By Shuki Sadeh

Something changed in Israeli society just a week ago: The Dead Sea Works, one of the many companies owned by the Ofer family, appealed directly to the public via a huge advertising campaign, instead of sticking to its previous tactic of lobbying politicians and regulators behind the scenes. The company spent $1.5 million to persuade the Israeli public that it is not to blame for the critical state of the Dead Sea.

The company’s media campaign – on television, radio and in the press – was rich with happiness and joy. It used animation and a simple vocabulary. The company is trying to show that contrary to common knowledge, it is actually the Dead Sea Works that is saving one of Israel’s best-known wonders.

The state is preparing to demand that the company pay for the NIS 5-6 billion project to dredge the salt from the southern basin of the sea – and the company is fighting back.

The southern end of the Dead Sea was transformed into an evaporation pond by the company to exploit the minerals in the water, and the sea is threatening to rise and flood the hotels on the seashore near Ein Bokek – while the water level in the northern section is dropping precipitously and dangerous sinkholes have been forming.

The company’s campaign has raised the ire of environmental organizations and others, and even without discussing the content of the ads, it seems the Ofers’ new tack is an attempt by the rich and powerful to influence the government via public opinion.

“The Ofer family has come a long way since it fought with Miki Rosenthal over his ‘The Shashuka System’ [a reference to a movie]. Until now, they did not even view the public as a factor that had to be considered,” said Eldad Yaniv, an attorney who used to work for the Ofers. In the past, Yaniv said, the Ofers would have hired a couple of PR people, lawyers and lobbyists, and the affair would have blown over – but this time it won’t.

This last year saw several public campaigns indicating that times have changed in Israel. Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon waged a campaign against the cellular operators, and in doing so he was transformed into one of the most popular of ministers – including winning praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told his other ministers “to be Kahlons.”

Another example is Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s fight to raise taxes on the profits of companies that exploit Israel’s natural resources such as gas and oil.

It could be that the practice of politicians and tycoons making secret deals behind closed doors is on the way out.

A clear and present danger

The Dead Sea Works’ campaign follows more than 40 years of never-ending mistakes relating to preserving this natural wonder. It started with using and diverting the waters of the Jordan River, decisions go back well before the building of the National Water Carrier in the 1950s, all the way back to the early period of the British Mandate. In the 1960s, the company began pumping water from the northern part of the Dead Sea to the southern part, after the firm turned the southern part into an artificial evaporation pond, where the Dead Sea Works harvests potash and other minerals.

Data from the Israel Geological Institute shows the company is responsible for 20% of the fall in the level of the Dead Sea, while the Dead Sea Works claims it is only 10%.

For the past two years, the government has been debating how to solve the problem of flooding that threatens the hotels. Finally, the decision was made over a month ago to dredge the salt out of the evaporation pool, where it was building up and raising the water level. Other possibilities were to move the hotels or build berms, but in the end the most expensive but permanent solution was chosen to dredge the pool.

Now, the big fight is who will pay for the expensive dredging – and how much.