Israel can be proud of inventions such as solar panels, drip irrigation and water desalination, all of which it successfully exports abroad.
But when it comes to the environment at home, and in ironic contrast to the “love of the land” that Israelis genuinely and frequently express, the country’s progress and its public awareness lags behind those of other developed nations.
Putting environmental concerns much higher on the agenda is the aim of Miki Haimovich, seventh on the list of the Blue and White party, which is polling neck and neck with the ruling Likud ahead of Tuesday’s national election.
No stranger to public life, Haimovich was the first woman to anchor the main TV news program, after which she produced a series of documentaries looking into issues such as junk food, the chicken industry, fish farming, and the condition of the sea.
From animal lover to environmental campaigner
Her journey to environmental awareness began with her love for animals. As she told the plenum of the short-lived 21st Knesset (which was dissolved in late May after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition and mustered support for a second election), she became a vegetarian, then a vegan, after learning how much animals suffered in the meat and dairy industries.
Her dietary changes and her involvement with Meatless Monday, the global do- without-meat-once-a-week-campaign, which she introduced to Israel, led her to explore the carbon footprint of livestock and humanity’s carbon footprint in general. (Cows produce just under 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases every year — the equivalent of emissions from all the world’s road vehicles, airplanes and ships combined).
Her decision to enter politics was sparked by, among other factors, the determination to act of Greta Thunberg, the feisty Swedish teenager who has galvanized the world’s youth into demanding action against climate change. Thunberg accused politicians of professing to love their children while stealing their children’s futures before their very eyes.
“She caused me to understand that my place was here, in the Knesset, to fight on this subject,” Haimovich told lawmakers. One of her first acts as a rookie parliamentarian after she was elected in April was to ask the Knesset to change the upholstery on her designated seat because she did not want to sit on leather.
During a conversation in her Tel Aviv home on Sunday, Haimovich told The Times of Israel that though she had refused offers from other parties in the past (she would not say which), she met last year informally and “out of curiosity” with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz when reports started to swirl that he was considering entering politics. The two had served together on the board of an organization that helps victims of war and terrorism.
Planning for a difficult climb
Early this year, once elections originally due to be held in November 2019 were moved up to April, she received a call from Gantz’s confidant and strategist Chili Tropper with an offer to run on his slate, then known as Israel Resilience.
A keen hiker, Haimovich at the time had a plane ticket to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. “I called the tour guy and said I had to cancel because I was going to climb a mountain of a different kind,” she quipped.
Why Gantz’s party? “It was clear that there was a real possibility of being in government, which was important to me because your ability to influence is much greater,” she said. “In addition, I felt a vacuum had been created in the Knesset because of Dov Khenin’s resignation and the fact that Yael Cohen Paran was placed in an unrealistic position by the Labor Party. (Cohen Paran is a long-time environmental activist. Dov Khenin, a communist and one of the Knesset opposition’s most prolific legislators, championed social and environmental issues as a member of the mainly Arab Joint List before resigning in January).
In preparation for becoming, as she hopes, environmental protection minister, Haimovich spent months crisscrossing the country, meeting with activists and researchers and discovering, as Khenin has done, that citizens are active in hundreds of environmental campaigns.
“Take local campaigns for the 16 gas-fired power stations that the government is planning to build really close to residential areas, on top of the five that already exist. Put them together and you’re talking about many thousands of Israelis.
“In Kiryat Haim (close to the northern city of Haifa), the oil refineries have containers for benzene, condensate (a byproduct of natural gas) and oil,” she said. “The containers are from the time of the British Mandate. They are 100 meters (330 feet) from a school. There are tenement buildings by the sea, a school and the containers alongside them. When you walk around you smell it in the air. The incidence of cancer there is 1,600 times greater than elsewhere.”
She continued, “All the power stations are required to have fuel oil in backup containers. In Rosh Ha’ayin (in central Israel) the containers are to be located above groundwater, so if there’s an accident, it will affect the water of the whole area.”
While in the broader Western world, environment ministries were being given additional authority, in Israel the Prime Minister’s Office is trying to weaken it, she added.
A special regulations unit set up in the PMO has been putting pressure on the Environmental Protection Ministry to take economic considerations into account together with environmental ones when it issues regulations on subjects such as emissions.
Israel has no long-term plan
“What we need is a long-term plan. What we’ve seen in recent years is lots of cases of ‘putting out fires.’ There’s a crisis here, throw a bit of money at it. There’s a road that’s broken, repair it. But there’s no general vision as to how we want the country to look on its 100th anniversary in 2048.
“Blue and White has a program like this. It relates to transportation, employment, health, to lots of areas of life. It says we have to open the country, not to crowd it all into the center, to create three metropolitan areas — in the center, the north and the south, each of which will enable public transportation access that takes up to half an hour,” she said.
Asked why lawmakers and officials did not take a long-term view, Haimovich said, “Because they want to show achievements, to cut the ribbon. As a politician, you campaign on the basis of what you’ve done. And there’s no continuity. Each minister wants to focus on something else.
“But you can’t work like that. If you want to progress, you have to work long term. Benny (Gantz) always says that we come with the experience of the army because the army is the only system in the country that knows how to work with multi-year plans. Today you have to know what kind of weaponry you’ll need in another ten years.”
While less surefooted on economic issues such as the connection between environmental degradation and a growth economy based on producing ever more, Haimovich wants environmental costs to be taken into account in assessments of any project’s viability.
She doesn’t want to kill industry, she said, but to ensure that it adapts to the era of climate change.
“We have to implement the principle of the polluter pays,” she said, adding, “There are problems of enforcement and of measurement in Israel. Neither are done properly. The industries are allowed to monitor themselves, and even when they’re caught, the fines are small.”
Blue and White has the support of some powerful environmental allies. One of the most vocal is Alon Tal, a veteran campaigner, head of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University and founder of Adam Teva V’Din — the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, who is placed in the unrealistic 45th spot on the party’s slate. He, Haimovich and other experts have compiled a detailed program for the first 100 days in power, should they win the election and be tasked with forming a government, which sets out the problems, aims, objectives and financial aspects of policy for eight key areas — air pollution, beaches, the sea and the rivers, trash and recycling, animal welfare, renewable energy and reduction of harmful emissions, protection of areas of special ecological or historical importance, extension of “polluter pays” policies, and long-term planning.
There is no doubting Haimovich’s passion. The question remains whether it can galvanize the Blue and White party leadership to incorporate environmental considerations into policy across the board and to make the protection of Israel’s natural resources a priority. Environmental protection appears very low down on the official party platform, between women’s issues and the interests of the self-employed and small-and-medium-sized businesses.
Haimovich notes that Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon — two of the party’s four leaders — took time out of busy schedules to attend a Blue and White environment conference last month. They listened to presentations on issues from fossil fuels and the implications of natural gas leaks for Israel’s shoreline (desalination plants supply around 75 percent of the country’s drinking water but cannot operate in the even of an oil or gas spill), to single-use plastic, of which Israel is the second biggest per capita user in the world, to trash production and disposal, where Israel comes fourth from the bottom, between Chile and Turkey, out of more than 30 countries reviewed.
“I went to a meeting about the power station that’s being planned for Kfar Saba and found that the campaign is bringing together a broad spectrum of people, from Jewish settlers to Arabs,” Haimovich said. “It’s amazing. These issues cross all boundaries. And that’s a reason that I can be optimistic even if I end up serving in the opposition. I know that I have partners.”