Nine governments and 15 ministers have come and gone during the career of Galit Cohen in the Environmental Protection Ministry, but she has never left – but she has never been so worried about future before

Former director general of Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry, Galit Cohen, this week.
Former director general of Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry, Galit Cohen, this week. Credit: Emil Salman

Lee Yaron

Apr 12, 2023

Three months after announcing her retirement from the job of director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Galit Cohen is looking at the new government’s steps with concern.

In her 22 years in public service, Cohen participated in formulating numerous plans and decisions in order to protect the environment. Now, she sees government ministers setting back her achievements, and expresses a real fear of the effect of these activities on public health and nature in Israel.

Along with the plan to weaken the legal system, the ministers of the new government have also adopted significant anti-environmental and anti-climate change steps. Within a week from the moment the government was sworn in, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich had already announced the cancellation of the tax on disposable dishes and cutlery – one of the principal achievements of Cohen and the previous Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg, after years of professional staff work on the issue.

The new government has already dealt what may turn out to be a mortal blow to Israel’s Clean Air Law, which many people see as the most important of the country’s environmental laws, and gave its seal of approval to increasing the air pollution which already now causes the death of about 2,500 Israelis each year by approving a change that will enable power stations to emit polluting substances without restriction.

A demonstration against the government's judicial overhaul in January, 2023.
A demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul in January, 2023. Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

The ability of the Environmental Protection Ministry to take steps against polluters is also in danger. In the coalition agreements between Otzma Yehudit and Likud, it was agreed that the Green Police, the ministry’s only enforcement power against polluters, would be transferred to the responsibility of party chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir in the National Security Ministry, and it may be used as a policing force against the Bedouin population. While the clause has yet to be implemented, its future arouses concern.

In January, when Cohen had just retired, things looked somewhat more optimistic. New minister Idit Silman parted from her with warm words: “Galit is a devoted, professional public servant, who has led the ministry to impressive achievements.” Silman even promised that she would continue to work with the professional team in the ministry, “in order to bring about shared successes for the sake of public health and the environment in Israel. There are many challenges awaiting us, and together we will take action and succeed.”

Silman and the other ministers really did take action, and succeeded too, but it was not enough. “This is the biggest assault I’ve seen on the Environmental Protection Ministry in all my years in the public sector. I’ve very worried,” Cohen says in an interview with Haaretz. “I see a targeted assassination of the environmental and climate tools and a real danger of an unprecedented weakening of the ministry. It’s very disturbing.”

Cohen says she fears the future awaiting the residents of the southern city of Sderot, like her parents, in a situation in which the government does not prepare for an intensification of floods and fires, and the rising sea level. “The periphery in Israel will suffer most from the climate crisis. The citizens in the weaker local governments will pay the price,” she says.

Flooding in Herzliya in 2020. 'There will be terrible flooding and flash floods in winter. Even today, Ashkelon is flooded almost every year.'
Flooding in Herzliya in 2020. ‘There will be terrible flooding and flash floods in winter. Even today, Ashkelon is flooded almost every year.’

The problem, explains Cohen, isn’t the fact that the present government has succeeded within a few months in setting the environmental battle in Israel back decades. “It’s worse. You aren’t going backwards – you’re erasing basic tools that will be hard to rehabilitate. To implement the present proposals means to seriously weaken the ministry and to empty it of content,” she says.

“If power stations emit pollutants into the air in violation of permits and under protection of the law, that’s a crazy precedent that will seriously harm people in [the coastal cities of] Hadera, Ashdod and Ashkelon. The Green Police is the main means of enforcement of the Environmental Protection Ministry, without it there’s no deterrence against polluters. Unfortunately, the order of priorities is influenced by many unrelated considerations, long before the simple consideration of the health of the public and the environment.”

Time is running out

Project manager for the peace agreements between Syria and Israel – that was Cohen’s first job at the Environmental Protection Ministry, in July 2000, when it was still called the Ministry for Environmental Quality. Global warming was 0.8 degrees centigrade at the time, and the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gases had just been signed. Cohen was supposed to handle all the environmental aspects of the Syrian-Israel agreement many people were hoping would be signed, at a time when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Chairman of the Palestine Authority Yasser Arafat were negotiating at Camp David.

In the over 20 years that have passed since, peace with Syria has not been achieved, greenhouse gas emissions have steadily increased and the global temperature has continued to climb. Cohen was present at all the crossroads: at the UN Climate Change conferences which failed one after another, and at the discussions in the government ministries which continued, for the most part, to ignore the subject in spite of the warnings of scientists.

She observed nine different governments and 15 different ministers in charge of the environmental ministry – from Dalia Itzik and Tzachi Hanegbi, to Gilad Erdan, Amir Peretz, Benjamin Netanyahu and Gila Gamliel – and up to Tamar Zandberg, during whose tenure she was appointed director general.
Along with leading the taxation on disposal dishes, Cohen, 54, is known as the director general who placed the climate crisis at the center of the ministry’s agenda, in her opposition to the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline agreement (which was supposed to increase the number of oil tankers in the Eilat and Ashkelon ports) and to Israel’s reliance on natural gas.

A stall selling single-use utensils in a Jerusalem market in January, 2023. Annulling the law is 'a step against the weakest members of society," Cohen says.
A stall selling single-use utensils in a Jerusalem market in January, 2023. Annulling the law is ‘a step against the weakest members of society,” Cohen says.

Her critics claim that she placed too much emphasis on the subject of climate and failed at leading the ministry’s handling of one of the most urgent environmental problems – implementation of a national plan for waste treatment. But in the environmental movement there’s a consensus about her contribution. “Cohen is very professional, with a broad and correct picture of the situation, her departure is a great loss for the ministry,” says one of the heads of the movement in recent decades. Another adds: “Even when we had disagreements, she was committed and created cross-sector cooperative efforts. The environmental issue was always in her sights.”

Let’s start from the end. Why did you resign?

“Minister Silman and I don’t know each other. We had a discussion, she wanted to take a few days to decide who would be her director general, and that’s legitimate. In the end, when I examined the situation, I decided that it’s right for me to leave to examine new avenues.”

But two months earlier, when we met at the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, there were so many plans that you wanted to advance, the Climate Law that you wanted to pass at all costs.

“A new government was appointed, and I realized that it wasn’t going to prioritize the environmental issue, and I thought that if that’s the case, maybe this is a good time to start influencing from the outside.”

In place of Cohen, Silman appointed Guy Samet as director general. He was formerly in charge of oil and gas in the Energy Ministry, and also served as the acting director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry under Minister Ze’ev Elkin. Many environmental sources expressed their fear to Haaretz of having someone who was in charge of polluting fossil fuels assume the position. Cohen herself didn’t want to discuss his appointment.

Were you afraid that a failure would be blamed on you?

“I was quite depressed. It’s not connected to me personally. When I returned, I felt that governments, not only in Israel, weren’t making the courageous decisions that they should. I thought to myself, who will do it? Time is running out.”

You’ve been a public servant all your life. Have you lost your faith in the ability of governments to change things?

“I haven’t lost faith in the abilities of the public sector, but I realized that a government alone isn’t enough.”

So who instead? Cohen mentions the Global Risks Report issued by the World Economic Forum in January, according to which the risk posed by climate and environmental changes are the most severe in the world for the coming decade, but we are actually the least prepared for them. One of the encouraging steps as far as Cohen is concerned, is the awakening of the business and financial sectors around the world in recent years. “Many companies heed the warnings and act in a concrete manner to reaching zero emissions. They understand the dangers – and also the opportunities,” said Cohen.

“But unfortunately, the financial sector in Israel is very far behind the [rest of the] world. I met with investment houses, banks and advisers, and was surprised to find that while regulation around the world is progressing, the Israeli financial sector is almost in denial. They are making ESG [environmental, social and governance] reports, but aren’t really taking into account the climate risks in the decision making process in investments. There is an understanding that it’s just about to arrive, but they are waiting for regulation to obligate them,” she added.

So politics is waiting for economics and economics is waiting for politics, and the climate isn’t waiting for anyone.

“Political decision making processes are focused on dealing with what’s burning now. We usually like to continue to do what we have already done, but that’s not always what’s needed. We must change our path and prepare for the unavoidable future, certainly in Israel. We are making a mistake we’ll pay for.”

The government coalition agreements speak about passing a climate law that will be twice as ambitious as the one the ministry led during your time.

“I very much hope that it will happen and wish them great success, but from my experience, and to my regret, I’m also very skeptical.”

Do you think it’s just paying lip service?

“If they really intend on passing the law to reduce emissions by 50 percent, as the rest of the Western countries and like the scientists from the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ] are demanding – and I wish minister Silman that she succeeds in this – then the means to enable this must be found in the Economic Arrangements Law, and not the opposite. But regretfully, the Economic Arrangements Law in its present form, not only neuters the ministry’s environmental [protection] means, but also the tools to fight against the climate crisis and for reducing emissions. It doesn’t work together.”

Do you mainly mean the amendment that will enable bypassing the clean air law and to continue to operate power plants without restrictions?

“Yes. These are the highest sources of pollution and emissions in Israel. If you intend on continuing to operate them without taking into consideration the permits – the fact is, there won’t be a reduction of emissions. To fight the climate crisis, Israel needs to do much, much more. Today we aren’t meeting the targets, we are barely scratching the surface of the goal that Israel was supposed to reach back in 2020, of 10 percent renewable energies.”

Divers collecting plastics from the Red Sea in 2018.
Divers collecting plastics from the Red Sea in 2018. Credit: AP Photo/ Thomas Hartwell

Officials in the Environmental Protection Ministry do not deny how deep the damage has been to the ministry. When the aforementioned steps were approved, the ministry issued an official statement, in which it warned that for the first time in Israel, Noga – The Israel Independent System Operator company that manages the electricity supply system – will be allowed to operate the most polluting power plants in opposition to the position of professional bodies. Minister Silman said: “Air pollution from old power stations, which operate without the appropriate [pollution] reduction means, harms public health and raises mortality rates.”

The Clean Air Law imposes critical limitations on operating power plants in Israel – some of which operate on especially high polluting technologies which have been banned in the European Union. In a meeting at the Ministerial Committee on Legislation it was agreed that the law would not advance before agreements were reached between the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Finance ministry, but in practice the committee approved the advancing of the amendment without honoring the agreement. Specifically, the treasury refused to allow the Environmental Protection Ministry to impose sanctions on the system manager in cases in which it caused severe air pollution not in order to prevent a blackout.

Air conditioners won’t save us

In the past few months, Haaretz has reported that hundreds of scientists and legal experts have warned against the steps the Netanyahu government is taking to weaken the legal system. These steps will harm in an unprecedented fashion the protection for the environment and the climate crisis, and dozens of environmental organizations have warned of the clear danger to preserving public health.

Pollution flowing onto a Tel Aviv beach in January, 2023.
Pollution flowing onto a Tel Aviv beach in January, 2023. Credit: Motti Milrod

Around the world, and for example in France and Germany, the courts have obligated the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their rulings, and Israeli scientists fear the Climate Law, as ambitious as it may be, will become worthless without the courts to ensure its enforcement. Cohen shares this fear.

“We must not increase the power of the government over other bodies, certainly not the courts, and especially not in the environmental world. Such a concentration of power in one place is never right. Wisdom doesn’t reside in only one place, and I can testify to so many times in which the government planning institutions made decisions in opposition to the public and environmental interest, and the court overturned them. I will say it clearly: The courts are no less critical to protecting the public’s rights and environmental rights.”

Cohen wants to emphasize that this is not just in the case of clear environmental court rulings. “Even when the court does not intervene, the very fact that the government ministries know the decisions need to meet the court’s test of reasonableness, causes the government’s work to be more reasoned and comprehensive. If the reasonableness clause is eliminated, less well-founded decisions may well be made, less balanced toward the citizens. A strong Knesset is important too, for the same reason. We need to preserve the three independent and strong branches of government,” said Cohen.

So democracy is necessary to handle the climate crisis?

“Democracy is essential. The climate crisis is close to a turning point. We are trying to do everything in order not to reach a rise of 1.5 degrees [Celsius]. When it blows up, everyone will understand what we warned about, but then it will be too late.”

Incoming director general Guy Sammet.
Incoming director general Guy Sammet. Credit: Ministry of Environmental Protection

Are you worried about the future of the next generation, for your daughters?

“It seems my daughters will be part of the population that will be harmed less. The climate crisis strengthens social inequity and inequality, so the stronger groups, who are actually the ones who contribute more to it, will be harmed less, and those who will suffer are the needier populations. It pains me to think about where I came from, Sderot. My parents are there. The entire southern region will find it very hard to deal with it if Israel does not prepare properly.”

Why is it a bigger problem for Sderot than Tel Aviv?

“There will be heat waves of 50 degrees [122 degrees Fahrenheit] in the summer and in a lot of places it will be hard to move around outside. In the winter there will be harsh floods and flooding. Today already Ashkelon is flooded almost every winter. It will happen in all of Israel, which will also heat up by at least 4 degrees, but the stronger and richer local governments have more options to deal with it, for example by improving infrastructure and shade, [while] there are local governments that are less capable.”

What do you say in response to those who say it’s always hot in Israel, and at very worst we’ll turn up the air conditioner?

“That they’re wrong. The climate phenomena will be so extreme that air conditioners won’t save us. Our road infrastructure could well be damaged, and strategic defense facilities. The preparation needs to happen now. There’s no time to wait for after the disasters,” she said.

What do you think is the main cause for the delay in preparations?

“The Budgets Division in the Finance Ministry is the biggest problem. They are unequivocally blocking Israel’s ability to deal with the climate crisis. They are refusing to see reality. They have opposed time after time the Climate Law, because its implementation will require investing money. This is short term thinking at the expense of the long term.”

Give me an example.

“Let’s assume that I want to build solar facilities and produce more renewable energy. In the Budgets Division they’ll say that I will necessarily have to invest more money to build them. But it’s not true. Because when we generate energy from [natural] gas, we don’t really price it at its real cost, we don’t take into account what we paid for the security and for the Navy to guard the gas platforms. If the treasury would calculate the accompanying expenses – gas would not look so cheap to them as they claim today. And in the long term, producing renewable energy within the cities, where they also consume it – reduces costs. In the [case of the] Climate Law, the one who voted in favor in the end was Finance minister [Avigdor] Lieberman himself. Otherwise, the Budgets Division wouldn’t have approved [it].”

Why do you think the treasury operates that way?

“I don’t know. I just know that when they leave the Finance ministry, they work in companies of the future economy, of green growth. But when they are in the [Budgets] Division, they are in the economy of the past. They see very large investments in front of their eyes and say: ‘Why should we pay now? We’ll let others develop the technologies, to make the expensive first investments, and come when it will be cheaper.’ I think that’s a mistake, because we are losing all the business opportunities and all the start ups that can arise. Naftali Bennett, for example, understood this immediately.”

But it’s not just a matter of money. Even today, hundreds of people are dying from air pollution in Israel, and dozens are dying from heat waves. The Finance Ministry knows this too. What are they telling you?

A fire in the Jerusalem Hills in 2021.
A fire in the Jerusalem Hills in 2021. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“That these are very large investments that it is not right for the State of Israel to take now, and it’s worth waiting. A lot of times, the [Environmental Protection] ministry is seen inside the government as the opposition on this issue. It’s as if we’re stopping them. We tried to tell them, what is this nonsense? Israel doesn’t need to invest in this? After all, Israel will need to deal with the consequences of climate change, we can’t expect for the entire world to do it for us and we’ll watch from the side and harvest the fruits,” said Cohen.

Another factor that is delaying Israel’s handling of the climate crisis is the discovery of natural gas, said Cohen. “We produce a lot of money from it, and there’s a feeling of security because we have gas – so the view is that we don’t need to invest too much renewable energy now. This is a mistake. We must understand – not today, but yesterday – that [natural] gas is the energy of the past. It will be here with us for a decade, but if we don’t take advantage of this decade to prepare for the day after, we will pay a heavy price. The regulation in the world will become stricter and the production will be more and more expensive. By then, Israel would want to be at a different place.”

Finance Minister Smotrich revoked the tax on disposables, which you fought to pass and that succeeded in significantly reducing the consumption of plastic. What did you think about it?

“It’s sad on a number of levels. In addition to the fact that it is sending us backwards, in the opposite direction from the rest of the world, the link the government made between this tax and the Haredi community is sad, as if we wanted to hurt them. The opposite is true – canceling the tax actually hurts the weaker groups, because those who use disposable utensils every day put hazardous materials into themselves that are released by these utensils into the body. Canceling the tax is not just an anti-environmental step, it’s a step against the public, and more than anything against the weaker part of the public.”

Nonetheless, it wasn’t seen as a step on behalf of public health and aroused a huge amount of opposition. What do you think you did wrong?

“Maybe the mistake was that we didn’t include support for large families, where it’s a very large burden in terms of home maintenance. To help in buying dishwashers or other aid in a transition period. Maybe things would have looked differently.”

Damaged coral reefs in Red Sea in 2014.
Damaged coral reefs in Red Sea in 2014. Credit: Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Your successor in the job and Minister Silman met for three and a half hours with a group of climate change deniers. Should that worry us?

“Israel doesn’t need to get into the denial stories. It has been proven beyond any doubt that climate change is happening, and it is the result of human activity. There is no room to open the question, we’ve wasted enough time.”

As director general, would you have met with climate change deniers?


Minister of Environmental Protection Idit Silman.
Minister of Environmental Protection Idit Silman. Credit: The Knesset

Israel is not prepared for the climate damage that it’s too late to prevent, and the government ministries don’t have a plan for preparations, in spite of two cabinet decisions that required the preparation of such a plan and a harsh report from the State Comptroller that warned about the lack of preparation. Why?

“Over the last year and a half, a revolution has begun in all government ministries [regarding climate change], and there’s a much greater understanding and preparation, especially in the defense establishment. The Health Ministry has also started to work. But I admit that over the years it was very hard to bring the government ministries to the table.”

What needs to be done differently for us to be ready, so cabinet resolutions will not melt away when the disaster is already knocking at the door?

“There needs to be obligatory climate legislation. So every government ministry realizes that they have to prepare. Cabinet decisions are easier to change and cancel, the law has a different status.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry made mistakes too.

“True, we’ve needed to promote legislation for a long time, not to make do with just cabinet resolutions. When Gilad Erdan received the ministry in 2009, he understood the [importance of the issue] and managed to pass a decision to invest billions of shekels in reducing emissions. But then there were elections, and a minute after them they canceled the decision and all the budgets.”

Was this a strategic moment we missed out on?

“Totally. If we would have done the climate legislation at the time and committed to reducing emissions, we would be somewhere else today.”

Only a few of the ministers that led the Environmental Protection Ministry during Cohen’s career dealt with the climate crisis. “Not all the ministers saw the climate issue as an important matter the ministry had to deal with,” she said cautiously, but she also refuses to name any names. “None of them allowed themselves to say ‘it’s not interesting,’ but until 2009, almost no one was involved in it, it was handled in a very minor way. We wasted years and missed out on all the opportunities to lead in this field. Now we need to get a hold on ourselves and run forward.”

The defense establishment is one of the first to treat preparation for the climate crisis seriously, and last month it issued a reference scenario for heat waves. Why do you think they are taking the issue more seriously there than in the Finance Ministry?

“In the Budgets Division, they usually think in the short term. It’s not pleasant for me say that. In the defense establishment, they realized that we need to relate to a certain extent to the climate crisis as a security risk, to put it into the map of threats against Israel. The decision by the National Security Council to do that was approved for the first time during my term by minister [Tamar] Zandberg, and it was one of the most important and strategic decisions for preparing Israel for the crisis,” she said.

It also reminds us that we are dependent on what happens in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and the way in which they handle the climate crisis.

Cohen, left, with former Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg.
Cohen, left, with former Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg. Credit: Ministry of Environmental Protection

“True. We can act out of this understanding and work together with our neighbors, such as the initiative that we led to purchase renewable energy from Jordan in return for water. It can also happen with other countries, such as Morocco. There is enormous potential for climate cooperation that we must promote,” said Cohen.

Are there climate change deniers in the professional staff?

“I haven’t heard in recent years those who said: ‘Leave it alone, there is no such a thing.’ There are those who say: ‘It doesn’t matter what we’ll do, it will happen in any case.’ Or: ‘Israel is small and it doesn’t have a lot of influence on the climate crisis.’ Or: ‘Why invest now, let’s wait for the prices to drop.’ We’ve heard a lot of this over the years. There is no denial in principle, but when you need to make decisions – suddenly they backtrack, take their time, say ‘wait a minute, it costs money.’ In practice, the bottom line is we’re not doing what is needed.”

A protest against single-use utensils in Jerusalem in 2019.
A protest against single-use utensils in Jerusalem in 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

The Finance Ministry said: “The interview includes a list of aspersions that are factually incorrect and economically unfounded, and therefore we are unable to comment on it. The Budgets Division has presented, and will continue to present, a professional approach whose concern is the advancement of the Israeli economy while guaranteeing the country’s energy security, by preserving a combination of sources for generating electricity and not relying on just a single source, according to the position of the rest of the professional bodies responsible for the matter in the government.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry declined to comment on this article.