[Editor’s note: The article explains how pro-settlement appointments by the government to planning institutions severely limit environment protection.]

Several of the steps advanced by the government in recent weeks would expand the control of pro-development representatives in planning institutions, while privatizing the operations of agencies that could implement checks and balances.

A demonstration against house demolitions in Be'er Sheva.
A demonstration against house demolitions in Be'er Sheva.
A demonstration against house demolitions in Be’er Sheva.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Zafrir Rinat Mar 14, 2023

Israel’s new government excels at ignoring checks and balances across the board, and urban planning, which determines facts on the ground, is no exception. The government has been pushing several initiatives in recent weeks that would expand the control of pro-development representatives across the country’s various planning authorities, while also privatizing the agencies capable of checking them.

Over the past two weeks, the government is promoting changes to the Planning and Building Law which would place representatives from two ministries on key planning boards, notably the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry and the National Missions Ministry (formerly known as the settlement ministry). The two ministries are focused on development, construction and settlement by nature. The planning principles held and cherished by National Missions Minister Orit Strock are those prevailing in the West Bank – a far cry from appropriate, thought-out development.

Adding a representative of Strock’s ministry to the planning boards, stipulated in coalition agreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, illustrates right-wing settlers in the West Bank’s oft-ignored strategy: to expand their impact on the planning of geographic spaces, with the clear goal being to establish spaces intended for Jews. While urban planning is not the stuff of protests, it is the most effective way to determine facts on the ground through seemingly benign administrative decisions that in reality amount to land grabs.

It’s likely that the representatives of both ministries will use the planning boards to promote new areas to build new settlements; in most cases, for Jews only. In recent decades, the planning institutions have generally refrained from establishing new settlements in order to optimize already settled land, while avoiding the headache of investing in the development of infrastructure that would intrude on undeveloped land.

Meanwhile, a move is being advanced to use the Economic Arrangements Bill, legislation supplementary to the state budget, to cancel the status of Environmental Protection Ministry representatives as advisers on planning committees, replacing them with private-sector advisers to be appointed by the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration – another move in a long effort to gut the environment ministry.

Historically, Israel’s planning system has been centralized, and based on a hierarchy with national planning institutions on top. It’s a system operating in a country where most of the land is state-owned. Thus, the government can plan land usage and ensure its approval in the planning bodies.

Government ministry representatives already enjoy broad representation in most of these bodies, allowing the government to advance plans without meaningful public or professional opposition. At the National Planning and Building Council, most plans are only brought to a vote after a majority has been prearranged.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv, Israel February 4, 2023.
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv, Israel February 4, 2023.

Despite this centralized reality, the country’s planning bodies have maintained a degree of professional independence, aided by the addition to planning committees of representatives from environmental, professional, and social organizations. There are also some government ministries that are more critical of development plans that come at the expense of the environment or public health, including the environmental protection and health ministries.

Oil spill at Evrona Nature Reserve
Oil spill at Evrona Nature ReserveCredit: Environmental Protection Ministry

The Planning Administration representatives on the planning boards are in many cases people with a background in actual planning, and are responsive to some of the environmental and health objections. Some of these have been eroded in recent years following the establishment of even more centralized planning boards with especially broad powers. The Environmental Protection Ministry and some members of the National Planning and Building Council suggested that alongside the new representatives from the two ministries, representatives of environmental and civil entities be added as well, but the proposal has yet to be met with any response.

MK Orit Strock at a cabinet meeting in December, 2022.
MK Orit Strock at a cabinet meeting in December, 2022.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to environmental planner Moti Kaplan, “The proposed changes create a situation where the government, which votes as one homogenous body, will grow even stronger against quintessentially public interests: Response to social needs, infrastructure hookups, prevention of land waste, decisions on the location of national infrastructure projects, restoration of environmentally damage areas, and so on. The main victims will be nature and undeveloped spaces, which are disappearing at an alarming rate. The climate crisis we are facing, and the expected harm to our environmental and ecological resilience, will only escalate the threat.”