Coalition whip Idit Silman was a surprise choice for the job, but one that Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers may be particularly comfortable with’

Lee Yaron Jan 2, 2023

To the surprise of many, the Likud Knesset member who was appointed environmental protection minister wasn’t Gila Gamliel, who had served in the position in the past, but Idit Silman, who defected to Likud and was best known for contributing to the fall of the prior Bennett-Lapid government.

Silman’s experience with environmental issues mainly consists of her work while in the military as a teacher at the Society for the Protection of Nature and her membership in the Knesset’s environmental caucus. While she has achievements to her credit as chairwoman of the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, people who know her have called her environmental positions outdated and say they fail to address the challenges posed by global warming.

Two days before incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distributed cabinet posts last week to members of his own Likud party, his associates conveyed the impression that the environment portfolio would go to Gamliel, who would have appeared to be a natural choice. She had expressed a desire to return to the position and no one else had asked for it. Sources provide a variety of explanations as to why Silman ultimately got the job.

According to one version, lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox coalition partner United Torah Judaism asked Netanyahu not to appoint Gamliel due to differences with her during her stint in the position, when she pushed to apply the bottle deposit law to large beverage bottles. Because ultra-Orthodox families are generally large, they tend to use more large beverage bottles and disposable plastic utensils. The new government intends to repeal a tax on disposable utensils, which was passed to discourage their use. The United Torah Judaism lawmakers sought to have an environment minister appointed who would not only look after the environment but also to their community.

Gila Gamliel at the Knesset last week. She had been thought to be the leading candidate for environment minister.
Gila Gamliel at the Knesset last week. She had been thought to be the leading candidate for environment minister. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We have opposed Gamliel’s policy and wouldn’t have wanted to see her in the ministry. We won’t comment on whether we expressed this to Netanyahu,” one UTJ source told Haaretz. But other sources said Netanyahu wanted to ensure that the ministry would be headed by someone who would toe his line on policy regarding natural gas production.

When it comes to climate change, methane, which contributes 84 times as much to global warming as carbon dioxide, is released in the production and transportation of natural gas. Recently the Environmental Protection Ministry reported that Israel’s natural gas infrastructure is responsible for 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Netanyahu would be more comfortable with Silman on this score, sources said. “Will Silman advance enforcement against powerful polluting factories? It appears that Netanyahu thought he could find more common ground with her than with Gamliel,” one senior government source remarked. “Silman doesn’t really care about the environment. It’s a consolation portfolio that doesn’t sufficiently interest her,” said one Knesset source who claimed that he had unsuccessfully tried to interest her in environmental action.

Clues from a social media post

Silman refused to be interviewed or to comment on this article, but her perception of the job can be gleaned from her tweet following her appointment as environment minister.

“This is a position that entails major responsibility for the health of all Israeli citizens and their quality of life. Many passages in our scriptures mention the duty to protect and defend the environment. Sustainability isn’t just a figure of speech in the new era. It’s an inseparable part of our culture, and that’s why we’re committed to keeping our country safe, clean and protected.”

Many people who worked with Silman on the Knesset Health Committee said she is capable of advancing courageous steps and obtaining considerable funding.

“I’ve worked with many committee chairpersons and have never seen anyone like Idit Silman,” one said. “She was familiar in great detail with the provisions of hospital budgets [and the employment] conditions of medical residents – things nobody understands anything about.” Another source who worked with her at the Knesset called her “sharp” and “full of energy” and remarked that she worked “into the wee hours to get everything she wanted done. She has a combination of ambition and a keen understanding.”

Under Silman’s chairmanship, the Health Committee secured hundreds of millions of shekels in additional funding for hospitals, for new medical equipment for outlying areas and for the mental health system, including additional beds in psychiatric wards.

In July 2021, Silman hosted the first meeting of the Knesset environmental caucus at her office and cosponsored several environmental bills, but she introduced no bills of her own on the subject.

“She purportedly has a commitment to the environment, but it’s just words with no action,” one person who worked with her at the Knesset claimed. Silman was coalition whip in the last Knesset, but the source said “people had to chase after her” for her help with environmental legislation. “She likes to say that she’s ‘green,’ but it’s not at the top of her priorities.”

Israel's offshore Mediterranean Karish natural gas drilling site.
Israel’s offshore Mediterranean Karish natural gas drilling site .Credit: Israel Fisher

On the other hand, close associates of Silman noted that when she headed the Health Committee, she agreed to form a subcommittee on climate and public health. A review of the record reveals that she only attended one of 12 subcommittee meetings. When she announced the creation of the subcommittee, which was headed by Kahol Lavan Knesset member Alon Tal, Silman spoke of the repeated interconnection between the environment and public health – “of air pollution, improper treatment of wastewater, of burial of waste, land contamination, etc.”

Idit Silman chairing the Knesset's Labor, Welfare and Health Committee last year.
Idit Silman chairing the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee last year .Credit: Knesset Spokesperson’s Office/Danny Shem Tov

She didn’t mention that the World Health Organization has declared the climate crisis the largest threat to human health, and it’s difficult to find public statements by Silman on the climate crisis and the need to reduce greenhouse emissions. People who have spoken to her about the environment said her concern is focused on the protection of nature.

“She belongs to the old generation of environmental discourse, which doesn’t place an emphasis on the scientific data on the crisis but instead talks about the connection between human beings and nature,” said one Knesset member who worked with her. “She’s not a climate denier. Once she gets into the ministry and studies the subject, she will understand that neither health nor the environment can be dealt with without fighting the climate crisis.”

At a handover ceremony on Monday at the Environment Ministry, outgoing minister Tamar Zandberg said, “It’s no secret that the incoming government greatly concerns me. Dealing with environmental crises requires a strong judicial system and free communication.” Zandberg made special mention of the reported decision by the new finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, to seek to repeal the tax on disposable plastic utensils. For her part, Silman promised to work to strengthen the Environment Ministry.

Silman’s big test will be her ability to implement the ambitious environmental policy guidelines to which the new Netanyahu government has committed – and which are more substantial than those of the Bennett-Lapid government. Silman’s goals include the passage of a stronger climate law than one that was introduced but not passed by the prior Knesset.

According to an Environment Ministry environmental impact index, six of the 10 companies in Israel with the highest environmental risk potential are owned by the Israel Corporation or the ICL Group – or Bazan oil refineries or the Tel Aviv-area Shafdan wastewater treatment facilities. These companies are perennially listed as the most dangerous to public health, but nothing is being done to deter them.

Another test for Silman will be securing approval for plans to increase Israel’s sources of renewable energy and shutting down coal-fueled power plants. In addition, within three months, she will have to develop a plan to clear Haifa Bay of polluting industry, including a target date and funding – something the Bennett-Lapid government failed to do.

With reporting by Zafrir Rinat.