With many of the country’s ‘green’ lawmakers leaving politics or the Knesset, Israel appears to be moving backwards on environmental legislation

People take part in a protest against climate change in Tel Aviv, last week
People take part in a protest against climate change in Tel Aviv in 2021.

Lee Yaron Sep 8, 2022

Environmentalists have brought about significant change across the world in recent years. They have made great strides in Germany, while in the United States they have penetrated deep into the ruling party, with a president raising the banner of climate issues.

In Israel there is an opposite trend, even though previous Knesset terms did see the passage of several significant environmental laws. In recent years, several prominent lawmakers devoted to these issues have retired, with none slated to join the next Knesset. Environment organizations are worried that despite the climate crisis, the next Knesset will be “black” instead of “green.”

The 17th Knesset (2006-09) passed three important laws to reduce air pollution, increase penalties for offenders and protect the shores of Lake Kinneret. These were spearheaded by MKs Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Michael Melchior (the now-defunct Meimad party), two lawmakers who were at the forefront of addressing environmental concerns over many terms. With them in the 18th Knesset was rookie lawmaker Nitzan Horowitz, fighting to save the Dead Sea.

In the 19th Knesset, freshman legislator Tamar Zandberg, who is currently the environmental protection minister, began to advocate for sustainable transportation, expansion of the country’s bicycle paths and the widening of sidewalks. In the 20th Knesset, the co-chair of the Green Movement, environmentalist Yael Cohen Paran, entered the Knesset as a lawmaker for the Zionist Union, advancing legislation to prohibit the shipment to Israel of live animals for slaughter. Rachel Azaria, now the CEO of an environmentalist group, represented Kulanu in the Knesset. In the 21st Knesset, new lawmaker Miki Haimovich (Kahol Lavan) called for the declaration in Israel of a climate crisis.

Over the past three years Khenin, Haimovich, Cohen Paran and Azaria have all left. In addition, the few lawmakers showing interest in the environment are also disappearing. Zandberg will not run in the November 1 election, and it appears that environmental activist and Alon Tal (Kahol Lavan) will also not be returning. Regardless of the final results, such voices will be significantly weakened in the next legislature.

Prof. Alon Tal, of Tel Aviv University’s public policy department.
Prof. Alon Tal, of Tel Aviv University’s public policy department.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

An expression of this was evident a few days ago, with the presentation of the list of candidates of the new National Unity Party. Tal, who entered the Knesset a year ago, with a long record of environmental activism under his belt, is No. 24 on the slate of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s new party, meaning he is unlikely to win reelection.

Last representative

Activists who were at the ceremony expressed their anger at party leaders, who have expressed concerns over the climate crisis in the past. They saw Tal as their last representative in the Knesset. Some activists tried to disrupt Gantz’s speech, calling on him not to abandon “climate security.”

“Gantz has to get a grip immediately,” said Amit Bracha, the executive director of the environmental organization Adam, Teva V’Din, formerly the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “It’s unacceptable for someone seeking to be prime minister, who has committed to address the existential climate crisis as the highest priority, to place a Knesset member who’s responsible for all the party’s initiatives in the last year in an unrealistic spot.”

Israel's Green Party in Tel Aviv during the 2013 elections.
Israel’s Green Party in Tel Aviv during the 2013 elections.Credit: No credit

Vote Green, a nonpartisan civil society organization, has launched a campaign calling on people not to vote for the National Unity Party, citing what it calls its “contempt for the strategic threat facing Israel due to climate change.” According to Maya Jacobs, one of the initiative’s leaders, “this party is replete with former generals who ignore the biggest strategic threat to Israel’s security and strength.”

The group sent letters to all party leaders, calling on them to put climate issues on their agenda. They asked Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu to use one of the guaranteed spots he has for appointing candidates to placing an environment-minded person in one of them, after Gila Gamliel, a former environmental protection minister, was relegated to the 30th spot on the party’s slate.

The same question marks beset Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s party. Sources in Yesh Atid say they don’t yet know where the party’s only environmental lawmaker, MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzanu, will be placed, and environmentalists worry that he won’t make the cut. Lahav-Hertzanu heads the Knesset Caucus for Sustainability, Environmental Protection and Resources During the Climate Crisis and has advanced legislation in these matters, including bills to raise the fee charged for plastic bags in supermarkets and to require annual reports on biological diversity.

Former MK Haimovich says that with Zandberg’s departure and Tal’s relegation, a huge gap is forming. “This should worry every citizen, not only those involved in these issues. This proves that senior politicians have not internalized the issue’s importance and impact on every aspect of our lives.”

One MK who will deal with the issue is Mossi Raz (Meretz), who co-chairs the environmental caucus. Naama Lazimi, No. 2 on the Labor Party slate, is known for her work to protect the Haifa Bay area and often expresses concern for climate issues. Others pin their hopes on Gamliel, despite her low position on the slate.

“It’s worrying; many ‘green’ MKs have left with not enough new blood,” says Khenin. “We expect there to be many more environment minded MKs today. Instead of advancing with the rest of the world, we’re moving backward.”