The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is undergoing a shake-up of both staff and vision; How the government agency will emerge remains to be seen.
By Zafrir Rinat | Jan. 9, 2014

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has recently been undergoing a shake-up of its leadership amid efforts to find its way forward. A number of senior staff have either resigned or have been laid off over the past year and a half. Labor relations at the INPA have been undermined to such an extent that about two weeks ago the workers’ committee declared a formal labor dispute.

And all of this is happening during a period in which the director general, Shaul Goldstein, is pushing ahead with efforts to develop a vision statement designed to guide the organization through the next decade.

There are conflicting accounts regarding the reasons for the current tensions. Among the staff, there have been complaints over the way in which various positions at the agency have been filled after openings were posted. There have also been gripes by some workers over their employment conditions.

For his part, Goldstein contends that he is trying to settle the disputes through talks with workers’ committee representatives, and says that some of issues have been referred to arbitration. Workers claim that Goldstein has dismissed senior employees on a major scale, but he says for the most part it involved the departure of people who had reached retirement age, along with a few cases of what he said were unavoidable dismissals due to poor performance. “A lack of trust was created between me and the workers’ committee, and we are trying to rectify the situation,” he acknowledged.

One of the most sensitive issues mentioned in the course of the internal disputes at the INPA, in which the State Comptroller’s Office became involved, was Goldstein’s relationship with the Israel Corporation, a major holding company which includes operations that account for a considerable share of the quarrying carried out in the Negev and Judean Desert. Its operations have a major impact on the environment, and Goldstein’s brother is a senior official at the Dead Sea Works, a unit of the Israel Corporation’s ICL Fertilizers.

The State Comptroller’s Office referred a complaint to the Justice Ministry over alleged deficiencies in Goldstein’s responses in a disclosure questionnaire that he filled out in connection with his appointment as INPA director general, relating to his relationship with the Israel Corporation. The Justice Ministry said Goldstein was summoned to a meeting on the issue with Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht. In the course of the meeting it was agreed that Goldstein would refrain from dealing with matters affecting the Israel Corporation, and a formal conflict of interest agreement would be prepared that would explicitly incorporate such a commitment. For his part, Goldstein said he could not comment on the issue because it was being looked into by the State Comptroller’s Office.

The fraught labor scene at the INPA has not prevented Goldstein from carrying out major changes at the agency through a new organizational vision statement. He said he discovered when he took office that the agency had no answers to basic questions, such as what was the nature that the parks authority was seeking to protect − whether it was what existed thousands of years ago or something more contemporary. And how exactly should such efforts be carried out?

He also found what he described as stagnation among many of the agency’s managers. And he said he did not receive answers to questions over free access to nature spots and national parks, and whether performances should be allowed at INPA sites, as are currently carried out Masada National Park, which is an INPA site. What effect, he asked, does this have on the desert environment?

And then there is the future of sites such as Hai Bar at Yotvata. The site north of Eilat has been used to raise animals so they can be released into the wild, but there are those who say it has become a zoo of sorts whose operations are no longer justified.

The vision statement is due to be developed through internal working teams that are assigned various issues. Last month a conference was held to develop a vision for INPA staff, in the course of which a range of topics was discussed, including how to involve the public in decision making regarding nature reserves, fire prevention, marine reserves and the setting of benchmarks for success or failure. Goldstein is not ruffled by critics who say every director general decides to develop a new vision statement. “The difference is that now we are trying to develop ways to bring about the implementation of a vision like this,” he counters. “The result will be policy documents from which it will be possible to build a work plan. They will be presented to the public, because they are the ones from whom we have received our mandate to protect nature.”

The work teams developing the vision paper are also dealing with issues such as the design of the uniforms that IPNA inspectors wear. Like his predecessor, Goldstein is bothered by the image that INPA inspectors have, both with respect to their physical appearance and the perception that visitors to nature reserves and national parks have regarding the extent of their authority. He is also concerned about the difficulty the public sometimes has in distinguishing between the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and other nature protection entities. Goldstein’s predecessor hired consultants to help the INPA, which is a government agency, distinguish itself from groups such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which is a private non-profit organization. It will be interesting to see how Goldstein carries this out.

Goldstein is also of the opinion that the inspectors need to be less involved with enforcement and have more of an ecological and scientific orientation in their work routine. Another major challenge will be oversight of nature spots whose designation as nature reserves has not yet been completed, but which the INPA is responsible to protect. This process will also require a major increase in funding for the agency.

One of the challenges for INPA staff, based on the vision statement that is taking shape, will be meeting the benchmarks for nature protection. It is not yet clear exactly what criteria are to be applied. Some of the possibilities include measuring the area of land where invasive species have been dealt with over the course of the year and the improvement over a specified period in the situation of a specified number of species in danger of extinction. All this is in the spirit of efforts around the world to protect biodiversity, which now include quantitative targets through which it can be determined whether nature protection efforts are in fact producing results.