Daniel Orenstein

For a sustainable future, protest the ‘reforms’

The changes will shrink accountability and eliminate safeguards that protect the environment and public health
Israel and a sustainable future (credit: PikiWiki)
Protest for a clean and healthy future (The Israeli flag flies on Mt. Herzl; credit PikiWiki)

This Monday, 13 February, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will take a stand for democracy and against our government’s proposed judicial ‘reforms’. These proposals, decisively panned by hundreds of Israeli and International experts in law, governance, and economics, will profoundly weaken the democratic foundations of the state by concentrating power in the hands of a few politicians, who will have no checks and balances, little accountability, and few limits to their legislative and administrative aspirations. As countless experts have already pointed out, the ‘reforms’ are bad for democracy, bad for the economy, and bad for Israel’s security. The ‘reforms’, along with most of the new government’s political agenda, is also bad for Israel’s long-term environmental sustainability. As such, environmental activists and scholars should be on the front line of Monday’s protest, and every protest after that until the sustainability-crushing agenda of the current government is defeated.

We are now into the second turbulent month of the most politically and economically right-wing and religiously fundamentalist government in the country’s history. In addition to its numerous controversial, headline-grabbing policy proposals concerning the judicial system, media and culture, education, immigration, personal liberties, and security, we also find a government overtly hostile to environmental and public health concerns. In a single month, the incoming government managed to (1) cancel the tax on disposal plastic utensils, (2) cancel a tax on sugary soft drinks, (3) propose removing representatives of the Ministry for Environmental Protection from planning committees, (4) soften restrictions on dedicated lanes on highways for public transportation and carpools, and (5) put forth the universally discredited plan for judiciary reform that will drastically reduce the public’s ability to fight environmental nuisances in court.

While these first four acts immediately resonated (and offended) advocates for environmental quality and public health, the environmental implications of the fourth act, the proposed judicial reforms, are not widely known to the public, perhaps because their implications are so wide-reaching and so bad in more fundamental ways that the environmental angle is largely forgotten. It seems easy to overlook the environmental implications of the reforms when they constitute such a broader existential threat to Israel’s democratic nature. As political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin recently told CNN, the current reforms would “severely constrain the independence of the judiciary as a whole, and effectively end judicial review of legislation and, frankly, of executive powers, as well”.

The director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense CEO, Attn. Amit Bracha, stepped into the void last month and sounded the alarm about how these reforms will impact environmental policies and laws. Bracha, who has decades of experience in Israeli environmental law and policy, should be heard; the reforms, he writes, will “prevent the courts from conducting judicial review and… reduce beyond recognition the ability of civil society organizations to protect human rights and to obtain effective remedies to correct environmental injustices.”

Bracha, along with legal scholar Prof. Oren Perez of Bar Ilan University, expanded upon the importance of a strong and independent judicial system to assure public health and a clean environment in an op-ed to Israel’s Calcalist newspaper. Here, they recount the crucial role courts have played around the world in holding governments and industries accountable for their pollution and their impacts on public health and climate change. They go on to list contemporary examples in which Israel’s courts have stopped overly lenient government decisions towards polluters, in order to strengthen protection of Israeli citizens from environmental harms and ensure that environmental justice prevailed. The court’s ability to protect average citizens, they assert, would be drastically reduced under the currently proposed reforms.

Last month’s rapid cancelation of Israel’s modern environmental regulations by the new government, coupled with the negative impacts of the proposed judicial reforms, should be enough to motivate every Israeli who cares about their health and environment to take an uncompromising stand against the current government’s proposals and join the national strike against the proposed judicial reforms.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Israel has also committed to them. (credit: United Nations).

But the responsibilities of every citizen concerned about the future quality of life in Israel should not end with this protest. Consider this: Environmental sustainability is not only about individual environmental policies or one-off administrative decisions. True sustainability, as encapsulated in the United Nations sustainable development goals and supported by a vast research literature, depends on supporting a vibrant democracy, not only in which public voices are heard, but minority rights and freedoms are safeguarded. Sustainability depends not only on access to clean air and water, but on gender equality, universal access to quality education and health care, and poverty reduction. True sustainability cannot occur in a state of constant warfare, aggression, and occupation, where environmental quality is assured only to the privileged few. Based on the first month of experience, the current government has also failed miserably on peace, justice, gender equality – all key foundational characteristics of a sustainable society.

There is no indication that this government’s performance regarding environmental sustainability will improve with time. For a sustainable future, we must defeat the proposed judicial reforms… and then replace this government.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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