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

Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride


After fifty years of independence, Israeli environmentalists needed to take stock. As is the case with any healthy ecosystem, the diversity in the shades of Green gives the environmental movement strength and stabil-ity, despite the headaches of coordinating overlapping efforts. The many serious and creative environmental institutions that have taken root and

blossomed in this small country alongside the dominant SPNI suggest that the ground is fertile for ecological commitment. Yet after looking beyond their own immediate microsuccesses, honest environmentalists in Israel must admit that it has not been enough. Financial constraints and unfavorable geopolitical circumstances join a host of other excuses to ex-plain why. But Israel's environment deserves results, not excuses.

Environmental history will not be changed by merely toughening emissions standards or defeating yet another destructive development plan. The symptoms of environmental degradation have their origins in broader societal phenomena. Not only governmental but also environ-mental nongovernmental organizations now recognize that environmen-tal problems have been framed too narrowly. If clean air and water are to be attained and the Israeli landscape to be preserved, environmentalists today must make the difficult foray into the hitherto untraveled worlds of transportation, consumerism, architecture, and family planning. These is-sues have long been on the menu of environmental groups around the world. Altering strategies may in fact prove easier than adjusting tactics; indeed, changes in orientation have already begun.

Because of its direct link to air quality, transportation was the first new discipline that environmentalists began to study. Since systematic moni-toring began, air pollution emissions in Israel have doubled every ten years. During the same period, the number of vehicles on the roads did too. Despite 100 percent import taxes on vehicles, growing societal affluence propelled car ownership rates from 6 cars per thousand people in 1950 to 198 in 1995.[126] The average daily distance traveled by the vehicles of an in-creasingly suburbanized population also grew, from 43.6 kilometers in 1980 to 47.1 kilometers in 1994.[127]

Despite the optimism at the Ministry of the Environment over catalytic converters, they have never been a panacea. It did not take long for many of the converters to stop functioning after they were tainted by the low-grade fuel sold in Israel, and, with import taxes of 84 percent of the catalog price, replacements were expensive.[128] By 1998, a third of Israeli cars reportedly failed to meet the new emissions standards, and noncompliance among older vehicles was especially rampant.[129] Although a tougher inspection and main-tenance program could have led to their replacement, the Ministry of Transportation clung to relatively lenient European standards and was not inclined to beef up its oversight of emissions testing or roadside inspetions.[130]

Without the clear legal authority to do something about the problem, the Ministry of the Environment could only offer scientific explanations for the steady increase in the concentrations of oxides of nitrogen in the

air, which kept breaking records and choking Israel's cities.[131] There was no reason to believe that a 1993 prediction made by Israel's leading air qual-ity modeler, Menahem Luria, would not come true. Luria projected that by the year 2010, smog levels in Jerusalem would be comparable to those in Mexico City, a frightening place where children's health is endangered merely by playing outside in summer.[132]

As congestion became unbearable and rush hour turned into a pro-longed ordeal, public transportation was more a reflection of government neglect than a government service. By the end of the 1990s, the country had over fourteen thousand kilometers of roads, but only 596 kilometers of railway tracks. The number of seats available on buses per inhabitant had not increased since 1970.[133] With only a minimal network of desig-nated bus lanes, passengers were penalized twice. After walking to their bus stop and waiting, they faced the same delays as all other drivers. Consumer response was swift. Between 1989 and 1994, public transport ridership decreased 13 percent in Tel Aviv.[134]

Environmentalists also came to recognize that open-space preservation was linked to a sustainable transportation policy. By 1997, 5 percent of the country's land was covered in roads.[135] If the number of vehicles contin-ued to rise, even more land would be sacrificed on the altar of mobility. New low-density bedroom communities were built around a two-car-family reality and the resignation that public transport would not be able to serve them. At the same, the inadequacy of the transportation infra-structure posed one of the primary barriers to stepping up density in cities like Tel Aviv. The underground parking garages proposed for the new generation of skyscrapers only exacerbated congestion. Without a subway or a monorail that enabled people to move quickly and easily across Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, it was unrealistic to think about doubling urban population. In the meantime, development continued to spill into the countryside.

The expansion of the environmental agenda enabled groups to form new coalitions with partners that in the past had been overlooked. There are many examples. Transportation, for example, opened the door to pow-erful allies, such as the accident prevention community, the elderly, the disabled community, and even youth movements. Connections with ultra-orthodox advocates for preserving the sanctity of ancient Jewish graves had a tentative beginning in the Trans-Israel Highway campaign. (The Israeli Arab community, whose lands were to be appropriated by the road, proved to be far better environmental allies.[136]) At the same time, in 1992 a group from farm communities, dedicated to preserving the lifestyle that

the highway threatened to disrupt, registered as a nonprofit organiza-tion.[137] Indeed, by the end of the 1990s, the Forum for Public Transportation, a broad but highly effective coalition, brought together these disparate interests. A new organization, “Transportation—Today and Tomorrow,” provided public-interest expertise.

These new constituencies brought with them a tactical component lack-ing in previous environmental endeavors. It fell under the broad heading of “outreach.” Because of NGO reliance on volunteer experts, chronic in-sulation undermined effective advocacy. Ever since the SPNI rode the success of Azariah Alon's radio broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, its following became increasingly predictable, and it failed to embrace new communities. For instance, in a survey conducted during the 2000 holiday season, only 3 percent of visitors in JNF forests were immigrants from North Africa, and only 3 percent identified themselves as ultra-orthodox—rates far below the actual census levels.[138] The inability to field their own transportation experts willing and able to back up the environ-mental agenda in public forums left enviros looking like amateurs.

If fundamental aspects of Israeli lifestyles are to be influenced, tradi-tional communications methods need to be reexamined. Television, the most powerful media tool, rarely gave the environment the sympathetic coverage offered so freely by newspapers and radio. Environmentalists needed to find out why no commercial films made the environment a theme, or why the evening news reported only the most outrageous eco-gimmick or disaster, neglecting the more arcane chronic problems. After dogged lobbying, in 2000, Life and Environment secured a place for an en-vironmental representative on the Board of the Israel Broadcast Authority. Public-interest scientist Dr. Noam Gressel embraced the challenge and began to push for better environmental coverage on both radio and televi-sion. The growing cable network generated modest, local ecological pro-grams on the popular National Geographic and other channels. The time had come to learn from other countries about making the broader envi-ronmental agenda a salient election topic and how to induce political par-ties to engage in a competitive, Green one-upmanship.

Other potential partners certainly existed who may have been willing to join hands in environmental matters. For example, Greens in Israel never connected with the powerful labor movement in the country—allowing themselves to become trapped by the false dilemma of “jobs versus ecology.” With the exception of the work of attorney Richard Laster and physician Ellihu Richter against particularly egregious exposures to workers in a nickel-cadmium battery plant, an asbestos factory, and the Dimona nuclear

facility, there were practically no crossovers into the occupational realm. Yet workers often serve as an early warning—the proverbial canary in the mine—that can uncover a polluting factory.

Once Israel began the reconciliation process with its neighbors, there was no shortage of environmental outreach efforts over the borders. It may have been the euphoria sparked by the glimpse of a peace that had been elusive for so long. It may also have been a shot of opportunism and the expectation of funding for joint Arab-Israeli cooperative ventures. In either case, after the peace process heated up, Israeli nongovernmental en-vironmentalists were among the first to seek out their Arab colleagues. They began umbrella groups such as EcoPeace or the Palestine Israel Environmental Secretariat.[139] Joint educational programs were started, such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which brought Arab and Israeli university students together in an intensive interdiscipli-nary environmental leadership program.[140] Within four years, dozens of the institute's graduates had assumed key environmental positions or launched public-interest start-up initiatives in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.[141] And there was a handful of remarkable projects, including Yossi Leshem's bird migration center, whose satellite hookup al-lowed schoolchildren to track bird migrations through computer systems in their respective countries.[142]

Environmentalists in the Middle East's “peace region” quickly became acquainted with one other. In many areas, however, a healthy dose of real-ism soon tempered expectations. In some areas, such as water quality pro-tection and nature preservation, cooperation could be vital. In others it seemed a waste of time. The Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinian economies were completely different from that of Israel, producing a very different set of environmental challenges. Transportation was not yet deemed an eco-logical priority for Arabs. Drinking-water quality did not top the list in Israel. The bottom-line natural-resource balance sheet was unclear: Israel's dwindling sand reserves stood to benefit from imports from its neighbors; water scarcity would grow worse as negotiations provided more equitable allocations; wildlife might benefit from binational reserves.

Contacts also suffered from a conspicuous lack of reciprocity. Environmental organizations, in particular in Jordan, were hesitant to em-bark on high-profile collaborative ventures. Palestinian enthusiasm ini-tially was greater but vanished when the escalated violence of the Intifada came to dominate Palestinian-Israeli relations after the autumn of 2000. Here, Israeli environmentalists had little choice but to heed their new friends' suggestion for greater patience.

Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride

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