Author Archives: Daniel

No to public participation in planning?

The Jezreel Valley in northern Israel is not what it used to be.  Once hailed by Israel’s national composer, Natan Alterman, for its glorious beauty, agricultural fields, and its peace and solitude, is today in the midst of unprecedented development, with roads and rail lines checkering the valley and industrial zones and residential neighborhoods sprawling across the basin floor. In the Arava, where residents report that their landscape and open spaces are precious to them, rail lines, mining, water conduits and airports are all in the planning and implementation stages. In the Sharon region, 90% of the residents report that they want to preserve the rural character of their communities, and are fighting to prevent natural gas infrastructure from dominating their coastline.  And the residents of the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolis clog the roads north and south every weekend to seek relaxation and a glimpse of nature in Israel’s last open spaces.  This temporary migration reaches a crescendo on every national holiday when the police and land management agencies plead to the public to stop coming to the national parks and forests, as they are already filled beyond capacity.

Israel’s growing population and shrinking open spaces warrant a professional and multi-talented planning authority that can reconcile competing needs and desires of the population in the short and long term.  If sustainability – social and economic development coupled with the maintenance of the ecological systems on which we depend – is our goal, then public participation in the planning process is one of the most crucial ingredients.  As revealed in a recently completed systematic review of sustainability projects around the world, a common theme throughout all the projects is public participation and transparency.

In Israel, our history is not bad in that regard.  Our robust planning system has multiple layers of opportunities for the public to be engaged in the process, including the opportunity to submit opinions, public hearings, transparent protocols, engagement of planning professionals, and inclusion of public representatives in planning bodies.  Even with these tools, the challenges for assuring long-term sustainability and the preservation of our ecological resources is immense.

Yet Interior Ministry Gidon Sa’ar and Binat Schwartz, head of the ministry’s planning authority, want to dismantle one of the key elements of our planning system’s sustainable strategy.  In a cynical spin on the popular protest against rising housing prices, Schwartz, in a recent editorial in the Marker, blames the current situation on environmental organizations and their representatives in planning bodies.  Under the false claim that there is not enough land for residential development, they want to purge planning bodies of anyone they deem stands in their way from quickly designating land for development wherever they see fit. 

Their current “reform” is culling public representatives from planning bodies, starting with the Subcommittee on Principle Planning Matters.  That task of that subcommittee with the clunky name is to advise the National Planning Council on issue that the Council requests, including issues concerning national and regional outline plans, public appeals, deviations and more. A recent meeting of that subcommittee in March dealt with residential expansion of a moshav, road infrastructure, development of agricultural land, proposed deviations from statutory outline plans, illegal construction, sewage infrastructure and more.  All of these topics are directly relevant to public health, open space preservation, ecological integrity, and social and economic equity. They are not simple technical conversations.

The subcommittee included, until recently, a host of government appointees, in addition to representatives of the environmental movement, settlement institutions (the Jewish Agency and others), future generations, and professional guilds (planners, architects and civil engineers).  These non-governmental representatives have been dismissed as part of the Saar-Schwartz “reform”.  This was a step in the wrong direction. In the shadow of the Holyland fiasco and the exposure of insidious economic interests within the planning system, what we need is more, not less, public input and transparency.

To justify tossing the public representatives from planning bodies, Schwartz paints herself and Israel’s citizens as victims of an all-powerful environmental lobby. She blames the emigration of young Israelis and their lack of hope on the environmental movement, preventing her from building apartments.  In truth, the environmental movement had a single representative on her 18-member committee – enough to serve as a watchdog, but not to bottleneck the system. Schwartz, on the other hand, is both powerful (chosen by Haaretz as one of 100 most influential people in Israel) and has used her various influential posts to support development over local and environmental concerns and to find ways to push development quickly through the planning system.

More importantly, as my colleague, Professor Amnon Frenkel, argued in the pages of Y-Net, the housing crisis is symptomatic of a far greater crisis penetrating Israeli society: income inequality, lack of social welfare, poverty and exploitation of workers.  Those problems won’t be solved by rapid expansion of the housing stock.

This purge of public representatives in planning bodies is only a small part of a broader picture that includes several other proposed “reforms”.   Sa’ar and Schwartz support significant revisions to National Outline Plan 35 that only a few years ago was hailed as a critical new strategy to address Israel’s rising population density.  It would seem that they are engineering the systematic deconstruction of the Israeli planning system, allowing government officials to play with our most precious natural resources without the hassle of considering the long-term needs of the country.  According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s population will likely reach 10 million by the end of this decade, and will likely double within 45 years.  Protecting the quality of life and environment in Israel will be of even greater urgency.  The growing need for a public dialogue cannot be allowed to fall victim to the Sa’ar and Schwartz’ proposed “reforms.”

By Daniel Orenstein, Assistant professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology; Originally submitted for publication at The Times of Israel, but current event pushed this important subject temporarily off the public agenda…



Election season underway

Tonight, 18 October, the Green Movement held its first activist meeting in Tel Aviv.  Check in at this site, join the Green Movement facebook site, or check in at the main party site to see how you can help.  More soon.

Meet Racheli Tidhar-Caner, co-chair of the Israel Green Movement


Racheli Tidhar-Caner was recently voted co-chair of the Israel Green Movement, alongside co-chair Alon Tal.

Co-Chairperson Racheli Tidhar-Caner

For those in the environmental movement, Racheli is a familiar face. Not only is she a founding member of the Israel Green Movement, she has participated (and led) many of Israel’s most prominent environmental campaigns. Chief among them are the campaigns to improve public transportation, protect Red Sea coral reefs from fish farms, preserve the Jerusalem Forests, improve air quality in Haifa Bay, protect the Nitzanim coast from development, and prevent construction of new coal-fired energy plants. Further, she has been active in promoting legislation in Knesset for recycling, clean air and coastline protection. Racheli volunteered, worked and was a member of the governing council of the student environmental organization, Green Course.

Racheli is trained as strategic advisor for social and environmental change, working with a broad variety of social and environmental organizations. She serves as chairwoman of Re’em Association, a volunteer organization advocating for anthroposophic (Waldorf) education in Rehovot, and is a project manager for the Shatil environmental justice program. She has consulted for women’s rights, educational, and accessibility organizations, and assists communities to increase public participation in local government. Her latest writing on strengthening the role of women in politics (in Hebrew) is available here.

Racheli holds a dual bachelor’s degree in geography and Hebrew literature from Ben Gurion University of the Negev and a Master’s degree in organizational behavior from the New York Polytechnic University (Israel branch). She is a graduate of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and was a member of the Moshav Movement’s Garin Oded. She is married to Niv, and mother to Ayelet, Neta and Omri.

Green Movement – the Next Generation

If you weren’t among the 180 party members voting on the new leadership list last week… Or if you haven’t been following the drama around the appointment of Israel’s new Chief of Staff… Or if you are unaware that there is – for the first time – a party in Israel that guarantees equal representation of men and women… Then you are not following the most optimistic signs of life in an otherwise dismal political scene in Israel.

Green Movement Members Vote

First and foremost, party members meeting last week approved a policy that the Israel Green Movement will be led by one female and one male leader.  The model, introduced by the German Green Party and approved overwhelmingly by the party membership, aims to facilitate the advancement of women into the political system.  The Green Movement doesn’t just talk about equal representation, we act.

The new leadership will be led by long-time Green Movement activist and leader Racheli Tidhar-Caner, alongside Professor Alon Tal.  The leadership team is rounded out with party founder Eran Ben Yemini, Professor and Tel Aviv city councilman Noah Efron, executive director of the Israel Energy Forum Yael Cohen-ParanAvi Dabush (Coordinator of Shatil’s Environmental Justice program), Sagit Porat (Paths To Sustainability Coalition Coordinator), Ahmed Amrani (Director General of the Office of the Mayor of Rahat), and Dr. Sarit Oked (community and environmental activist in Arad).

The movement meeting followed closely behind the decision of the Israeli government to retract the appointment of Major General Yoav Galant to the post of Chief of Staff.  Their decision was a direct result of the Green Movement petition to the Supreme Court questioning the ethical behavior of Galant and the faulty process by which he was vetted for the position.

Chairperson Alon Tal

Chairperson Racheli Tidhar-Kaner

Defending the home front

The next IDF chief, Yoav Galant, might be worthy of being Isrel’s no. 1 soldier, but his illegal acquisition of public land for private use and development of his property questions his moral, legal integrity.

By Daniel Orenstein on

The chief of staff is Israel’s No. 1 soldier. The country’s security rests on his shoulders and its army is expected to follow him into battle. He should thus be a person with an impressive military record, charisma, intellect and determination.

But should the chief of staff also display outstanding integrity and be a law-abiding individual who respects his fellow citizens? The state says yes, which is why Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant’s appointment to the chief of staff post was reviewed by the the Turkel committee, tasked with assessing the integrity and thus suitability of candidates for senior government positions.

Last month, the panel approved Galant. Yet, despite its lightning-fast approval, lingering doubts remain, as seen in comments by the deputy attorney general and by the Turkel committee itself. At issue is Galant’s illegal acquisition of public land for private use and development of that land as an extension of his own property.

The Israel Green Movement, along with six of its national leaders, is appealing to the Supreme Court to halt the appointment. They charge that the committee was negligent in approving Galant before doing its homework. The petitioners describe how Galant “took control of land against the law and consistently, and with thuggish behavior, ruthlessly and crudely trampled law and order − behavior that started in 2006 and continues until this day.”

The story, meticulously covered by Maariv journalist Kalman Libskind, begins in the late 1990s when Galant purchased a five-dunam lot on Moshav Amikam, near Zichron Yaakov, and built a new home. The Galants were reportedly unhappy that their driveway would cut through their own land, so they cleared a new road on public land between the neighbors’ homes. The neighbors complained and the head of the local planning authority ordered a cessation of the road building. Then Galant built a new road, again on public land, this time even longer. When the neighbors challenged this road, Galant produced a letter from the army stating that it was required for “emergency evacuations.”

Meanwhile, Galant went on to plant trees along the driveway, obstructing the neighbors’ views. When a neighbor tried to trim them, Galant cynically had her arrested for damaging trees. Next he cleared a parking lot, put up fencing and lighting, and extended his garden, all on publicly owned land designated as open space.

The Galants were given an additional 35 dunams of land by the Israel Lands Administration for agricultural use without going through conventional channels and, according to the Green Movement appeal, without paying. Then Galant took 28 dunams more for agriculture with no official approval. This proved too much for even the ILA, which sent a letter to Galant in 2006 demanding he uproot the trees and evacuate the additional 28 dunams. It took him two years to apologize for his “mistaken” cultivation of the additional land, and an additional year to remove the trees.

A paper trail of half a dozen court and local planning committee statements compiled by the Green Movement suggests that Galant systematically disregarded planning laws and procedures. But there are other important implications that go far beyond one individual exercising his political clout for personal gain.

When our military and civilian leaders show disregard for the law, the effect is a trickle-down justification of lawlessness and of cynicism that magnifies the impact of the leader’s activities. As one of his neighbors tellingly revealed to Haaretz, “Many people in Amikam sit on public land. The point is that we have a gentlemen’s agreement that as long as it doesn’t bother the neighbors, it’s not a problem.” A second neighbor excused Galant’s actions with a blithe reference to Ariel Sharon, whose Sycamore Ranch is the largest private farm in the country, also acquiring land through questionable means.

Secondly, the lack of response to Galant’s flaunting of the law also erodes faith in the public institutions that are responsible for enforcing it. When the Haifa district building supervisor requested that the authorities stop Galant from using the illegally constructed infrastructure, the man added that if this did not happen, his agency would continue losing the public’s faith. But Galant persevered and created new facts on the ground and the authority of the public planning and building committees was indeed diminished.

By ignoring Galant’s behavior, the effectiveness of the Turkel committee, guardian of government integrity, is also brought into doubt. Indeed by its own admission, it reached its conclusions before reviewing any of the claims regarding Galant’s land grab, and despite the results of the deputy attorney general’s report. In short, Galant may have been guilty of actions that call his integrity into question, but the committee assigned to investigate didn’t take the time to investigate.

We need not accept this behavior from our military leaders or politicians, and we should demand of our public institutions − land-use agencies, courts and government committees − to fulfill their role to the public, regardless of the standing of the individual under question. As for Maj. Gen. Galant, if the Green Movement petitioners are correct, he should immediately evacuate all but his five dunams and return the rest to the public.

When fire is an abnormal event

When the mandatory review of the events surrounding the fire is complete, and its conclusions reported, it must not overlook the ecological conditions that contributed to the pall of smoke wafting from Mt. Carmel.

By Daniel Orenstein on

The flames were still spreading across the Carmel Forest and homes were under imminent threat when a steady stream of commentary began to burst forth. The commentators rightly agreed: Israel was woefully unprepared for a fire of this magnitude, and years of insufficient budgets for firefighters and equipment were tantamount to extreme negligence. The human tragedy of 42 deaths and scores of burnt homes magnified this conclusion.

When the mandatory review of the events surrounding the fire is complete, and its conclusions reported, it must not overlook the ecological conditions that contributed to the pall of smoke wafting from Mt. Carmel. How we manage our forests, activities in and around the forests, and climate change are all considerations that should be folded into our long-term policy to avoid the disastrous consequences of future fires.

Note that I don’t write that we make policy to avoid future fires. Fires – human-caused and natural – have been occurring on Mt. Carmel for more than 750,000 years. Ecologist Zeev Naveh, who has spent his career studying the Carmel, goes so far as to call it a Mediterranean fire bioclimate. Many of the local species of flora are adapted to, or even dependent on, periodic fires, which clear out their competitors and allow them to regenerate. In this way, biodiversity in the forests is also increased. With the first post-fire winter rains, seedlings signal the forest’s regeneration. It is incorrect to speak of burned forest areas as being destroyed.

Re-colonization of burnt areas, however, is contingent upon having undamaged areas from which plants and animals can colonize, and having viable seeds left in the soil to resprout after the fire. This means we need large areas set aside for protection, so that a mosaic of periodic fires can be allowed to occur in different areas and at different times. Further, restoration work following a fire must be conducted with minimal damage to the soil, so as to avoid damaging the seed bank.

But if fire is a normal event, why did this one end so tragically? One reason is our management strategies. A prominent and oft-ignored recommendation from previous post-fire professional reports is the need for creating fire breaks – areas with little to burn – by clearing vegetation away from roads and built-up areas. Cows and goats can often be used in lieu of heavy equipment to prevent the accumulation of flammable material. While too much grazing can be destructive, the ecological system thrives in the presence of a moderate level that lowers fire risk and maintains a high biodiversity of plants. The impending professional review must investigate why, despite numerous recommendations, the scale of fire breaks and forest clearing around built-up areas has been so inadequate.

Another activity to be discouraged is planting of pine trees. Coupled with fire suppression in the naturally occurring oak-pistachio woodland ecosystem, pine plantations are highly flammable, and their presence encourages the outbreak of hotter, more destructive fires. Some pines occur naturally on the Carmel, and they are the first to re-sprout following fires, but pine planting should be restricted from all areas except recreational and picnic areas; the rest should be left to natural regeneration.

The second reason why this fire was so tragic is that many of us want to live surrounded by forest. The most terrible consequence of forest fires is the loss of human life – in particular, of those who live in the forest and those called upon to protect them when it burns. Such losses can be avoided to some extent by preventing further residential and commercial encroachment on forested areas. Preventing such expansion into the Carmel Park will protect human life and property and maximize the size of the area being preserved to assure its long-term ecological viability.

The third reason this fire was so devastating is global climate change. The Carmel fire followed five years of drought, and the driest November in almost 50 years. Local climate modelers predict that the north of Israel will experience warmer temperatures and declining precipitation (and the rain that does fall will come in heavier events ). The result will be more water running off into the sea, higher evaporation rates, and less water infiltration into the ground for the utilization of plants and humans. Israel’s current drought is consistent with a climate we’d expect in a warming world. And so are drier forests, which are more susceptible to fire events.

With this increase in fire threat due to climate change in mind, Israel has two policy options: prevention and adaptation. On the one hand, we should be reducing our carbon emissions. Indeed, the recent government decision to reduce these emissions by 20 percent in the next decade is a good start. On the other, we need to build more resilience into our social and ecological systems – including ensuring better disaster preparedness, preserving a greater amount of open space and water as a buffer against unforeseen future environmental changes, and managing our forests with defensible space between human settlement and natural preserves. Such practices will improve our capacity to deal not only with fires in the future, but also with many types of natural or human caused disasters.

With some ecological foresight and resolute leadership – and yes, proper funding for a firefighting service – perhaps we can limit the damage of the next, inevitable fire.

Bibi and his privatization obsession: A continuing story

Having sold off many government companies in his last term as prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu now turns to Israel’s public land as the next potential victim of his privatization obsession.  He tried to sneak it through in a seemingly irrelevant budget-related legislation (חוק הסדרים) and when pressed on the matter, he claimed its all about making it Sharon_Pt_7 015_compressedeasier to enclose balconies in apartments.  Right.  Well, a fascinating broad-based coalition quickly organized in opposition, ranging from the Zionist Right through the Zionist center/left and to the Socialist left and its managed to squeeze a few concessions out of the prime minister, and may yet be able to stop the deal.  Green Movement leaders have been central in organizing opposition to the privatization effort.  Green Movement deputy chair explains more fully why we should oppose this effort in his op-ed in Ha’aretz today.  He writes:

The real loss, however, involves the extent of the sell-off. The bill states that 800,000 dunams, or 4 percent of Israel’s lands, are to be put on the block. Supporters glibly claim that 4 percent is trivial. It’s anything but. When the deserts of the south are taken out of the equation, along with the nature reserves, forests and of course the military training grounds, this means an extraordinary percentage of the lands in central Israel will be up for sale.

The difference between private and public land ownership can easily be demonstrated by comparing the results of two major past development controversies. In Haifa, developers linked up with private landowners to push through approval of the seven seaside Carmel Towers. Because of litigation, only two of these monstrosities now block the view and the breeze of the adjacent neighborhoods, so that a few wealthy landowners can enjoy their private beach-front perches. But it is just a question of time before a political constellation revives the original plan and a new wall of concrete neutralizes more than a kilometer of beach.

The results were different in Nes Tziona, where a vast apartment complex was proposed for the Iris Hills, one of the last calcareous sandstone (kurkar) hillsides in Israel’s center, and home to a remarkable diversity of disappearing flora. Last year the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by private landowners to break a stalemate with the Jewish National Fund, which owned much of the land, and force through their building program. 

For the full article, click here.  For the Hebrew website of the coalition organizing against the privatization, click here.