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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Greening of Israel

Air Date: Week of

While it's the Holy Land for some, for others the tiny nation of Israel has become a waste heap. The record amounts of water and air pollution plaguing Israelis had largely gone unnoticed. That is until politicians began incorporating environmental themes into their latest campaigns. Patricia Golan reports on whether this new 'green consciousness' will make a difference in the May national elections.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Israelis consider their land sacred, but Israel is one of the most polluted countries in the world. Untreated industrial waste flows directly into rivers and streams. Air pollution is dangerously high. Until recent municipal elections, ecology wasn't high on the political agenda. But for the first time, green parties won important electoral seats in Haifa and Tel Aviv. And some 80 candidates for local office signed a pledge to improve environmental quality. From Jerusalem, Patricia Golan looks at the role green activists are playing in Israel's upcoming national elections.

(Men chant in Hebrew)

GOLAN: Dozens of students demonstrate in central Tel Aviv, demanding that in this election year political parties pay more attention to the need for mass transportation. Highways are a disaster. Trains are the solution, they chant. Some of the protestors poke their heads through sheets sewn together and painted to look like train carriages. Like a bizarre Chinese dragon, they snake their way through the crowded streets. In recent years traffic on Israel's highways has become increasingly congested. Traffic deaths have skyrocketed, and pollution from vehicle exhaust is at dangerous levels. The protesters' spokesman, David Perelman, complains about the Israeli government's cutback on mass transit.

PERELMAN: All they've done in the last 50 years is taken apart trains, and only the trains can solve the problems of the people dying from traffic accidents, people dying from air pollution, massive problems on the roads from the congestion. And also in such a small country, there's no room to build more roads.

GOLAN: This student group, called Green Course, is the largest environmental network in Israel, with branches on 14 campuses. The week before, members chained themselves to bulldozers that were paving a highway in the West Bank. Such green activism is a fairly new phenomenon in Israel. While in the past local environmentalists made up a small, somewhat elitist group, today some 140,000 Israelis belong to an array of local environmental organizations. In municipal elections this past November, 13 environmental activists were elected to city and town councils throughout the country. Shmuel Chen of the Israeli Economic Forum for the Environment says the election results were a shot in the arm for green activists.

CHEN: Environmentalists have been working in Israel for years, being aware for environmental problems, but not really succeeding when it came down to, you know, budget questions, decision-making questions. They could lobby, but they couldn't really make the change. The last elections were a big breakthrough for the, I'd say, Israeli environmentalists.

RONEN: [Speaks in Hebrew]

GOLAN: Doubtless encouraged by the newfound popularity of green issues, in January the Director General of the Environment Ministry, Nahama Ronen, launched a new party, the Voice of the Environment, to run in the May elections for Israel's parliament, or Knesset.

RONEN: [Speaks in Hebrew] TRANSLATOR: We've got an ecological time bomb in this country. Fifteen- hundred Israelis die every year from air pollution. In another 10 years we won't have anywhere left to dump our refuse. Politicians are devoting their time to issues like negotiations with the Palestinians, the Golan Heights, and figuring out Israel's borders. But they are failing to deal with the environmental problems that threaten our lives.

GOLAN: But less than a month later, Ronen abandoned her new environmental party and announced she was joining the newly-formed Center Party held by former Defense Minister Itzhak Mordechai. Alon Tal, founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, admits that Ronen worried she would not get enough votes to make it into the next parliament as head of an independent, environmentally-oriented party. But, says Tal, moving to the Center party means that an environmental presence in the Knesset is now a sure thing.

TAL: The strong feeling amongst many Israelis that the Center party will be sitting in whatever coalition ultimately arises, that means for the first time you have a serious green or environmentally-sensitive leverage going into the political process.

GOLAN: Though Nahama Ronen jumped ship, there is another independent environmental party running for Knesset.

VIESNER: [Speaks in Hebrew]

GOLAN: Peher Viesner heads the Israeli Green Party, which won 2 seats in Tel Aviv in the November municipal elections. The party was formed after the 1997 Maccabeeah Bridge catastrophe, in which 4 Australian athletes attending the games died and more than 60 were injured after a temporary footbridge collapsed. The athletes fell into the polluted waters of the Yarkon River, and probably died from inhaling toxic wastes. Viesner says that the foot-dragging over cleaning up the Yarkon River has shown Israelis that they need political power to save the environment. But what chance to greens have of gaining meaningful participation in the Knesset? Under an electoral reform that allows Israelis to cast 1 vote for prime minister and another for political party, there is more temptation than ever to vote for a small party. Still, a party has to break a 1.5% threshold, about 50,000 votes, to win 1 of the 120 seats in the parliament.

(Many voices milling)

GOLAN: Earlier this year, representatives of more than 60 Israeli environmental organizations met in a Tel Aviv suburb to discuss strategies for the future. Participants here agree that the success of the greens in the municipal elections, and the fact that the environment is on the agenda in the national elections, points to a new awareness among Israeli politicians and the electorate. Whether this trend will translate into ballots come May remains to be seen. For Living on Earth, I'm Patricia Golan in Tel Aviv.



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