960s, the surge in electricity consumption (14 percent per year[50]) surpassed even the growth in the country's population and gross national product. In 1962 Israel's Electric Company announced that Tel Aviv's thirty-six-megawatt British plant, named for Lord Reading, would soon be inadequate. Given existing trends, there would be power shortages by 1970.[51] The company began to plan the expansion of the plant in the sand dunes north of the city, converting it into a five-hundred-megawatt facility.[52] Things had changed, though, since the original Reading power station was built in 1936. The greater Tel Aviv–Jaffa region was now home to 391,000 people. Neighborhoods had already crossed the Yarkon River in the north and approached the plant.[53] The Reading Station was perceived as the single greatest air pollution hazard in the city.[54]

Like all of the regional committees, Tel Aviv's Regional Planning and Building Committee was primarily composed of government representa-tives. Yet they were attuned to public sentiment and were willing to flex the new muscles given them under the Planning and Building Law. Decisions were supposed to be made on the basis of their best professional judgment rather than on political dictates from above. On January 16, 1967, the Electric Company formally submitted its plans, but not before beginning work on the foundations of the new plant.[55] It took less than two months for the committee to reject the building permit request. There would be no approval until the Electric Company could deliver the bless-ings of the Ministry of Health, verifying the absence of additional public-health risks. Josef Tamir convened hearings on the issue in the Knesset's Public Services Committee and discovered broad-based opposition to the new Reading plant.[56]

The Ministry of Development, responsible for energy infrastructure, did the bidding of the Electric Company. After all, the government owned the utility outright, and the Ministry was responsible for guar-anteeing a reliable energy supply. Along with lawyers at the Ministry of Justice, it drew up a one-page law designed to streamline construction and avoid the irritating hurdle posed by the Tel Aviv Regional Committee. The law stated that “the Government was authorized, according to a proposal by the Israel Electric Company, to approve a building plan and the operation of an electric power station in the Tel Aviv area…”[57] Once approved, the plant would not be subject to Israel's Planning and Building Law.[58]

The proposed law raised a hue and cry among the public, and two hun-dred thousand people signed a petition opposing the Tel Aviv site for the plant.[59] The government argued that the facility would be cleaner than

the existing Reading A plant (which it would close down) and committed itself to meeting any standards set by the Ministry of Health. In particu-lar, great stock was placed in tall stacks that could send the plume far be-yond Greater Tel Aviv.

The Knesset deliberations surrounding the proposal were not only the longest environmental debate in Israeli parliamentary history but also the most heated. No fewer than seventy-one recorded hecklers, from every political party, interrupted speeches to protest the project. There were re-ally only two objections raised by the speakers: The government was sell-ing out the health of Tel Aviv's public for the extra eighteen million lirot it would cost to build the power plant in an alternative southern site, far from residential areas.[60] Furthermore, the government was undermining the democratic character of the planning process that was supposed to “make citizens' rights equal to those of the government in matters con-cerning planning and building in this land.”[61]

The opposition tried to keep the matter apolitical and avoid a factional vote. As maverick parliamentarian Uri Avneri quipped, “This is not a po-litical matter. … Does the nose belong to a particular faction? Does the Labor Party have a different kind of nose than the Gahal (Likud) faction?” Menahem Begin interjected that “the nose” was not at issue but “the lungs,” and Avneri responded that lungs should be nonpolitical as well. But it was to no avail. Considering that the broad-based national unity gov-ernment, which was formed in the wake of the Six-Day War, was still in power, it was a surprisingly close vote. (An across-the-board unity gov-ernment can usually expect to pass legislation at will.) The bill passed, 32–28.[62] It raced through committee, and just six days later, on August 8, 1967, became law. Two years later, Reading D was up and running.[63]

In response to the government's commitment to abide by any condi-tions it stipulated, the Ministry of Health invited three international ex-perts to visit Israel and offer their opinion. The “Brasser Report” was named for the World Health Organization expert who chaired the team. The recommendations of the group rejected tall stacks as a long-term panacea. Rather, the experts preferred to reduce sulfur dioxide by burning low-sulfur fuel. This grade of fuel was still not available in Israel, so a tall stack and sulfur dioxide removal equipment for the flue gas were recom-mended in the interim.[64] The government's commitment to Tel Aviv's en-vironmental health, however, was predictably ephemeral. The Ministry of Development countered by inviting a report from an opposing expert committee, headed by a former president of the American Electric Power Company. The authors of the “Sporn Report” were confident that 150

meter-high stacks would alleviate any problems and recommended that low-sulfur fuel be kept on hand only for emergencies.[65]

Ultimately the Ministries of the Interior and Health set five conditions for plant operation, including a 150-meter smokestack and the closing of the Reading A plant.[66] The case set a lax technological precedent for the fu-ture. It would take decades before low-sulfur fuel was burned in Tel Aviv. During the 1970s, “scrubbers” became a proven technology for reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by 99 percent. In 1989 Israel Electric Company officials were happy to wait another decade or two before investing in them.[67]

The impact of the plant on Tel Aviv is a subject of debate. In his mem-oirs, Josef Tamir calls the Reading smokestack “a symbol of Tel Aviv's disgrace,” charging that three tons of soot are released every day.[68] The sulfur dioxide emissions were probably higher, reaching 130 tons per day. Yet at the same time, ambient sulfur dioxide levels in Tel Aviv remained far below national standards.[69] From a narrow, local perspective, the “solu-tion to pollution” is dilution: In 1969 Israel had no compunction about tak-ing advantage of the Mediterranean's western sea breezes and exporting its sulfur dioxide emissions eastward into Jordan and the West Bank.

The real fallout from the Reading Power Station was political. Israel's planning process did not seem quite as robust and democratic when it was so easily circumvented. The chimneys of the Tel Aviv Power Plant Law still cast a traumatic shadow. In 1991, for example, environmental leaders would think twice before supporting a proposed law to cancel the Jordan River hydroelectric facility, notwithstanding the plant having received the required approvals of the planning committees (see Chapter 5). Such a law might have produced an immediate environmental victory, but in the long term, site-specific legislation could be a double-edged sword.

The second political lesson was no less discouraging. The Israeli public and a fair number of politicians had finally been roused and had put to-gether a serious fight to stop a polluting facility in the heart of Tel Aviv. An alternative site was available. But their voice was lost amidst the govern-ment's insatiable roar for the fastest, least expensive development possible.

The unsung hero in the story was the Tel Aviv Regional Planning Committee, whose members showed unusual ecological sensitivity and fortitude under considerable government pressure. Much more typically, planning committees either ignored environmental concerns entirely or glossed over them.

One of hundreds of examples was the 1973 request by the Frutarom Company for a building permit in Haifa Bay. To this day Frutarom makes

PVC plastic, whose production involves a host of pernicious by-products, including vinyl chloride, a virulent liver carcinogen. The company has al-ways been perceived as environmentally lackadaisical and for years was linked to a number of pollution problems in Haifa Bay.[70] The approval of the company's request was sufficiently outrageous to jar the usually staid Ministry of Health from its typical complacency. Citing mercury levels in nearby fish that were four times the accepted standards, Dr. Eliezer Matan called the decision “scandalous.” He charged that any committee that would approve a request from a polluter known to be dangerous, in con-travention of three professional opinions, was “beneath contempt.”[71]

Through most of the 1950s and 1960s, Israel's public health was prob-ably not inordinately affected by high pollution concentrations. Although there were modest increases in cancer incidence during the 1960s, and women had relatively high levels of lung cancer,[72] these could be attrib-uted to high smoking rates. Still, the first, isolated signs of environmental health impacts on the population were starting to surface. There was much coughing in Haifa, dysentery was common nationwide, cities were noisy and dirty. Much like Casey Jones's proverbial train, they signaled trouble ahead. Government agencies were well aware of the long-term implica-tions of pollution. Yet planning committees, the Water Commissioners, local governments, and even the Ministry of Health's sanitation depart-ment were helpless to slow the pace of the degradation.

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