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

Toward a Sustainable Future?


Conventional pollution problems are still acute, causing severe health and ecological damage. They cannot be abandoned as environmentalists broaden their menu of concerns. The task is especially formidable because of the change in the country's pollution profile. Reaching the multitudes of non-point-source polluters in their cars, buses, or dry cleaners is quite a regulatory challenge. Yet if government law enforcers finally decide to get tough on polluters, there can be many reasons for cautious optimism.

For most of Israel's history, the “polluter pays” principle was an empty slogan. Almost without exception, pollution paid very handsomely for the scores of industries that knowingly shirked environmental responsibility while continuing to enjoy an economic advantage.[37] Israel's police force, attorney general, district attorney, and judges quite simply had other pri-orities. After forty years, a Ministry of the Environment began to make in-roads. By the second half of the 1990s, the Ministry filed close to two hundred criminal prosecutions per year. Yet the majority were directed at small polluters and litterbugs, whereas larger factories managed to keep regulators at bay.[38] There were many excuses for the gap between the Ministry's stated priorities and its enforcement program—most conspicu-ously, the professional backgrounds of enforcement personnel. The very progress, however, of which it could justifiably be proud when it did enforce the law (such as the closure of dozens of illegal garbage dumps) suggested that the Ministry of the Environment needed to focus its en-forcement energies more effectively. At the same time Israel's Water Commission needed to make “enforcement” part of its vocabulary.

It is not just toughness that is required. Israel's enforcement policy must become more sophisticated in seeking compliance. Enormous technical advances in pollution monitoring—from analytical chemistry field kits to remote and infrared sensing—have yet to become tools used by most enforcement agents. Technology is in fact an ally, not an enemy, in the effort to improve air quality. Cars all over the planet are cleaner than ever and will continue to be so.[39] A recent analysis suggests that when Tel Aviv switches to electric buses, it will save the lives of sixteen people a year.[40] Some even argue that only a few years remain for environmental advocates to use air pollution as a compelling argument for improvements in rapid transport. Although they are not always cheap, technological fixes exist for most of

Israel's air pollution problems. During the same ten years (1987–1996) that ambient nitrogen oxide levels doubled, reaching crisis proportions in Israeli cities, they dropped by 10 percent in the United States.[41] Many local patri-ots bemoan the “Americanization” of Israeli society, but this is surely one area worth emulating.

It is now possible to imagine marshaling the societal resources to make this kind of transition. Money is no longer the problem it once was. Israel was a poor country when it was established. Since then, the standard of living has increased tenfold.[42] From 1989 to 1997, for example, gross domestic product rose by 50 percent, whereas population growth was only 29 percent. In 1995 Israel's per capita GDP stood at $17,200.[43] This com-pared reasonably with Sweden ($18,400), France ($20,000), or Canada ($21,000) and favorably with Spain, which had a per capita GDP of only $14,300.[44] Having for so long gotten the short end of the Israeli economic miracle, environmental protection should begin to enjoy the benefits of prosperity as well. Even though the tax burden that funds high-tech mili-tary capabilities is still considerable, there is ample wealth to sport a First World environmental portfolio. Tourism and high-tech industries, the leading engines of economic growth, offer their own ecological challenges, but each can be leveraged in the service of the environment.

The crisis has too often been framed as a clash between profits for pol-luters and the health of the polluted. Yet, many industrialists have begun to recognize the simple fact that they and their children also breathe the air and drink the water. Moreover, powerful signals have been broadcast by the global economy, which expects environmental performance from industry. International standards such as the ISO 14000 production codes[45] are motivating factories to surpass Israeli government regulatory controls and voluntarily seek improved environmental performance. Some fifty major Israeli factories have joined the voluntary ISO manage-ment initiative.[46] German packaging laws, for example, changed the way Israeli exporters wrap things. European rather than Israeli pesticide residue standards and monitoring drove farmer awareness of this issue.[47] Technology is improving, and Israeli factories will become cleaner, be-cause they need to keep up.

As more factories comply with domestic and international limits, it will be easier to identify and punish the polluting operations that ignore them. The fact that environmental violations are prosecuted as criminal infrac-tions may be the single most important difference between Israeli pollution control law and that of other Western countries.[48] Given pollution's impact on health and resources, such a proceeding is not without justification. Yet

there have increasingly been calls, on pragmatic grounds, to downgrade environmental infractions to civil or administrative offenses. Based on the success of American litigators in securing substantial penalties for envi-ronmental violations, civil penalties might finally produce the badly needed deterrence against polluting activities.[49]

Israel came into being only because for the first half of the century Zionist leaders systematically broke the law. They bequeathed to the pres-ent generation a fast-and-loose attitude toward normative constraints; a self-reliant, self-righteous anarchism remains a characteristic part of Israeli chutzpah. Some nations, such as Japan and Switzerland, may be able to rely on a more submissive civic culture for environmental successes (for years Japan did not even have a recycling law, yet it buried only 20 percent of its trash). Israelis expect their government to set limits and are keenly aware of follow-up. When enforcement is feeble, it sends an insidious mes-sage, rewarding lawlessness and punishing conscientious industries who do the right thing.

In 1997 the Knesset passed a law that jacked up the fines for envi-ronmental infractions of five laws by two orders of magnitude.[50] The press made a point of telling the public that they could now be fined thousands of shekels for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground. Negligence with hazardous chemicals could theoretically cost an of-fending industry over a million shekels. Yet average fines for successful Ministry prosecutions were typically around ten thousand shekels at the end of the century. Despite a growing criminal-prosecution pro-gram, the cumulative amount of penalties collected has never exceeded three million shekels in any given year.[51] If Israeli judges, police, and prosecutors do not share a commitment to going the distance with en-vironmental offenders, having such laws on the books will not help.[52] In addition, enforcement agents in the field must have better biological and chemical backgrounds if they are to enforce standards that are based on biological and chemical parameters.

Over two hundred years ago, Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria first pointed out that it is not the severity of the penalty but the likelihood of getting caught that drives compliance levels.[53] The hundreds of industrial plant operators in Israel who do not bother to transport their hazardous wastes to the Ramat Hovav disposal site know this intuitively. It is aston-ishing that, even at the end of 2001, the Ramat Hovav management still reports that only 18 to 19 percent of the toxic waste that should be deliv-ered to the country's only hazardous-waste facility actually arrives there for treatment or incineration.[54]


Environmental policy-makers and regulators must never lose sight of the fact that their goal should be not to catch violators but to create deter-rence that will prevent violations in the first place. An efficacious compliance program should go beyond enforcement and “self-reporting” techniques to include implementing new standards, launching innovative economic schemes, and trying experimental technology. Treating pollution sources as “clients” at first, providing them with technical assistance in meeting environmental standards, should be the proverbial carrot that precedes the stick.

Finally, a stronger commitment must be made to restoration and repair. Not all past damage can be fixed, but much can be. In 1978 Israel created a fund for restoring land damaged by quarrying activities.[55] Promulgated under the old Mining Ordinance, the fund is fed by a surcharge paid by all quarry owners as a proportion of the materials they extract. The money is used to reimburse the expenses incurred in restoring the quarry lands after they are no longer productive.[56] Although the fund has not grown beyond 150 million shekels, and has rehabilitated only a third of the four hundred sites that require attention,[57] nonetheless some old scars on the land are already starting to heal. For example, in 1993 a quarry that dated from the Second Temple period (operating two thousand years ago) was restored.[58]

Presumably it will not take that long to repair other sites. Writing timetables into permits, and backing them up with surcharges and desig-nated funds, can ensure that garbage dumps are converted into parks after they close. International experience teaches that although it may take time, given real powers and budgets, river basin authorities can bring Israel's weary streams back to life. Animals whose absence was felt for many years have begun to reclaim their natural habitat when given a lit-tle respite in reasonably sized reserves. It is well within Israel's capabilities to lighten the heavy imprint of human progress.

Toward a Sustainable Future?

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