Israel Can Do Better: A 70-Year Report Card of Environmental Underachievement

Despite showing huge early promise, Israel's environmental record is hugely disappointing. With the added threat of global warming, substantial action is needed.

If one accepts governmental claims at face value, these are the “best of times” for Israel’s environment. The air is cleaner. Water shortages are a thing of the past. Ecosystems are on the mend. Climate change is a key priority. The country is enthusiastically adjusting to a low- carbon economy. Development is increasingly well-considered. The great Israeli spirit of innovation is manifested in creative new sustainable strategies. Not bad. The self-congratulatory rhetoric might almost seem justified. But, as the old Yiddish expression goes: “If things are really so good—why is everything so bad?”

I have been working for the protection of Israel’s environment for almost 35 years. At times, I have had to sue polluters and government agencies; other times, I have worked with them, advised them on feasible strategies and approaches to environmental protection. I have been involved in dozens of campaigns, published hundreds of articles, and taught thousands of students.

But if I am honest with myself and read the present data dispassionately, the inescapable truth is that these are probably the worst of times for Israel’s environment. Streams remain contaminated, and ecosystems are collapsing. Greenhouse emissions continue to spiral upward. Urban sprawl, characterized by ill-considered construction projects, diminish the landscape and steadily make the country a less pleasant place. Environmental policy tends to be sluggish and uninspired.

To be sure, in its first 50 years after independence, Israel enjoyed many green success stories. An afforestation program, unprecedented in scope, spearheaded a veritable ecological makeover. Israel’s bold innovations in water usage, enabled by the development of drip irrigation technology and other conservation measures, offered proof to the world that water scarcity can be overcome, even in drylands. Israel’s high-quality potable water delivery infrastructure, coupled with its inexpensive desalination processes, eliminated an age-old public health hazard. A campaign to educate the public to stop picking wildflowers was so successful that it has become the stuff of university research in education and communication. Even the repulsive tar and oil residues which once coated bathers’ feet, making visits to the beach a somewhat distasteful experience, are largely a thing of the past.

Each one of these positive transformations demonstrate what is possible when even a thimble-full of political will meets the country’s technological innovation. Israel is actually capable of remarkable environmental achievements. The country’s robust environmental movement still preserves its idealistic, professional and vociferous approach to ecological activism. The Ministry of Environment just marked the thirtieth anniversary of its establishment as a regulatory agency. Israeli children continue to enjoy an outdoors-oriented culture of hiking and camping, learning in their schools (and even more effectively in their youth movements) about environmental commitment. Yet, environmental outcomes suggest that things are going in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, most of the triumphs proudly trumpeted by successive governments already belong to the past. A more accurate report card, taking account of the last 20 years, presents a much more disheartening state of affairs.

What accounts for the enormous dissonance? Why does Israel have such a disappointing environmental record? Beyond the usual official reliance on spin and propaganda, three explanations illuminate the profound disconnect between governmental rhetoric and actual action. First is a weak and unmotivated Ministry of the Environment. The second involves inadequate regulatory enforcement, And third, there is the matter of Israel’s relentless demographic expansion. An overview of just some of the country’s recent failures tell the story of missed environmental opportunities, and show what is needed for Israel to do better. As it is always better to show than to tell, this review begins with a few of the many stories that reflect the country’s missed environmental opportunities.

The Big Bluff of Israel’s Bottle Bill

Even though it is not Israel’s most significant environmental problem, the idiosyncratic history of Israel’s mismanaged bottle deposit law is instructive. This year is the twentieth anniversary of this legislation. Unfortunately, there is not much cause for celebration. Like many of the sagas that make up the checkered story of environmental inaction in Israel, the gap between declared environmental achievements and actual progress is conspicuous and discouraging.

The law itself represents a compromise. Along with my team at Adam Teva V’din – the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, I was responsible for drafting the original legislation in the 1990s. Inspired by the success of bottle bills in Europe and the United States, the “explanatory commentary” of the draft bill described how deposit systems around the world have helped reduce litter, promote recycling, and save money.

We also knew that every proposed deposit law in the world had faced strong opposition, principally from the supermarket and beverage industry lobby. Industry was unenthusiastic, unsurprisingly, about having to accept responsibility for a recycling infrastructure where all those used cans and bottles would be foisted upon them—and repaying deposits to boot. In this respect, Israel was not an exception.

What we didn’t expect, however, was the anti-deposit law lobby finding a sympathetic ear with Shas— the Orthodox Sephardic Jewish political party which had risen to prominence in the early 1990s. At a hearing for the proposed legislation in the Knesset’s Economics Committee, we were dumbfounded when representatives of the party proclaimed the failings of bottle bills: “Yet another tax on the poor.” “It will force our housewives to schlepp bottles back and forth to the grocery as in olden days.” “It will raise the cost of living.”

It’s not entirely clear why Shas, typically indifferent to environmental affairs, had suddenly become so concerned about matters of recycling. But the blame game was of little import. When an NGO lobbies for legislation, pragmatism and nimbleness are critical: it was clear that without adjustments, the law wouldn’t make it through the Knesset’s convoluted legislative process.

And so a compromise was quickly forged: larger bottles were excluded from the proposed law. As it turned out, Shas parliamentarians had convinced themselves that the public—their public, at least and core constituency—only consumed soft drinks sold in the larger liter-and-a-half bottles. They were not particularly concerned about smaller cans and bottles. Their thinking was that these sizes were solely purchased by the privileged, secular carousers who frequented Israel’s bars and night clubs—certainly not Shas’s pious supporters. The law was redrafted accordingly, so that beverage containers larger than 1.5 liters were exempted from the deposit scheme. This left out roughly 50 percent of all beverage bottles and containers sold in Israel. “Better than nothing,” we reasoned.

In return for the concession, the supermarket and beverage industries committed to establishing a voluntary company to establish and oversee a collection system. The law created performance standards, to be tightened over time: if recycling levels did not, eventually, exceed 72 per cent of all bottles sold, then the five cent deposit (which has since been modestly increased) would be extended to the larger soft-drink bottles as well.

At first, it seemed that the arrangement had achieved a satisfactory outcome. The Ela corporation was established by the beverage industry after the law was passed and it decided to “get with the program.” The company soon installed enormous, metal cages across Israeli neighborhoods and communities. Consumers happily discarded their empty plastic bottles in them, apparently without the need for any financial incentive at all. The company’s trucks collected and weighed the bottles before cheerfully reporting that the vast majority of Israel’s plastic bottles were being recycled expeditiously, and then sold as raw material — converted by a factory in the Negev’s Neot Hovav industrial area into yard furniture.

It seemed like a reasonably good environmental outcome. Only it wasn’t. In retrospect, one can see that it was something of a sham. In 2017, an internal Ministry of Environmental Protection memo reported that a mere 10.4 percent of bottles used in the country were actually collected by the Ela company. Several explanations were presented for the fraudulently high numbers. For example, the number of bottles recycled was estimated by weight. But many still contained liquids, distorting the estimated mass of the recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. And the Ministry also admitted being a victim of good old-fashioned subterfuge, in the form of double and imprecise reports.

To make things worse, Aviv Plastic, the last Israeli industrial facility to integrate used bottles with PET into its production, closed its doors in January 2019. Due to the high cost of the raw materials it required, the factory was losing money; the government was unable (or unwilling) to offer any subsidies to keep the garbage recycling system in place. This was considered outrageous by many observers given the enormous surplus (hundreds of millions of shekels) in the Cleanliness Fund that the Ministry of Environment oversaw, whose goal was to promote recycling. Some seventy factory workers had to find new jobs. Vague commitments were made about seeking new customers abroad; the affair hardly made the news.

Today, many Israelis still dutifully separate their garbage, and toss their bottles into cages at the end of the block. But following China’s recent decision to discontinue the importation of plastic, it’s not at all clear that there is an export market for empty recyclable bottles. Working on the assumption that a legal nudge might be helpful, Israeli environmental groups decided to instigate legal action against the sitting Minister of Environmental Protection, Ze’ev Elkin.

But, like ten ministers before him, Elkin decided in May this year not to expand the deposit system to 1.5 liter bottles. Yet again, he regurgitated the bizarre claim that this would lead to an increase in the cost of living for Israel’s impoverished populations. Instead, he fined a range of beverage and bottling companies a total of $12 million. Ignoring the “polluter pays” principal which is supposed to be at the heart of Israeli environmental regulation, such a trivial penalty didn’t even constitute a slap on the wrist.

Logic suggests that if today’s eight cent deposit was that important to their standard of living, impoverished families would have an incentive for recycling the bottles and recovering the deposit. Indeed, bottle collection is a well-known income supplement in many poorer areas. But it seems as if the Minister for the Environment wasn’t keen on making waves, especially as the Shas leadership never changed its initial opposition. Running for mayor of Jerusalem, or managing the coalition government negotiations, apparently was more important.

Recycling plastic bottles is not exactly the most important component of an environmental transformation. And the country’s abysmal record of solid waste management and recycling is surely not our greatest environmental failure. But it is representative of a wider history of great expectations—and great disappointments.

In 1992, the Knesset passed a recycling law to considerable fanfare. But in 27 years, it hasn’t achieved very much. The average Israeli produces 1.7 kilograms of garbage a day—a fifth more than their counterparts in Europe. A mere 21 percent of Israel’s trash is recycled, even as more and more countries pass the 50 percent mark. In other words, 79 percent of Israeli garbage is sent to one of the country’s 12 garbage dumps, even though these landfill sites have very limited landfill capacity. Sadly, even though the official literature continues to rhapsodize about the country’s impressive recycling efforts, Israel’s government has never really internalized waste reduction as a moral responsibility or an economic opportunity. Like so many other environmental challenges, it chooses to follow a path of least resistance.

Think Globally—Crawl Locally

This pattern – initial progress and self-congratulatory praise giving way to backtracking and retreat – is glaringly evident in Israel’s checkered record on international environmental challenges. Now that the ozone layer is enjoying a remarkable recovery, and whales are no longer facing extinction, the two greatest international environmental challenges of our age are tackling climate change and preventing global biodiversity loss. In both areas, having enjoyed a remarkable head start, Israel had the potential to be a world leader. But then, we seem to have blinked; without anyone noticing, things grew worse.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions and returning a modicum of climatic stability to the planet is an urgent global mission. At the heart of any meaningful mitigation strategy is a transition to renewable sources energy. Indeed, 55 percent of Israel’s greenhouse gas emissions are associated with electricity production—more than transportation, industry and agriculture combined.

This could and should have been an area for Israel to provide world leadership. When I first moved to Israel, solar energy was a source of national pride: Israel was the first country on the planet to promulgate regulations requiring the installation of passive solar-powered water heaters in new domestic residences. It wasn’t long before the country’s pro-solar policies created a new local industry for solar water heaters, and the policy was credited with a 3.2 percent reduction in electricity consumption.

It didn’t stop there. One of the great ironies of Israel’s environmental history is that the first significant solar power electricity plant in the world was built in 1980 by a Jerusalem-based company called Luz. Decades before Israel’s “Start-Up Nation” pandemonium, we were actually the world’s leading green-energy innovator. Luz built a revolutionary concentrated solar facility in California (where it is still operational), enticed by the incentives created by Jimmy Carter’s prescient energy policies. But then oil prices fell and Israel’s leadership lost interest in solar energy. Luz never produced a watt of energy back home. 

For most of Israel’s history, coal and heavy oil were imported to meet the growing demand for the electricity produced in polluting power plants located along the coast in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Hadera, and Haifa. The public paid a high price for Israel’s “low cost” energy strategy, with asthma cases reaching epidemic levels in towns like Haifa and nearby Krayot. It took a lengthy and tenacious battle, spearheaded by civil society activism—and a courageous, inter-ministerial fight led by Gilad Erdan, then a young Minister of Environment—before natural gas was posited as primary source of Israel’s electricity supply.

The discovery of prodigious reserves in the Mediterranean was, of course, instrumental in this transition. While some 20 percent of electricity is still derived from coal, Israel’s present Minister of Energy and Water, Yuval Steinitz, proudly reports that air pollution emissions from Israel’s power plants have dropped by close to 50 percent during the past four years. This is good news for local air quality, to be sure.

The problem is that Israel is becoming addicted to natural gas precisely when the rest of the world is beginning to discover that this fuel source is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than initially recognized. Today, we know that in the first decades after being released into the atmosphere, methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The massive leaks that are an unfortunate by-product of the exploration, mining and transport of gas are also better documented today. Combined, these failings have shrunk the purported environmental advantages held by natural gas over coal to a minimum—if indeed they exist at all.

Accordingly, while the energy infrastructures of countries like Denmark and Germany will soon predominantly be based on renewable energy sources, Israel is struggling to reach a meager five percentr of its electricity from solar and wind facilities. Indeed, in 2016 about 50 countries committed to transforming their energy sectors to 100 percent renewable and carbon-free sources in the foreseeable future. But Israel’s government remains unwilling to forgo the expected tax and royalties bonanza that natural gas extraction will provide.

Two years ago, the Israeli government approved a plan for the construction of a dozen or so gas-generated power plants around the country. This decision is puzzling, given that in 2018 some 66 percent of all new electricity sources in the world were based on renewable sources of energy—largely because wind and solar alternatives are now much cheaper than natural gas or coal. Once again, Israel remains locked into outdated energy paradigms. Or perhaps its leaders simply let natural gas’s short-term tax benefits trump environmental concerns.

There is a security angle to this issue which is rarely discussed. The transition to natural gas does reduce Israel’s per-capita carbon footprint somewhat. But it leaves Israel and Israelis dependent on fossil fuels and its energy system reliant on several large facilities. In the unfriendly and violent neighborhood of the Middle East, this is a very risky strategy. Moreover, recently, UN associated scientific bodies report that in order to to stop our climate system spinning out of control, a 7.2 percent reduction in present global greenhouse gas emissions is needed. A policy that genuinely promotes solar energy and storage could dramatically improve Israel’s energy security dynamics, and at the same time meet international expectations. But Israel’s renewable energy production remains among the lowest in the Western world.

Biodiversity protection presents another sad tale of “rise and fall.” Even as a young, poor country facing existential threats from hostile neighbors, Israel managed to develop a nature reserve system that was a model of conservation efficacy. Species like ibex and gazelles, driven to the brink of extinction during the British Mandate, made spectacular comebacks thanks to a ban on hunting and the setting aside of designated habitats as natural sanctuaries. The country’s array of mammal and bird species, together with its diverse flora and fauna, enjoyed a measure of respite both in and out of the 250-odd nature reserves established across a quarter of Israel’s land. It didn’t take very long for nature to demonstrate its extraordinary resilience. Ecosystems reemerged, and the international community celebrated Israel’s conservation triumph.

But the news coming out of local biodiversity monitoring programs more recently has been uniformly bad. The “State of Nature” report, which registers trends in the natural world on behalf of the Israeli government and non-government agencies, is extremely bleak. The local population of gazelles, for example, is in freefall; it has dropped from over 15,000 to roughly 1,800 today. The Israeli Society for Protection of Nature, the country’s largest environmental organization, reports that 23 percent of freshwater fish in Israel are endangered, as are 83 percent of all its amphibians; 35 percent of the reptiles; 60 percent of the mammals; and 30 percent of the plants. There are many reasons for this hemorrhaging of the natural world. Chief among these is habitat loss and fragmentation. The invasion of exotic species, pollution, and even the resurgence of unregulated hunting make matters worse.

Given this emergency, one would expect Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to prioritize biodiversity work. Once species are lost, it is difficult—often impossible—to bring them back. And yet, staff numbers in the Open Spaces and Biodiversity branch of the ministry have dropped during the past three years, from an already modest four civil servants to just two biologists. If budgets are an accurate reflection of a government agency’s values and priorities, then the Ministry of the Environment doesn’t really care.

Climate Change is Here

Israel is one of a number of places where climate change symptoms are already evident, and are affecting the quality of life. A disparate range of data sources all point in the same direction: higher temperatures, more frequent droughts, and generally lower precipitation—alongside more virulent rain events. Consider this: over the last 40 years, Tel Aviv’s annual mean temperature has risen by two degrees Celsius. When added to the 2.5 degree “heat island” resulting from dense urban development, such a dramatic difference already affects quality of life, especially during the oppressive, sultry days of July and August. For decades, the Mediterranean Sea has risen by six millimeters a year. This will eventually wreak havoc on the coastline, especially if climate models’ predictions of accelerated increases are realized after certain, global tipping points are crossed. Already, the prolonged drought in the Galilee has devastated surface water systems in the north of the country.

Unfortunately, the issue of climate change does not seem to excessively trouble Israelis. True, Israel did submit a national action plan to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. However, it was remarkably unambitious. While it promised a modest drop in per capita emissions, this adds up to de facto increase in overall levels, at a time when scientists are calling for a 3-6 percent reduction each year in order to reach climate stability. This is the nature of trying to improve environmental performance when the population is rapidly expanding.

Lucy Michaels, a very talented student of mine, considered the enigma of Israeli climate indifference in a doctoral dissertation. She documented a local phenomenon she called “exceptionalism.” Many Israelis, especially senior political leaders, have a sense that the country enjoys unique—or exceptional—circumstances. They believe that because Israel has absorbed millions of immigrants, our economy should be allowed to grow with environmental constraints. Demographic growth is justified, indeed an imperative, because of the Jews lost in the Holocaust. Ultimately, pressing security concerns take precedence over the investment necessary to transition into a low-carbon economy. And then, there is the most common mantra: we are such a small country that even if we were a paragon of greenhouse gas reductions, it would make absolutely no difference to the global balance.

It is true that Israel makes a relatively small contribution to overall carbon emissions. But this does not absolve Israel from its responsibility to do more. On this topic, I often employ the metaphor of the military stretcher run, an integral aspect of basic training for combat soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force. There is a solemn expectation that when a platoon is carrying a simulated event across great distances on a stretcher during maneuvers, every soldier has the responsibility to step up and get under the stretcher when their time comes. Before they are weeded out, there are often “free riders” in the group, who invariably find some excuse to avoid the onerous task of carrying a corner of the heavy stretcher. These slackers are judged harshly by their colleagues as sociopaths, and not tolerated in combat units. I believe that the metaphor is quite telling: The planet is wounded. Does Israel want to be the kind of country that avoids getting under the collective stretcher, unwilling to take its place amongst the community of nations by shouldering its fair share of collective responsibility for saving the environment?

It is also true that there are significant economic opportunities for those countries who invest in innovative low carbon emission solutions. One look at the Danish wind-turbine industry suggests that Israel has already missed enormous economic opportunities, through its sluggishness in offering a visionary, proactive climate mitigation strategy (ironically, Israel is starting to show some of its classic innovative spirit in climate adaptation endeavors, such as the recent decision to reverse the National Water Carrier and bring desalinated water to the Kinneret/Sea of Galilee). Israel takes pride in its membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the elite club of economically developed nations. But membership also brings responsibility. We can no longer afford to continue such an evasive approach to such a pressing global imperative.

Environmental Letdown

These disturbing trends are not isolated cases. Due to decades of lackluster investment in rehabilitation, Israel’s coastal streams and rivers are almost uniformly compromised and contaminated. A few tributaries of the River Jordan in the Upper Galilee aside, no right-minded people would swim in an Israeli stream. These are still the waterways that killed—literally—the Australian athletes who fell in the Yarkon River during the Maccabiah Games of 1997 when a bridge collapsed in the opening ceremony. It still holds much of the sludge that led to Israeli navy seals training in the Kishon Stream to develop cancer. From the River Jordan to the River Alexander, progress over the last decades has been minimal.

All across Israel, freshwater creeks and streams are running dry or suffering from contamination. Like so many disappointed hikers, I cannot help but feel a sense of loss when seeing these once flowing treasures (and the ecosystems they supported) now desiccated and neglected. But ultimately, people are lucky. We have swimming pools and beaches. The animals who enjoyed these waterholes from time immemorial have nowhere else to go.

The Kinneret dodged a bullet in the 1960s when a South African limnologist, after assessing the lake’s condition, called on the government to take immediate action. Luckily, Yigal Allon, deputy prime minister at the time, grew up on Kibbutz, Ginosar, alongside the Kinneret. He cared a great deal. Somehow, an impoverished government found the resources necessary for effective intervention. A huge initiative to divert sewage and saline streams from the country’s only freshwater lake led to marked improvements in water quality. For a while, scientists and tourists alike celebrated a huge environmental success.

But once again, this was a false dawn. None of the initial progress prepared the country for climate change and the successive years of drought that Israel has recently experienced. The Kinneret, with all its spiritual and recreational importance, reached its lowest level in recorded history in December 2018. The lake shows signs of rapid salinization, prompting concerns about the long-term viability of the aquatic ecosystems.

Compared to the Dead Sea, however, the Kinneret is in good shape. Indeed, the Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth – is something of a monument to Israel’s hydrological negligence. Much like the Aral Sea of central Asia, the Dead Sea shrank and shrank until it became an aesthetic affront. Water levels have receded by a meter or more a year. Slowly but surely, a combination of water diversions and evaporation take their toll and an iconic landmark is disappearing. Jordan, who shares the coastline of the Dead Sea with Israel, is very keen on constructing a Red-Med Canal to channel water from the southern Red Sea into the Dead Sea. The project might offer a solution, but for twenty years now, its high price tag has prevented any meaningful progress. In the meantime, Israel has failed to cobble together a restoration strategy. The government hasn’t even considered limiting extractions by the Dead Sea Works, whose private owners make billions of dollars from Dead Sea-related skin and beauty treatments as it exploits this natural wonder.

Elsewhere, Haifa Bay has long been recognized as the “hot spot” of local environmental problems. When I first started to challenge the bay’s serial polluters in the courts, one out of every four children in the Haifa area suffered from asthma. Over the years, there has been a reduction in the conventional pollutants released by the factories, especially the sulfur dioxide to which Haifa residents had long been exposed. The Ministry of Environment mandated the use of higher quality fuels, which had an immediate and positive impact. In parallel, steady pressure was placed on the highest-polluting petrochemical factories to improve performance.

But many highly toxic air quality parameters are not even measured in the area. Ministry of Health research confirms that Haifa residents still tend to have poorer health than other Israelis. One study reported that babies in the Haifa region have smaller heads than infants born elsewhere in the country. During the recent election, political parties fell over each other to offer a greener vision of the city’s future. But when the dust of coalition building finally settles, the bold measures required for meaningful progress—moving the Israel Oil Refineries away from the Krayot industrial area by the bay, for example—will be viewed by the political class as too radical to be considered a feasible solution. And thus, Haifa will retain the dubious accolade of “pollution capital of Israel.”

The list goes on and on. In general, Israel’s cities are increasingly noisy, contributing to the general sense of congestion and obnoxiousness. Plastics are increasingly recognized as a major hazard in the Mediterranean, but remain largely unregulated. And, as Israel scrambles to build 60,000 new housing units each year, the natural beauty of a land steeped in history is replaced by sterile and unsightly high-rises, part of a relentless—but thus far, fruitless—drive to contain housing costs.

In short, Israel’s environment is a mess. But why? How is it that a country that once demonstrated such ecological promise and an advanced environmental awareness has taken such a turn for the worse? And can we steer the country back onto a sustainable pathway?

Deconstructing Israel’s Environmental Discontent

Institutional Failure

The environment constitutes a policy challenge that cannot get better on its own. Faced with the hazards inherent in an industrialized economy, government intervention is needed. Policies must be carefully designed and steadfastly implemented in order to attain a broad range of environmental goals. The problem is that it’s not clear where authority actually lies for protecting Israel’s ecosystems, reducing contamination, and promoting a culture of sustainability. The rationale for the establishment of the Ministry of Environment in 1989 was to empower a single agency to this end, as most countries in Europe and North America had done two decades earlier. But political dynamics at the time were tricky. Other ministries were loath to give up critical parts of their empires.

The result was that the fledgling Ministry of Environment never really received a clear mandate to take on the country’s environmental challenges. At best, it plays a supporting role in a crowded ensemble, with many of the other actors working towards distinctly different goals. Some fifty percent of air pollution in Israel’s cities is produced by cars and trucks Thirty years after the Ministry of Environment was charged with protecting air quality, the Ministry of Transportation remains the key player for reducing mobile sources of air pollution. The Ministry of Health still sets standards for drinking water quality, as it does for recycled irrigation water and swimming conditions in beaches and pools. The Ministry of Agriculture oversees the welfare of most animals in the country. The Ministry of Interior’s budget determines the breadth and extent of municipal enforcement. The Ministry of Energy and Water is the key player in setting climate change policies, and manages the country’s water resources. And of course, the Ministry of Education has the central role in teaching the next generation about its ecological responsibilities.

In short, one of the reasons for Israel’s poor environmental performance is the pitiful status of the Ministry of Environment. Recently, at the end of Yisrael Danziger’s four-year stint as Director General of the ministry, he summarized his impressions and achievements in a 34-page document, “A Road Map for Environmental Protection.”

When I sat down with him to discuss his experiences, Danziger underlined the ministry’s many achievements. Most involved “influencing” the ministries with the real power to make a difference. He claimed that the Ministry of Environment needed to work as a catalyzer, urging the serious players forward. But sadly, this strategy does not seem to be working. An ebullient and optimistic type, Danziger focused on the glass as half-full. But, keeping in mind the long list of failures that characterize environmental action by the Israeli government, it is hard to share this optimism.

Part of the problem might be the tendency to register performance indicators, technically speaking “outputs,” as indicators of progress. For example: the number of inspections, complaints filed, the number of internet-connected tablets available to inspectors in the field, the number of visitors to parks and nature reserves, municipal budgets for recycling bins, and reimbursements for household energy efficiency retrofitting outlays are important to measure. But they are not the ultimate objective. Even the number of enforcement actions is an output. At the end of the day, environmental progress can only be measured by outcomes not outputs. Environmental and ecological outcome indicators don’t lie. And they are not encouraging.

Feeble Enforcement

Danziger was forthright in acknowledging some underlying and systemic problems in Israel’s environmental policies. I asked him about the State Comptroller’s 2019 report, which excoriated the Ministry’s enforcement work. Environmental enforcement was shown to be ridiculously slow; penalties embarrassingly low; the inspectorate responsible for enforcing environmental standards woefully inadequate in size and disturbingly unprofessional. Such a dismal evaluation—an official report by an overseeing government agency—constitutes a stinging indictment that calls out for indignant rebuttal.

But Danziger smiled when I asked him about the report. He told me that when the Comptroller’s report was published, he immediately called him up. Rather than challenge the analysis, he actually thanked him, informing him that “he agreed with every word.” When an environmental ministry director concedes that his enforcement program is bankrupt, it is little wonder that environmental performance is unsatisfactory.

Part of the problem is a shortage of staff. The Environmental Ministry has plenty of money for projects; but the Finance Ministry has consistently blocked attempts to expand its workforce. Thus, unlike other ministries which have grown along with Israel’s rapidly expanding population, personnel at the ministry remains much as it was twenty years ago. It is also stuck with a first generation of enforcement inspectors, who were not hired because of their professional, environmental credentials. And of course there is the matter of mismanagement. Rather than trying to root out “Worst Things First,” inspectors seem to be interested in filing as many complaints as they can, and leaving the rest to lethargic legal teams. In many cases, rather than go after the major polluters—where enforcement would requires scientific evidence, monitoring, and complex affidavits—the ministry looks for easier targets.


The single most important driver of environmental degradation in Israel today involves a crisis which, until recently, was not even acknowledged as a problem. Pretty much all of Israel’s environmental problems share a common origin: the pressures of rapid population expansion. When Israel was established in 1948, there were just under a million people in the country. Today there are more than nine million, a ten-fold increase. It can be argued that even the most meticulous, competent and committed environmental regulator would struggle to solve local ecological problems when confronted by the competing needs of this rapidly growing population.

A basic axiom of conservation biology is “More People = Less Nature.” If Israel’s population had stabilized at around five million, it is likely that most of the ecosystems in the country would still be intact. But today, habitats are erased, replaced by new neighborhoods, highways and strip-malls. A map of the critical ecological corridors necessary to facilitate connectivity among animal populations was drawn up by the Parks and Natures Authority almost twenty years ago. But it has no statutory standing. And with people clamoring for more housing in the center of the country, there will soon be practically no open spaces left there.

It is the same story across other environmental indicators: per capita greenhouse emissions have actually fallen with the move to natural gas. But Israel’s population is growing at a rate of 2.1 percent a year. So even though emissions are down per person, they aren’t dropping fast enough, and overall emissions continue to increase. In short: “More People = a Larger Carbon Footprint.”

The same dynamics inform the country’s air quality. In the first half of 2019 alone, 158,000 new cars were purchased in Israel. Perhaps 50,000 old vehicles were junked. Highway congestion translates to less efficient combustion and higher emissions. In this case: “More Cars = Less Clean Air.”

One out of three complaints made to Israel’s police involve noise nuisances. This is the price that urban residents pay for urban planning that seek to make cities more “compact” and “efficient.” The policy is absolutely justified, in terms of preserving land reserves for future generations, and leaving some space for nature. But as cities become more crowded, the residents living in them have not learned self-restraint. In short: “Higher Density = More Noise.

In describing broader environmental dynamics, I tend to employ the metaphor of a treadmill. Israeli environmental policymakers find that the faster they run to secure environmental progress, the greater the environmental hazards they have to overcome. Some might argue that their efforts are heroic. But with so many people joining Israeli society every year – they simply aren’t working.

The Road Ahead

To be an environmentalist in Israel, you have to be an optimist. I often come back to the memorable quotation of Justice Louis Brandeis, the renowned jurist: “Most of the things worth doing in the world have been declared impossible before they were done.” Solutions to many of the environmental challenges faced by Israel actually lie well within the realm of possibility. Because Israel’s history of environmental action is replete with cases of early progress that slipped away, optimism about Israel’s future prospects is actually completely rational. Pendulums can swing back. But for this to happen, we must first address the underlying drivers behind the country’s present ecological malaise.

This means that we need to vest real power in the Ministry of Environment, and put a minister in place who is committed, willing to invest political capital and able to translate the sage advice of environmental experts into effective policies. It means that we have to change the “cost-benefit” equation that presently underpins environmental non-compliance. For too long, rather than the “polluter paying” in Israel, it has simply “paid to pollute.” Israel is smart enough, affluent enough and competent enough to do better.

Perhaps most important of all is the need to acknowledge that Israel’s environmental crisis is a symptom—a symptom reflecting relentless population pressures, that increase every single day. This is a culturally sensitive issue. But if we truly care about leaving our children a Land of Israel fit to live in, we must confront this challenge head on. Incentives for large families must be replaced with incentives that encourage demographic self-restraint. Educational campaigns must explain the benefits of replacement-level families. And women in communities with high birth rates need to be empowered so that they can decide how many children they truly want to have.

In a 1956 interview, David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s founding prime minister—remarked that in order to be a realist in Israel, one must believe in miracles. But there is actually nothing miraculous about policies which preserve open spaces, encourage the shift to renewable energy sources, restrict the use of plastics, and incentivize recycling. This is simply sound, cost-effective environmental management. In Israel, we have shown an impressive ability to make miraculous changes, especially when motivated by the desire to ensure a better future for our children. Moving Israel back onto a track of environmental sustainability should be relatively easy.

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