Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

A Ministry of the Environment Comes of Age


Ironically, in many instances environmental progress during the Ministry's first decade had little to do with a given Environmental Minister or his or her policies. Israel's expanding high-tech industry helped. Factories such as Intel's Jerusalem plant brought with them an

American commitment to clean production that went beyond the factory, even including a phaseout of CFCs from the company's dining room re-frigerators long before it was required by law.

Sewage treatment, for example, finally began to make the necessary quantum leap forward in cities like Netanya and Kfar Saba. Ministerial pressure and a series of related lawsuits were assisted by the attractive funding schemes offered by a new Sewage Administration established in 1993. But the Administration was run out of the Ministry of the Interior by an obdurate but highly effective engineer, Yehudah Bar. By 1997, his agency had doled out more than 1.5 billion shekels in loans and grants for sewage treatment—an unprecedented sum.[183] Bar cajoled, persuaded, and pressured mayors to get serious about addressing this environmental health hazard, and many did. By 1995 he could promise that within three to five years sewage would no longer be flowing into the Yarkon, Ayalon, Poleg, or Alexander Rivers.[184]

Similarly, the most dramatic reduction in air pollution during the 1990s came as a result of new European emissions standards for motor vehicles. The European specifications, adopted almost twenty years after similar American prescriptions were enacted, led to the installation of catalytic converters in European automobiles. After years of lobbying by environ-mentalists, the Ministry of Transportation finally agreed to import the Europeans' new standards along with their cars. The more stringent carbon monoxide standards were phased in on new vehicles over a three-year pe-riod, beginning with the largest engines in 1991.[185] Because lead destroys catalytic converters, gas tanks in the new cars were built to reject the noz-zles for leaded gasoline. Slowly but surely, Israel's fleet switched to un-leaded fuel. As anticipated, lead levels dropped precipitously in the cities.

If population, affluence, and technology are the ultimate determiners of environmental quality, then it is little wonder that Israel's pollution pro-file got worse. The Ministry of the Environment was created because these factors had affected the country's environmental indicators so dramati-cally. When it was on track, the peace process only provided an additional push. As McDonald's and Burger King came to replace falafel stands, the country relished the normalcy of being just another twentieth-century consumer society. Yet the suddenness of the nouveau prosperity was such that Israeli urban culture did not have time to develop the accompanying ecological self-restraint, so much a part of progressive Western nations.

Israel had changed and yet had stayed the same, with the environment losing on both ends. A wealthier nation still loved its land and could vis-cerally agree with a heartfelt pitch for open spaces. But at the end of the

day, it was this very impulse that pushed people to build suburban homes with a half dunam of land, converting orange groves and meadows into concrete and asphalt. Even the best environmental communicator could not convince Israelis to leave the car at home and get back on the bus. Nor did anyone even try to touch the issue of overpopulation or the range of fiscal and immigration policies that encouraged it. Israelis no longer denied that pollution was a problem. Rather, environmental issues belonged to that category of problems that were everybody's in general and no one's in particular.[186]

After more than a decade of work—often very hard work—the Ministry of the Environment had grown. Unfortunately, so had most of Israel's environmental problems. In comparison with most government bureaucracies, the Ministry of the Environment was still a young, com-mitted, and smart place. The public was well aware of its existence and even slowly began to expect environmental services. Certainly they knew where to point a finger when another fire raged at the Ramat Hovav hazardous-waste site[187] or when they read that despite local efforts, the United Nations still called Israel one of the biggest Mediterranean pol-luters.[188] Sadly, the environment once again lapsed into its old role as a minor issue, to be overseen by Ministers who saw it as a part-time job or as a political insult. In its first twelve years of work, no fewer than eight individuals held the post. This is certainly a reflection of the instability in-herent in Israel's governmental system, but also of the alacrity with which politicians fled the position to more attractive Ministerial jobs. The Ministry of the Environment's 230-million-shekel budget for 2002 lagged far behind those of most Western countries on a per capita basis. It was a mere seventh the size of the funding at Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs.[189]

Israel's environmental experience during the 1990s can alternatively discourage or offer hope. It certainly proved that the mere existence of a Ministry did not guarantee improvement. At the same time, it was clear that the country's pollution problems would not be solved without a pow-erful and sophisticated Ministry of the Environment.

A Ministry of the Environment Comes of Age

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.