Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked aims to extend the life of a committee that approves construction in open areas, but is opposed by environmental protection chief Tamar Zandberg

Zafrir Rinat Jul. 15, 2021

An environmental activist protesting last year.
An environmental activist protesting last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The new cabinet is promoting plans destructive to the environment that were set in motion by previous governments, a coalition of Israel’s major green groups said Wednesday.

The groups made the statement at a conference following the government’s decision to extend the life of a committee that approves construction plans in open areas, and after the presentation of a plan that would curb the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The organizations also criticized the government for not canceling an agreement with the Trans-Israel Pipeline to use the pipeline to channel oil from the Persian Gulf through Israel.

According to Maya Jacobs, head of the green group Zalul, the government is allowing drilling for gas and oil based on recommendations by the National Infrastructure, Water and Energy Ministry, when it should be striving to reduce the use of oil.

Jacobs said Israel should be curbing its oil use by implementing the recommendations of a panel of ministry directors general to close the Haifa oil refineries. She was speaking for a raft of green groups including the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Greenpeace.

Part of the Trans-Israel Pipeline at Eilat in the south, 2019.
Part of the Trans-Israel Pipeline at Eilat in the south, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“We share the government’s desire to create efficient processes and are in favor of industry and agriculture. But this should be sustainable, with as little pollution as possible,” Jacobs said.

“The pollution crisis is worse than the climate crisis. It causes thousands of deaths and illnesses, so the Environmental Protection Ministry must become the public protection ministry.”

Former legislator Miki Haimovich, who now heads the Center for Environmental Leadership, said the government is missing an opportunity to effect change in the environment and is sticking to old plans. “Unfortunately, there is no responsibility to future generations in the plans we’re seeing,” she said.

Another former legislator, Dov Khenin, said the Economic Arrangements Law, which deals with outlays not included in the regular budget, did not mention the climate crisis. “There’s also no reference to the bizarre idea of turning Eilat into the Port of Eilat,” he said about the resort city in the south.

Regarding the Trans-Israel Pipeline project in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates to channel oil from Eilat to Ashkelon, Khenin called on the cabinet members unhappy with the Economic Arrangements Law to try to stop the plan.

The environmental groups are worried about potential decisions by the committee that approves construction plans in open areas. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked aims to extend the life of the committee but is opposed by Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg.

According to Shaked, the committee’s work is essential considering the housing crisis, though environmental planners dispute this.

“The reason for a lack of housing isn’t connected to a land shortage,  the reasons include complex bureaucracy, real estate speculation and poor infrastructure,” said environmental planner Motti Kaplan, who wrote National Master Plan 1, which incorporates all existing master plans.

“There is more than enough land for construction, especially for urban renewal. But planning processes and urban-renewal processes are intolerably complicated. The current plans lead to fewer open spaces, suburbanization, the weakening of city centers, and most importantly, the weakening of the planning system and its balances between construction and open spaces.”

According to Kaplan, the solution includes the creation of mass transport, especially national and citywide train service, that would allow more people to live in a smaller area. Another method would be mixed business-residential land use that would make longer commutes unnecessary. Neither of these are included in the plans of the land-use committee.

Land near Jerusalem where thousands of housing units are expected to be built, last year.
Land near Jerusalem where thousands of housing units are expected to be built, last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Some of the committee’s proposed projects are in highly sensitive open spaces where damage would include the preventing of rainwater from reaching the aquifer. For example, plans at Havatzelet Hasharon and Apollonia, north of Herzliya, would damage coastal dunes and mar the view to the sea.

Plans for Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the hills in the far north and Deir al-Asad in the Galilee hills would damage forests and woodlands. The plan for Elad in central Israel would harm an “ecological corridor,” and the plan for eastern Hadera between Tel Aviv and Haifa would damage the drainage basin of a wetlands nature reserve.

According to the Center for Regional Government, the committee’s plans severely harm agricultural areas that the committee has slated for construction. The center says that if the current plans are pushed through, they will reduce agricultural space in central Israel by 20 percent. Environmental protection groups say these areas are also vital to the landscape, flora and fauna.

“This bill, which promotes hasty development, must be stopped,” said Iris Hann, the head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “In such a crowded country, you can’t plan as if we had land from here to Canada.”