Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure from the prime minister’s office may be the best opportunity in decades for Israelis to take action for environmental sustainability.


ALON TAL is an Israeli environmental activist, co-founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Green Zionist Alliance  (photo credit: FLASH90)
ALON TAL is an Israeli environmental activist, co-founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Green Zionist Alliance (photo credit: FLASH90)

The newly installed Israeli leadership may not be as ineffective as pundits predict. While, unfortunately, negotiations for an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement will likely remain on hold, Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure from the prime minister’s office may be the best opportunity in decades for Israelis to take action for environmental sustainability. 

It’s said that the new ruling coalition that includes parties from the Right as well as from the Left has only one shared value: the restoration of Israel’s liberal democracy through the ousting of the authoritarian-leaning Netanyahu. Yes, the new ruling coalition likely will refrain from divisive issues such as the peace process and the religious-secular divide. However, a new member of Knesset may be well positioned to help coalition members realize that they have more in common than their disdain for Netanyahu.

That new Knesset member who may be a game changer? Prof. Alon Tal, the chair of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University. Widely considered Israel’s leading environmentalist, Tal joined Knesset on Wednesday as part of the agreement that ousted Netanyahu. Following Yael Cohen Paran’s tenure in Knesset from 2015-2019, Tal is only the second leader with roots in Israel’s Green Party – a group he cofounded – to join the Knesset.  Read More Related Articles

No matter how divided Israelis may be politically, all breathe the same air, drink the same water and eat food grown from the same ground. The threat of climate change affects all, regardless of politics. That may seem elementary, but environmental issues tend nonetheless to be given short shrift in Israeli politics in favor of addressing the matzav (the “situation,” e.g. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Tal can offer his fellow coalition members in Knesset something apolitical upon which they can agree: environmental stewardship and mitigating climate change.

ISRAEL IS particularly vulnerable to climate change’s effects, large and small – from increased temperatures, drought, flooding and wildfire to increased illness from heat-loving water-borne bacteria. Globally, pollution – primarily from the burning of fossil fuels driving climate change – is the leading cause of premature death. In Israel, it is estimated that between 1,609 and 2,452 Israelis die annually from the inhalation of airborne particles 2.5 micrometers and smaller, many times the number who die annually from homicides or car accidents, and far more than the number who die from wars or terrorism. Almost as many Israelis die annually from air pollution than have died from wars and terrorism in all of the years combined since the country’s establishment in 1948. Wars and terrorism certainly are important issues; pollution is more deadly. 

The ongoing political conflict – both with Palestinians as well as internally with Netanyahu – has hindered politicians and the public from seeing and addressing the more dangerous environmental and climate crisis that negatively affects everyone, regardless of stances on Palestinians or Netanyahu. 

I’ve spent the past dozen years teaching about and advocating for sustainability in Israel as the head of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, an all-volunteer nonprofit that I cofounded during the Second Intifada along with a score of other Jewish environmentalists led by Rabbi Michael Cohen, Dr. Eilon Schwartz, and Tal, who serves on Aytzim’s board. Since we founded Aytzim, Israel has made great strides on some environmental issues, thanks in part to the work of new Israeli nonprofits, many of which have been founded or cofounded by Tal, but significant environmental problems remain.

For instance, reliable and fast trains now connect urban centers and Jerusalem has a light-rail line with two more lines planned while Tel Aviv is building three light-rail lines while planning a subway as well, but development pressures continue threatening Israel’s limited remaining open space. The Jerusalem Forest is threatened by new roads and new neighborhoods. The draining of limited fresh-water supplies has been stabilized (more or less) with a massive influx of desalination plants, but at the cost of brine pollution into the Mediterranean and drastic increases in electric demand — and too much water is still taken from the Sea of Galilee, leading to the downstream Dead Sea steadily disappearing. Indeed, the increase in supply from desalination may actually be hurting water-conservation efforts by encouraging more consumption. 

THANKS IN part to the efforts of solar advocates like Cohen Paran, founder of the Israel Energy Forum, and Yosef Abramowitz, the solar entrepreneur and activist nicknamed Captain Sunshine, in the last decade solar-energy production has gone from less than a half of a percent of electricity generation to 8.7% but remains far off from the government’s already modest goal of 20 % of electricity production from solar by 2025. Israel’s carbon emissions also have stabilized (again, more or less), but a too-slow transition to renewable energy combined with the need to power desalination plants and the increasing energy demand from steady population growth keeps the country from achieving sizable emissions reductions. Pollution remains a top cause of premature death and failure to address these environmental problems harms both Israelis and Palestinians. It can be difficult to stand out among the Knesset’s 120 members.

What, if anything, can a sole green voice like Tal be expected to accomplish? With hot-button issues like the matzav off the legislative agenda in order to maintain the coalition’s coalescence, there is a rare opportunity for too-often ignored issues such as the environment and climate change to receive significant legislative attention. By setting aside their ideological political differences to save democracy, Israel’s new ruling coalition may finally be able to tackle climate change, perhaps the greatest challenge facing Israel as well as all of humanity. 

The ever-divisive Netanyahu may have not just inadvertently united both the Left and the Right against him, but also unintentionally united and primed them for climate and environmental action. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians may remain far away, but the potential for climate and environmental action (along with a return to democratic norms) at least offers a bright spot for those of us who care about sustainability and the Jewish homeland

The writer is the president of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, an all-volunteer nonprofit with five projects, including the Green Zionist Alliance and