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?


The great American environmentalist David Brower liked to explain that his adversaries were wrong when they claimed he was opposed to every-thing. Rather he was in favor of clean air, clean water, and nature. That makes for good rhetoric, but the critique underscores the need for envi-ronmentalists to articulate a positive vision that can capture the public's imagination. Rather than always saying “No,” Greens need to initiate ideas to which they can unhesitatingly say “Yes.” Given recent experience with products from DDT to aerosol sprays, a healthy suspicion of technol-ogy is well deserved. But this does not mean that technology cannot be part of an Israeli environmental vision.

In Israel at least, it is too late for Luddites, who would quickly find them-selves in a hungry, dirty, and desolate country. Rather than stand aside, skeptically seeking out the holes in new scientific innovations, it would be well for environmentalists to seize the initiative and encourage projects that offer promising ecological outcomes. People often forget that after doc-umenting the hazards of pesticides, Rachel Carson went on in the second half of Silent Spring to describe the alternative biological controls that she so strongly advocated. Although conservation and pollution prevention must be the cornerstones of any environmental policy, it is also true that bold and unorthodox technological solutions will be needed.

Energy towers are one such possible innovation. After leaving the Water Commission, Dan Zaslavsky led a sizable Technion engineering team that designed a potentially revolutionary new source of electricity. Their energy tower is a machine that takes advantage of dry climates to produce huge amounts of power carried by wind. Water is sprayed at the top of a 1.2-kilometer-high and four-hundred-meter-wide tower. The water then evaporates, cooling the air. Because the cool air is denser, it de-scends down the tower, the opposite of the usual air flow (as in a chimney). This inversion can create wind speeds of eighty kilometers per hour. When run through an extensive network of turbines, such winds could run gen-erators powerful enough to produce 17 percent of Israel's electricity needs—without any emissions.[90] The tower might be the answer to prayers for those concerned about global warming. The facility is also being designed to desalinate several hundred million cubic meters of water a year at less than half of present costs.[91]


There are two serious drawbacks to the project: One is its 1.3-billion-dollar price tag; the other is the way it looks.[92] Even proponents agree that although it may be clean, it would be a monstrosity. The tower would be visible from distances of twenty kilometers and would break up the grandeur of the Arava desert plains. The knee-jerk environmentalist re-sponse in the past would typically be opposition in a case such as this, where unproven technology is weighed against certain damage to the landscape. Yet, Zaslavsky's Green credentials and exhaustive attention to ecological details stood him in good stead. Local environmentalists were convinced that the benefits of copious quantities of emission-free electric-ity and fresh water trumped the troubling aesthetics. Whether or not funding for energy towers ever materializes, planners have penciled them into regional development plans in the south.[93]

Large desalination installations will undoubtedly become part of the local water strategy. When he was Foreign Minister, Arik Sharon made a regional desalination vision the sole subject of his presentation when speaking to his fellow Ministers at the United Nations in 1999. Already, 60 percent of the world's desalination capacity comes from the Middle East, primarily from huge water factories in the Persian Gulf.[94] In Israel's Arava desert, for almost two decades, houses have had three faucets: hot, cold, and desalinized drinking water. This offers a vision of the region's future. Indeed, an important opportunity was missed during Israel's housing boom of the 1990s, when seperate drinking-water systems were not installed in new neighborhoods.

Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir, a relatively recent convert to the desalination camp, ultimately resigned his post because of the govern-ment's foot-dragging in the area. Invoking the “precautionary principle,” he called the consequences of delaying “catastrophic” to both the urban and the agricultural sectors.[95] At last, after decades of marshaling cost-benefit evidence against investment in desalination infrastructure, Israel's Ministry of Finance conceded the urgency of the situation in 2000 and sup-ported a government decision calling for facilities that were to produce 50 million cubic meters by 2004. Much more will be needed.

Environmentalists need to think ahead and ensure that ecological con-cerns are duly noted. Reverse osmosis, the most common desalination process, involving diffusion of salty water through membranes at a high pressure, is not without environmental impacts. Beyond the copious amounts of electricity (and, presumably, greenhouse gases) required to squeeze out the salts, the residual brine is typically discharged back into the sea around the plant. The increase in salinity can be extremely detrimental

to adjacent ecosystems, as was shown to be the case after five years of desalination plant operation in Qatar Bay.[96] Security interests will cer-tainly ensure that the dangers of military sabotage to desalination facili-ties are minimized, but will sabotage to the environment receive the same degree of attention?

Environmentally friendly technologies, especially those that are not fully cost effective, can help only as much as public policy allows them to do so. This is one of the key lessons of Israel's disappointing experience with solar power—a lesson that has not really been learned. For many years Israeli solar activities were honored around the world. Israel led the world in per capita hot-water heating from the sun. To this day solar water heaters save 620 kilowatt hours nationally a year, approximately 3.2 percent of the coun-try's total electricity usage. But public policies, largely responsive to oil price drops, did little to bolster expansion of the solar industry.[97] It is one of Israel's great ecological ironies that the largest solar-power projects ever assembled were built in California during the 1980s by Lutz, an Israeli company. Although the technology came from Jerusalem, Lutz never produced a single watt of electricity in Israel and eventually went bankrupt.[98]

The peace process spawned a series of large regional economic gather-ings. All countries in the peace region came with large projects to sell. Jordan's energy projects included photovoltaic solar facilities; Israel's did not.[99] Here again, even as the world rediscovered wind turbines and bio-mass, the Israeli environmental movement's agenda did not seriously push clean, renewable electricity sources. Even if there is no perceived need to preempt the nuclear option, energy remains a crucial factor for both long-and short-term air quality.

As he barnstormed the country, promoting his Master Plan for the year 2020, Technion planning professor Adam Mazor shaped the thinking of governmental and nongovernmental environmentalists alike.[100] One easy adjustment he recommended was multiple-level zoning, where land could find three different designations: underground, on the surface, and in the air. New marginal lands would need to be developed, and the contaminated “brownfields” of the inner city must be restored.[101] Environmentalists al-ready agree that the desert, in particular the northern semiarid regions, needed to be transformed to accommodate millions more people. There is some comfort in the reassurance of ecological experts who insist that words such as “pristine” and “wilderness” are misnomers in the context of a land that for millennia has been continuously inhabited. Still, when de-velopers began to propose artificial islands within Israeli territorial waters, even the broadest environmental visions were challenged.


Ever since Mark Twain quipped that “land is the one thing they don't make more of,” the finite nature of this commodity is an operational as-sumption in most real estate markets. Yet, even in Twain's day, reclaiming land from the sea had already begun. Less famous than Holland's dikes and drainage were its artificial islands. Dejima was built off the Nagasaki coast in 1636 and for three centuries served as a trading post and home for Dutch citizens.[102] Artificial islands are now home to the airports of Osaka and Hong Kong; their areas are in excess of twenty square kilometers apiece—half the size of Tel Aviv's municipal boundaries.[103] In western Australia, small artificial islands have been utilized for purely ecological ends—facilitating the return of fish species, such as grouper and queen snapper, that had disappeared.[104] Japan alone has eighty artificial islands, proving that land prices in coastal cities can reach levels high enough to make the creation of urban enclaves cost effective.

The idea is proposed with sufficient frequency in Israel to suggest that it may well come to be. Architecture students' assignments include de-sign of islands off the Tel Aviv coast. The more ambitious designs visu-alize islands that would be located two kilometers off the sea and offer housing for tens of thousands of people as well as a great deal of retail and office space. Other island proposals are built around a Venice-like matrix of canals.[105] As early as 1997, Ariel Sharon, Israel's Minister of Infrastructure, proclaimed the feasibility of the venture, and Dutch and Israeli companies began preparing specific plans.[106] A typical island is projected to cost a billion dollars. It would provide housing for twenty thousand people, employ ten thousand, and attract twenty thousand more for tourism and business.[107]

The very idea of moving Israel's international airport to a yet-to-be-built artificial Mediterranean island fills the beleaguered residents of Tel Aviv suburbs Holon and Bat Yam with euphoria. For years they and the airport's rural neighbors have suffered from Ben-Gurion Airport's noisy air traffic. Moving the airport to an island would also liberate thousands of dunams in the heart of Israel from their present fate as an asphalt runway.

The Ministry of the Environment has taken a cautious approach to the proposals, making its support for a limited number of artificial islands con-tingent on the blessings of attendant environmental impact statements.[108] Considerable questions remain about a range of technical problems. The two most significant issues are the effect of mining the prodigious quanti-ties of materials required for the islands' underwater bulk and the flow of sediments from the Nile basin to Israel's Mediterranean beaches. Some en-vironmentalists have assailed the aesthetics of an obstructed horizon.[109]

Israel need only look south to the unintended ecological consequences of Egypt's Aswan High Dam to justify mixing in a teaspoon of humility when conjuring up grandiose projects. Yet the world is full of examples of land reclamation projects that today are an accepted, and even cherished, part of the landscape. Years after the pioneer swamp-draining fervor, large sections of Israel's own heartland testify to the possibility of a salubrious transformation, and the potential for humans to be positive actors in the process.

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.