Cablegate: Israel at a Turning Point in Environmental Management

Published: Wed 24 Sep 2008 02:28 PM
DE RUEHTV #2201/01 2681428
R 241428Z SEP 08
E.O. 12958: N/A
Ref: (A)Tel Aviv 195 (B)Tel Aviv 613 (C)Tel Aviv 1845
1. (SBU) Summary. Through sixty years of statehood, Israel has
traditionally relegated environmental concerns towards the bottom of
the agenda, with the predictable results. Knowledgeable observers
fault the government's pre-occupation with defense and growth and
reliance on short-term tactical decisions for permitting Israel's
environment to degrade. Recently, however, Israeli society has been
trying to address the legacy of benign neglect of its environment,
evidenced by a raft of new environmental legislation passed in 2008
after several years of effort, aiming at tougher regulation and
better enforcement, and the start of a serious recycling program. A
number of factors account for this change of heart, including
growing public environmentalism, political leaders willing to take
up the issue, and several front page environmental news stories that
energized both groups. NGOs believe that enforcement of the laws
now approved will reverse environmental decline, and both the GOI
and NGOs are asking for training to better pursue enforcement
responsibilities and strengthen their capacity to act on
environmental defense issues. GOI interest in upgrading its
environmental performance is also generated by its desire to accede
to OECD membership, which would commit Israel to certain core
principles on environment and waste management. End summary.
The Tyranny of Tactics
2. (U) The Israeli state throughout its history has always been
keenly aware of the challenges posed by its desert climate and its
limited agricultural resources. The ambition of its founders in
1948 to "make the desert bloom" was as much a challenge to its
immigrant population as a statement of national objectives. The
relationship between people and the land they inhabit was critical
to the young state's leaders, as much of Israel's economy and export
income at the time derived from agricultural output. In the 1960s
agriculture accounted for over 30 percent of export earnings; today
agriculture represents only 3.9 percent of export income.
3. (U) However despite such sensitivity to Israel's natural resource
endowment (and the lack thereof), Israeli governments have
traditionally subordinated environmental protection to security,
economic productivity, and development objectives. In the rush to
assure security and boost export earnings to pay for defense
materiel, environmental protection was a secondary issue. When
environmental concerns did become national issues, they cast nature
in the role of an adversary: swamps that must be drained, land that
must be irrigated, inhospitable desert to be cultivated into a
productive asset. In the quest for physical and economic security,
Israel opted for industry and output growth at the expense of
pollution and depleted natural resources.
4. (U) The head of Tel Aviv University's Porter School of
Environmental Studies Arie Nesher believes that GOI decisions made
on environmental issues - as on most issues - have been chiefly
tactical. This was understandable when the nation was young, when
surviving the next war or embargo was the chief concern of the
state's leadership. Such short-term thinking became the norm, Nesher
believes. Israeli environmental policy continued to lack any
strategic approach, any assessment of where the government wants
Israel to be in 20 or 30 years in terms of its resource use, energy
production, and environment. Individual decisions made to solve
discrete problems resulted in a patchwork of weak regulation with
many gaps. This tyranny of tactics incrementally led the country to
high rates of air and water pollution, under-regulated waste
dumping, and low corporate accountability for waste treatment.
Turning a Corner
5. (U) In the 1990s, environmentally concerned Israelis recognized
that they had little voice or impact on the country's policies, and
organized to take action. Several citizen action groups joined
together in 1990 to create the Israel Union for Environmental
Defense, now the chief lobby for environmental policy. A few years
later the Heschel Center for Environmental Education was created,
stating in its mission that the single-minded dedication of public
policy to economic growth and security had led to massive damage to
Israel's physical environment and social fabric.
6. (U) Recognizing that the government had few persons trained in
environmental studies, activists pressed Tel Aviv University to fill
the gap, resulting in the creation of the Porter School of
Environmental Studies, an interdisciplinary program to educate
future leadership. The Porter School Director Nesher believes, ten
years on, that these efforts are starting to bear fruit, citing the
raft of environmental legislation recently passed by the Knesset,
whose advisors include a number of graduates from the program. In
2006, the head of Life and Environment, an umbrella grouping of 95
NGOs concerned with environment and community living issues,
recognized the sea-change in Israeli attitudes toward
environmentalism. She wrote: "The main role of the environmental
movement is to increase the involvement of the public in the
decision making process on health and environmental issues.
Therefore, the (Israeli) environmental movement has made a joint
strategic decision to alter its position from a body that protests
from outside of decision making processes, to a body that penetrates
the centers of power and the places where decisions are made."
The Sources of Change
7. (U) The rise of Israeli environmentalism derives from several
sources. First, citizens are more sensitized to pollution because
they encounter it more. Being slightly smaller than New Jersey in
land area but holding 7.2 million people, Israel is ten times more
densely populated than the United States, with 324 persons per
square km compared to 31 persons per square km in the US. The
population has also increased rapidly in the last 20 years, growing
from 4.4 million in 1989 to 7.3 million, partly due to waves of new
immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. The urban sprawl has
pushed Israelis to inhabit areas once far from the cities, in closer
proximity to previous waste dumps. This has resulted in pressure
for change; Tel Aviv's previous landfill, for example, is now
undergoing rehabilitation as a recreation area for the densely
inhabited Sharon region, and the city's waste is hauled 100 km
farther south.
8. (U) The growth of environmentalism was also spurred by several
high-profile ecological confrontations, and a growing realization of
the health impact of pollution. These front-page news situations
shocked Israelis into recognizing their degraded environment. In
August 1997 four members of a visiting Australian sports team fell
into Tel Aviv's Yarkon River and died from exposure to chemicals in
the water. In 2006 air pollution made national news when a study
revealed that an estimated 1,000 deaths per year in Tel Aviv are due
to air pollution, twice the number attributed to auto accidents. In
2007, the planned construction of a new air force base in the Negev
just a few kilometers downwind from Israel's only toxic waste
treatment facility, provoked outrage from Israelis, a population
where everyone has a family member or friend in the military or in
the reserves. A new awareness of vulnerability to pollution in
their small country has penetrated the population.
9. (SBU) One NGO director also credits the global climate change
discussion with raising public awareness of environmental issues.
In May 2008 Al Gore received the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv
University for his work on climate change. In his acceptance
speech, Gore challenged Israel to take the lead in developing clean,
low CO2-producing alternative energy sources. (Note: Israel signed
the Kyoto Protocol and ratified it in 2004, but Israel is listed as
a developing country, not bound by the emissions targets of
developed countries. Although the GOI has resolved to undertake
activities to reduce emissions of greenhouses gases in accordance
with UNFCCC objectives, there is no national plan to do so.) A
small but vocal percentage of Israelis are pressing to reduce
Israel's carbon footprint; in fact, the government has supported the
conversion of Israel's electric generation plants from coal to gas,
a move responding to public health concerns more than climate
Towards More Aggressive Enforcement
10. (U) In response to mounting pressure from Israeli environmental
NGOs and public demand for action, the Knesset passed a raft of new
legislation during its last legislative session (noted ref C). This
included Israel's first comprehensive Clean Air Act, and stronger
sanctions on corporate polluters, with strengthened individual
accountability. Further legislation is in the pipeline, with first
or second readings of bills already completed on banning plastic
bags, mandating energy and water-saving devices in public buildings,
enforcing water pollution laws, and cutting government assistance to
companies that pollute.
11. (SBU) Ministry of Environmental Protection officers participated
in a State/USDA/EPA-sponsored workshop held in Istanbul on air
pollution in August this year. This was part of a Middle East Peace
Process (MEPP) funded multilateral program combining Israeli,
Palestinian and Jordanian government officials in shared resource
management training. Given the border-transcending nature of land,
water and air pollution in the region, further programs of this sort
will be planned. GOI participants from the August air pollution
workshop were keen for follow-on training. GOI officials hope to
establish a databank on air pollution, but the lack of monitoring
capacity in the Palestinian territories is a major impediment. This
has led to the idea of a stock of mobile monitoring assets jointly
used by the three governments, among other plans to assist the PA,
and may be pursued with the donor community.
12. (SBU) GOI environment officials admit to the need for further
training for its own "green police." This group of 45 persons
within the inspection division faces a mounting workload as the new
laws are implemented. Israel's Environment Minister admitted he was
hesitant to endorse the new Clean Air Law because he had no budget
to hire the score of persons needed to uphold the ministry's
statutory responsibilities. In 2007, 245 smokestacks were inspected
by authorities, but only 50 factories were visited and questioned
about their compliance.
13. (U) The Israel Union for Environmental Defense has also
approached the Embassy about training to enhance NGO capacity.
Under Israeli law, NGOs can function as "green police" and gather
evidence and prosecute legal cases against polluters. This holds
the potential to greatly increase the enforcement capabilities of
the country and improve implementation of legislation. The NGOs,
however, claim they need guidance on the mechanics of legal
enforcement, such as rules for collecting evidence and conducting
observations, to be effective in this role. Such training would
preferably be done in Israel. Post would welcome Washington
agencies' guidance on who within the USG might be able to provide
training of this nature, and what source might fund it.
14. (SBU) GOI concern about upgrading its environmental performance
also stems from its interest in acceding to the OECD. Among the
criteria that applicant countries must satisfy are environmental
policy principles and practices. Management of hazardous and other
wastes and controlling their transport across international
boundaries are key components of these principles. A recent GOI
crackdown on illegal dumping in the West Bank may partly reflect the
desire to ensure the government's compliance with OECD obligations.
GOI environment officials hope that close cooperation with the USG
will help them acquire the experience and technology to better
manage waste and pollution remediation efforts.
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