Tomorrow Israel’s National Planning and Construction Board will take up a proposal to establish a new settlement in the eastern Lachish salient, southwest of Jerusalem. An ad in today’s Ha’aretz, placed by twelve of Israel’s most senior environmentalists, calls on the Board to reject the plan.
“The establishment of the settlement will lead, in the opinion of all environmentalists, to the destruction of habitats and irreversible harm to open spaces. Approval of the settlement in opposition to all environmental impact statements will make a laughingstock of national planning policy, which places great importance on the reinforcement of existing settlements and the preservation of open spaces.”
The environmentalists have everything going for them—science, research, policy imperatives—except for one thing. Apparently, they’re not Zionists.
You see, Zionists are always in favor of establishing new settlements. At least that’s the impression you get from an opposing, much larger ad signed by dozens of professors and scholars, led by Nobel economics prize laureate Yisrael Aumann. According to the headline of that ad, the establishment of the new settlement is the “realization of the Zionist dream.” They quote Prime Minister Olmert as saying “The sparse Israeli settlement in the area and the fact that the region is a strategic asset to the country requires promoting settlement of the region.”
Of course, in a country Israel’s size, every piece of territory is a strategic asset. But does it follow that the country should be paved over? Or that a not-very-densely populated region (“sparse” is an exaggeration—look at a map) that constitutes the last large piece of countryside in Israel’s central region cannot be defended?
Of course, there’s a back story. The new settlement is meant to be populated by former Gaza Strip settlers who were forced to leave their homes when Israel withdrew.
These families certainly deserve new homes. But they do not have an inalienable right to country or small-town living—not if to get that they have to contribute to the destruction of a national natural asset.
Once, establishing Jewish settlements in far-flung areas of the country was indeed the epitome of Zionism. Before we had a state, settlement was a means of staking claims to our land. But now that we have a state, we face other problems. The Jews no longer need to stake a claim here—we run this country, for heaven’s sake. Much more urgent is to preserve the country we have—and that includes the wise use of its meager natural resources. That means flora, fauna, water, and open spaces where native species can flourish—and where Israeli citizens (many of whom, by the way, are Zionists, Mr. Aumann) can hike, camp, play, and relax.
The senior environmentalists include Amotz Zahavi (to whom I devoted a section of my book A Crack in the Earth) and Azaria Alon, two of the founders and leaders of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The impetus for the establishment of the SPNI, Israel’s largest environmental group, was the draining of the Hula Swamp in the 1950s. At the time, that project was trumpeted as one of the great Zionist enterprises. Only a few lone voices objected to the destruction of the country’s largest wetland habitat, and predicted that it would achieve few of its goals.
Indeed, the land recovered from the swamp turned out to be only marginally arable, and was subject to weird phenomena like spontaneous underground combustion in its peat soil.
The debate over new settlements in Lachish sounds like a replay of that old controversy. Who are we going to listen to this time? Will it be the self-proclaimed Zionists hawking an outdated dream that will destroy our countryside? Or will it be the humbler environmentalists—each of whom has impeccable Zionist credentials but doesn’t shout them from the rooftops—who have been right in the past?