Despite Glasgow delegation, environment never was an Israeli priority

Israel, judging by the sheer size of the delegation it sent to the Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow that opened on Sunday, is a world leader in the climate change battle.

Except that it isn’t.

The 120-member delegation that Israel sent to the conference, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Energy Minister Karin Elharrar and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, would make it seem like this is an issue at the top of the country’s priorities, that greenhouse-gas emissions are an issue that gets the public worked up, and that this is a nation infused with a concern for the environment.

Except that would be an untruth.

The truth is the size of this delegation says nothing about the importance the government and the Israeli public have given the issue over the years.

 Minister of Transportation Merav Michaeli speaks during a memorial ceremony marking 26 years since the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on October 18, 2021.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Minister of Transportation Merav Michaeli speaks during a memorial ceremony marking 26 years since the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on October 18, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Paris in 2015 to take part in the last global climate conference was a more accurate representation of where this issue fits in on the Israeli pyramid of priorities. He attended that conference together with his wife, Sara, and the environment minister at the time, Avi Gabbay.

Netanyahu delivered a five-minute speech at that conference, the time allocated to all of the leaders there. But more telling, the meetings he held with a slew of world leaders on the sidelines of the conference – from then US president Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin – did not focus on the climate. They focused on Iran, the Palestinians and the settlements – not on carbon footprints.

I covered that conference, and the two stories sent from Paris – one of them based on a briefing Netanyahu gave reporters there – dealt with everything but the climate. What attracted the attention of the Israeli public the most from that conference was whether Netanyahu would shake hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (he did) when they stood near each other for the “family portrait” taken of all the leaders in attendance.

Even with the large delegation that is accompanying Bennett to Glasgow and all the talk about how Israel can contribute mightily in terms of new technology to fight global warming, Bennett’s meetings with world leaders in the corridors will also, inevitably, be more about Iran, Syria and settlements than climate change. There are many reasons for this – including the regional reality in which we live – but also because environmental issues have not long been too high a priority for the Jewish state.

If you doubt this, take a look at the State Comptroller’s Report from last week, which essentially said Israel has failed in dealing with the climate crisis.

Not only did Israel set low goals for itself – in terms of shrinking its carbon footprint, reducing the number of cars on the road and increasing its renewable-energy usage – but even those targets it didn’t meet.

Anyone who has lived in this country for any amount of time didn’t need the comptroller’s report to point to a neglect of environmental issues. All one has to do is tour the country to see how the public – forget about the government for a minute, but the public – treats the environment. And it is not with an abundance of care and respect.

Hike the outskirts of Jerusalem, and you’ll see trash strewn everywhere; camp near the Kinneret, and the scene is picturesque if you can just overlook the litter; drive through the hills of the Galilee, and it all looks pastoral and even biblical, until you see the hulks of old cars in a field over yonder.

Traffic jams seen on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)Traffic jams seen on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

One of Israel’s stark paradoxes has been the degree to which the Jewish people placed the Promised Land on a pedestal throughout the generations, compared with how some people treat the physical land in the here and now. One would have thought, judging by the lyrical poems to Eretz Yisrael in the past, that those living in it now would make sure to keep its rolling hills litter-free and its gurgling springs pristine. But one would be mistaken.

Truth be told, things have significantly improved over the years. But environmental awareness – both at the governmental level and at the level of how people treat the environment – lags far behind what it is elsewhere in the West.

The excuse in the past has always been that Israel – surrounded by enemies and in a constant battle for survival – does not have the luxury to focus on environmental issues. Those are concerns for countries like New Zealand and Canada, which do not have enemies right next door or in close proximity trying to wipe them off the map.

In this construct, climate concern is the equivalent of health food – the prerogative of the wealthy. Just as only the wealthy can really afford to buy sprouted whole-grain bread and organic vegetables regularly, only those countries without real existential challenges can get all worked up about the environment.

Plus, we used to be told, since Israel has to deal with so many acute short-term problems, it can’t focus on long-term ones. And there is no greater long-term problem than the climate. How much can you really get worked up about the planet heating up 1.5 degrees every few years, when you’re trying to prevent Iran from developing a bomb that can incinerate you tomorrow?

But those arguments no longer wash. Not because Israel’s short-term challenges have disappeared or gotten any easier, but rather because the country is big enough, developed enough and wealthy enough to juggle several different issues at the same time.  It can budget funds to plan a preemptive attack on Iran and still wean itself from coal. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Israel’s long neglect of environmental and climate issues reflected a nation living in an abnormal situation. That the country is now sending such a large delegation to Glasgow speaks of a nation that has attained a degree of normalcy.

Rather than saying we can’t deal with environmental issues because we have too many other things to worry about, the size of this delegation sends a different message: This is now one of the things we do need to worry about – just like everyone else; just like a “normal” country.


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