Alon Tal
Alon Tal
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My maiden speech to the Knesset on the environment

If we have only 10 years to stabilize greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, we may have even less time to protect the land of Israel. We must act now
Sunrise on the Haifa Bay, 2006. (Wikipedia)
Sunrise on the Haifa Bay, 2006. (Wikipedia)

Mr. Chairman, Members of Knesset,

Today I would like to submit a single question to you: Does this parliament have the necessary courage to change Israel’s course from one of environmental crisis to sustainability and harmony with the environment?

I moved to Israel 40 years ago. I arrived from a “mixed” family ideologically. My mother, Dr. Yonina Rosenthal, grew up in a family with deep roots in the Revisionist Zionist tradition that believed in freedom and the Iron Wall. The family of my father, Dr. David Tal, had more of a socialist perspective and advocated equality of opportunity. While I was growing up, he was head of a laboratory that monitored pollution across the United States. From him, I learned that only a fool would formulate policy without first consulting with scientists.

With such polarized and opposing political influences, it isn’t surprising that I joined the Blue and White party. It feels right to be in the center of the political map — close enough to touch the left, as well as the right. I have no doubt that when you analyze the true challenges of the State of Israel, the conventional political divisions are less and less relevant: We all share a common aspiration for life in an Israel with clean air, fresh water, functioning ecosystems, and scenic, open, and clean vistas.

When I arrived in Israel at 17, it was clear to me that Israel had only been partially successful in this effort. The parades of conquerors passing through this ancient land during the past two thousand years were not good for the local landscape and its woodlands. Israel’s forests had almost completely disappeared. Aerial photographs from World War I reveal that close to 97 percent of the natural woodlands were simply gone.

To my delight, the trees of the forest have begun to celebrate again, offering a range of ecosystem services to the public. Resolute action by the Nature and Parks Authority revived numerous animal species that had almost disappeared from our land. Israel’s miraculous agriculture flourishes in drylands that for years suffered from extreme soil erosion. And recently, desalination provides excellent and reliable drinking water.

But when I moved to Israel, I most saw a very different reality. Within 33 days, I was drafted as a lone soldier into the Israel Defense Forces. Parenthetically, I would add that at that time I had a young company command who I greatly admired and who helped me complete the demanding training program of the paratroopers. Years later, the same impressive company commander would become the chairman of a political party. This seems like a good time to say thanks to Benny Gantz, who understands the important of environmental protection and, twice now, has had faith in me.

As a soldier, I rambled across the country with my unit, “from Dan to Eilat.” I was astonished to discover the state of the environment in Israel in those days: polluted streams; untreated sewage; tar on beaches of epidemic dimensions; recycling an unknown concept. And carpets of litter in every corner.

I thought at the time that it simply was not logical that Israeli citizens dedicate the best years of their lives to protecting the land, while at the same time, the state was not protecting the environment. My friend, the late Yosef Tamir, the first green Knesset member used to say: “We sacrifice the best of our sons to protect our land — that we then we destroy with our very own hands.”

It was clear to me that this was a national challenge and that I needed to participate in this historic mission: alongside national redemption, the ecological restoration of a promised, but wounded land. Since that time, I find myself on different fronts of the battle for a beautiful and healthy Israel.

After completing a few academic degrees, I started to work. I established Adam Teva V’din, The Israel Union for Environmental Defense. It was my conviction that an independent, activist, and professional judiciary was the best guarantee for ensuring a sound environment for the citizens of Israel. Based on actual results from 30 years of activities and numerous achievements, I have no doubt that this is so.

We were a group of young lawyers and scientists. Most of us were not yet 30. We filed dozens of suits against anything that moved and polluted: against emissions from factories; against the complacency of government ministries; and against the myopia of planning commissions. We also wrote key environmental laws. I am happy that 20 years after I moved on, Adam Teva V’din continues to do so many virtuous things and to mitigate environmental damage.

Even so, there are places in Israel where environmental conditions are unreasonable. For example, the periphery, as well as many Arab communities, lack the necessary infrastructure and budgets.

Israel is healthier and cleaner as a result of the resourcefulness of our wonderful environmental organizations, along with the work of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. But many challenges remain ahead.

Today, we understand that our environmental challenges are part of a global crisis. Climate change is no longer a remote and vague concern, but a real and threatening reality. We are witness to extreme rain events and floods, frequent fires, droughts, and very hot days in Israel.

Around the world, many have long since observed that we are the first generation to feel the warming of the earth — and the last that is capable of doing something about it. It will not be possible to fix our omissions.

Unfortunately, the response of Israel’s governments to the climate crisis, historically, has been disappointing. While all the developed countries worked to meaningfully mitigate their greenhouse emissions, Israel evaded reductions and only promised to cut “per capita emissions.”

The meaning of this commitment, de facto, is continued increase in emissions — notwithstanding the warning of climate scientists who explain that we barely have 10 years to make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases in order to avoid climatic chaos.

Our atmosphere really is not interested in excuses and per capita formulas. The earth will simply continue to heat up. The international community has gotten under a stretcher in order to bring humanity to a safer place. But the State of Israel opted out and only sought “discounts” for itself.

We absolutely must be part of the international solution. We can yet serve as a “light unto the nations” — a light that is entirely powered by renewable energy.

This coming November, all the world’s countries convene in Scotland to update their National Determined Contributions and to tighten their emissions reductions.

Members of the Knesset — this is an hour of grace. We have an opportunity to change direction. I am very proud to be part of the first coalition in Israel’s history that included climate legislation in the government’s basic platform.

Here in the Knesset, we need to ensure that Israel’s Climate Law is serious, with a carbon tax on goods and services that harm the environment – along with protection for disadvantaged socio-economic groups. All over the world, these laws are starting to change the economic equation for polluting activities. Now it is our turn.

The climate crisis reminds us that we cannot deal only in symptoms. The causes of Israel’s ecological ailments rarely receive any attention, not to mention intensive intervention.

There are many causes behind Israel’s environmental crisis: greed; hastiness, ignorance, myopia. In recent years, scientific research has confirmed that population pressures are also a significant cause.

When Israel set out on its journey, one million people lived here. In 1960, only two million. And the population continued to grow until it reached 9.3 million people today.

Demographic growth was logical and even essential when Israel was a sparsely populated country. This was certainly the case after the Holocaust, when one in every three Jews in the world had been murdered.

But today, thank heavens, the State of Israel is in a different place. Some of you have surely noticed that in practice, Israel has become the most crowded of the developed countries. According to the projections of experts in Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, within 35 years the population is expected to double again. There will be close to 20 million people here.

Today, we already see that the quality of life for all of us is compromised: traffic jams, crowded classrooms and hospitals, the rise in housing prices, pollution emissions and loss of open spaces – all are a result of the same demographic drivers.

Carrying capacity is not a new concept. In fact the first documentation of the dynamic appears in the book of Genesis. The conflict between the herders of Abraham and the herders of Lot highlighted the constraints of our tiny land of Israel, once the goats and cattle exceeded their rangelands. After all, only an economist can believe that it is possible to grow indefinitely in a closed ecological system. Our patriarch Abraham reached different conclusions.

Now, it is surely possible to ignore the implications of 18 million people in the year 2050. But no Israeli can ignore the result of ignoring it. I call upon this Knesset to begin addressing the challenge of crowding seriously – to think about stability along with adaptation. The sooner the better.

Of course this is a complex and highly charged issue. But the public elected us to address difficult topics and challenges. As elected officials, we all have a responsibility to be loyal to truth and to worry about the future of the state of Israel and its citizens.

We the members of Knesset and government ministries need to initiate a process of long term planning in all areas of life affected by the growing population density. If we act now, we can still save a great deal.

To that end, I intend to sponsor diverse and extensive legislation in areas that touch each and every one of us: a climate law, removing the polluting industries from Haifa Bay; a modern forestry law that will replace a hundred-year old ordinance from the British Mandate; protection of open spaces; conservation of biodiversity and ecological corridors; preservation of natural urban parks; an important amendment to the Coastal Protection Law (that has been waiting years for adoption); animal welfare protection; promotion of sustainable transportation options; regulations to protect the felling of trees; and providing funding for environmental organizations through the government’s Protection of Cleanliness fund.

These are just a few of the topics that I intend to promote. I invite you to join me as partners.

Members of Knesset: when I look out at the assembly before me now, I see a rich human mosaic and the diversity of opinions in Israel. Nonetheless, I believe that there is one value that is dear to all of us – perhaps the only value that unites us: The love of the land and our desire as Knesset members to leave it in better condition for future generations. I also believe this to be a universal aspiration. Sustainability can be a basis for dialogue and cooperation with our neighbors.

I would like to end with the warning of the political poet, S. Yizhar – otherwise known as Knesset Member Yizhar Smilansky. He related to these challenges as early as 1962:

“An ugly land will give birth to ugly people…. A land with winds that blow without wild flowers — will be a place of suffocation. A land where there is no open, unimpeded breeze will be a hotel — and not a homeland.”

His words continue to resonate today, more than ever. Friends, what we don’t do today, we will not be able to do tomorrow. We must not miss the proverbial train.

If UN scientists are right that we have only 10 years to stabilize greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere – I believe that we have even less time to protect Israel’s habitats and vistas.

During the coming years, let’s set aside our legitimate political debates and act to protect our common environment. Let’s act for the good of our children’s future. And I imagine that there is no more heinous crime than stealing from our children.

The trends are disconcerting. But trends do not constitute destiny. We have the opportunity and responsibility to return the harmony between all the citizens of Israel and the land of Israel, the region and the only planet that we will ever know.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal is a member of Israel's Knesset representing the Blue and White Party, a veteran environmental activist, and an academic based at Tel Aviv University's Department of Public Policy.
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