Experts: Israel has ‘no strategy’ for managing ‘lifeline’ Mediterranean Sea

Naval, planning experts tell confab that country needs laws, coordinating body, to ensure that sea, on which Israel depends for drinking water, fuel and trade, is properly managed

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Ships seen at sunset off the coast of the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, on May 13, 2019. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
Ships seen at sunset off the coast of the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, on May 13, 2019. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

The Mediterranean Sea provides the gateway for 99 percent of Israel’s imports, contributes 80% of Israel’s drinking water through desalination, and supplies natural gas to help power the country. Yet there is no maritime strategy, no single body that coordinates and responds to marine activity, and no boundaries defining Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches some 370 kilometers (230 miles) out from the coast, experts said Wednesday.

Israel suffers from “marine domain blindness,” Prof. Rear Admiral (Ret.) Shaul Chorev, who heads Haifa University’s Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center, told a conference held at Tel Aviv’s Peres Center.

The navy is well equipped to protect marine sovereignty and security, with satellite and radar information, airplane and drone patrol and land-based sensors to pick up any irregular activity, Colonel Sasi Hodeda, head of Israel Aircraft Industries’ marine unit, told the confab.

But the military is not authorized to deal with a long list of other maritime issues, Chorev pointed out, from accidents at sea and pollution events to smuggling and illegal fishing.

Other developed nations have some kind of coordinating body for marine affairs, the conference heard.

In Israel, by contrast, responsibilities for different aspects of managing the sea, beaches and cliffs — many of which are eroding — are divided between nine government ministries, plus a plethora of state organizations, ranging from the Israel Port Authority and the Tax Authority to the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company and various planning bodies, and nobody has overall responsibility.

Prof. Shaul Chorev, head of the Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa. (Courtesy)

V. Admiral (Ret.) David Ben-Bashat, a former navy commander in chief, said that he had tried unsuccessfully in the past to push for the creation of an Israeli coastguard that would combine military and civilian roles.

“I’m not sure that everyone understands the importance of the sea to us,” Ben-Bashat said. “The European Union celebrates a Sea Day in a different country every year. We used to have a Sea Day, but it stopped. Most countries have a minister for the sea.”

V. Admiral (Ret.) David Ben-Bashat. (Courtesy)

Ben-Bashat said he had paused a plan to create a maritime forum when he heard that the National Planning Council had stepped outside of its normal remit and produced a policy document a year ago on management of the maritime space.

That document (in Hebrew), explained Dalit Zilber, head of the planning council, mapped areas of potential conflict as well as opportunity in the sea, including security, marine agriculture, the production and distribution of natural resources such as gas, communications, desalination, nature science and environment, marine transport, sport, research and cliff defenses.

The planning council proposed one of three options — the creation of a marine authority, a council or a voluntary, inter-ministerial steering committee for the sea. The council favored the first, but the government would only agree to the third, Zilber said.

Dalit Zilber, head of the National Planning and Building Council. (Screenshot)

The committee will serve as a “one-stop shop” for issues relating to the cliffs, beaches and sea, Zilber went on, but while “nice,” it was no substitute for a proper marine authority with expertise and legal teeth.

Deputy Defense Minister Alon Shuster said that following the huge tar spill that hit Israel’s shores in February, there was now more communication between the defense and environmental protection ministries. His staff was looking at how security forces could cooperate on a more formal footing when it comes to civilian disasters, he added, saying that “the tar was the trigger.”

Following the discovery of the February spill, some 15,000 volunteers helped coastal authorities, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the non-profit marine protection organizations EcoOcean and Zalul to clean up sands stretching from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Nitzanim in the south. The sale of Mediterranean fish was temporarily suspended and beaches were closed, with the first 17 reopening only on March 7.

Israeli volunteers clean tar off a beach following an offshore oil spill which covered most of the Israeli Mediterranean coastline with tar, on February 22, 2021. (Flash90)

The spill was eventually traced to an uninsured Syrian-owned ship, the Emerald. The London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund agreed to compensate the state for the damage caused.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is pushing for legislation that will anchor a national program — and budgets — for readiness and response to an oil spill.

A draft bill, which has completed its public and ministry consultation stages, comes 21 years after the government agreed to pass such legislation. Passing the bill is one of the ministry’s highest priorities, Ministry Director General Galit Cohen said.

Pieces of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea wash up on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel, on Monday, March 1, 2021. The cleanup from the disastrous oil spill that has blackened most of the country’s shoreline is expected to take months. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Cohen said that the ministry’s marine protection unit was gearing up to spend substantial funds on equipment and personnel in order to be better placed to deal with any future marine spills. It was waiting neither for legislation nor for additional government budgets, she said. The money would come from a fund for the prevention of marine pollution, which still contained several tens of millions of shekels. In order to cover additional cash, the ministry was considering increasing fines levied on polluters.

Cohen said that the results of a committee of ministry directors general set up to probe treatment of the February oil spill would be published in the coming days, with recommendations and details on the budgets needed going forward.

The Leviathan natural gas platform off the shore of Israel. (Albatross)

Efforts to pass a Marine Areas Law to determine authority for aspects of marine management have not made it through the Knesset, the conference was told.

The latter has largely been stymied by the Energy Ministry’s lack of willingness to cede any control to the Environmental Protection Ministry. To this day, oil and gas exploration within Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone does not require any environmental risk surveys.

The conference was an initiative of Hila Ehrenreich, former director of the Mediterranean Costal Cliff Preservation Government Company.

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