A Battle to Plan for the Environment

Representatives from 20 organizations join for an emergency meeting at SPNI headquarters. [Photo: Dov Greenblat]

This summer is shaping up to be a difficult one for Israel’s environment, democracy and SPNI. Following the March 2015 elections, political heavy-weights in the new government are intent on reorganizing planning committees. In an unprecedented power grab, Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon is seeking to move the Housing Committee under the Ministry of Finance from the Ministry of the Interior. The move will gut democratic norms, disregard national master plans, enable select ministers to act for political gain and remove the checks and balances of public debate. SPNI is gearing up for a difficult battle, but one that must be fought before irreversible damage is done to our natural spaces and democratic values.

SPNI has already had one significant achievement in this battle by demanding that the Minister for Environmental Protection, Avi Gabbay, is part of the newly formed Housing Cabinet. SPNI contributed to public and media pressure which swiftly led to the Ministry of Justice ruling that Gabbay cannot be excluded from these important discussions. Within the Housing Cabinet he will promote urban regeneration and stand up for the importance of protecting natural open spaces to ensure a high quality of life for all Israelis.

On June 1st, SPNI convened an emergency meeting of Israel’s planners and environmentalists. In total more than 40 representatives from 20 different organizations crowded into SPNI’s conference room in our headquarters, including: Migzar (the umbrella group for the public sector), the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Life and Environment (the umbrella group for environmental non-profits), the Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva v’Din), Green Course, Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, the Israeli Association of Landscape Architects, the Council for a Beautiful Israel, Green Now, as well as representatives of regional councils, local authorities and kibbutzim.

During this meeting, a strategy for battle was outlined:

1. Planners within the planning system will be able to maintain their intellectual independence

2. The professionalism of the planning system must be kept intact

3. Public opinion and scrutiny must continue to be an integral part of the planning system

4. The Planning Directorate must be left under the authority of the Ministry for the Interior and not transferred to the Finance Ministry

5. A planning watchdog will be established to increase transparency in planning processes and ensure the continued independence of planning committees

In the week since this meeting was held much has already happened. Several articles have been published in Israel’s daily newspapers and online supporting SPNI’s position, with media coverage continuing. A formal letter was sent to Moshe Kahlon, Minister of Finance, asking him not to go through with these policies – an article based on this letter was also published in the Marker  (one of Israel’s two main financial newspapers). Joshua “Shuki” Amrani, the Chair of the National Planning Council will hold a special debate about the planned legislative and structural changes to government planning.

While the government will be holding the vote that determines the immediate fate of Israel’s planning committees, SPNI and our partners will be holding a demonstration against “Kahlon’s Planning Monopoly”.

SPNI and MK Dov Hanin have organized an emergency debate to take place Wednesday, June 10 in the Knesset on this topic. This debate is open to anyone and will allow for airing of a wide spectrum of opinions of the planned reforms of Israel’s planning processes.

On Thursday 18th June, a professional conference (open to the public) will take place in Tel Aviv on this issue. Prof Eran Feitelson from Hebrew University and Edna Lerman from the American Planning Association will participate.

This fight is not only for the future of Israel’s lands and natural resources but is also an important struggle for the sanctity of our democratic systems. We thank you, our friends and supporters, who are standing with us and giving us the strength to fight on behalf of Israel’s environment, its people and its democracy.