FROM THE INCOMING ENVIRONMENT MINISTER
Shoshana Gabbay: Your recent appointment as Minister of the Environment won wide approval among all segments of the Israeli public. What were your feelings at this junction in your life, as you left the Knesset to join the Cabinet?
Yossi Sarid: I was not bound to come to the Ministry of the Environment; I chose to come here. I always believed that environmental protection must be accorded a higher standing, both in government circles and in the public eye. It is imperative to introduce this issue into the national consciousness; it is my hope and resolve to do this. For decades, environmental issues were sidestepped as Israel was immersed in questions of survival itself; these existential considerations did not leave enough emotional, intellectual and economic energy to deal with the subject of the environment. When a State is first established, the hunger for development is all-encompassing; the price extolled for accelerated development in the more distant future is not even considered.
I accepted the position of Minister of the Environment because I believed I could make both government officials and the general public understand that environmental problems are not esoteric, reserved exclusively for the so-called "beautiful people." They too are existential questions, touching on survival itself. I sense that this recognition is gradually becoming more deeply and firmly rooted in our consciousness. If this recognition will find expression in policy changes, I will be amply rewarded; my efforts will not have been in vain.
How do I feel about the change from Knesset member to Minister? I am more troubled; moments of satisfaction are short and rare; there is so much to do. I will only be able to assess my feelings in light of the changes I can effect, in another half a year or so. I will be truly gratified if, when the next government is formed, there will be many competitors for the position of Minister of the Environment.
S.G: During the past several months, you have had the opportunity to meet the staff of the Ministry of the Environment and be briefed on some of its activities. What are your first impressions?
Y.S. I met excellent people in this office; each an expert in his field. Government staffers are all too frequently under-rated, but the people in this office prove this is not so. Each member of the staff is not only an expert, but is dedicated, committed and ever- ready and eager to invest much more than he receives in return. My personal ties with each and every member of the staff are very important to me as I am a staunch believer in team work and team spirit. Without them, no minister and no ministry can expect to achieve the lofty aims to which we all strive.
I respect freedom, and I admire all those whose personal and professional conscience guides them in their work. The Ministry of the Environment must first and foremost protect and guard its own environmental quality. If we work together under the environmental conditions of camaraderie, dedication, trust and mutual respect, I have no doubt in our ability to succeed, to make a difference.
Yet, if we are to make a real difference, we must increase our manpower. We must fill the vacuum which currently exists in the field of environmental economics and accounting, for example, for this is a vital dimension. If environmental solutions are not translated into economic terms, implementation will be weak at best. Israel’s economy cannot seriously relate to environmental plans and initiatives if these are disconnected from economic calculations.
S.G: What do you see as the major challenges which the ministry must tackle in the coming few years?
Y.S. There are so many challenges that it is difficult to pinpoint the major ones; each and every one is significant in my eyes. Yet, I will try to focus on a few problems. Firstly, we must solve the problem of solid waste disposal in Israel. Garbage surrounds us, it covers our beautiful country. We can no longer afford to wait; it is urgent and imperative that we shut down the hundreds of unregulated dumps which threaten our health and our water supplies. Secondly, we must resolve the sewage problem. If people would truly understand the nature and extent of the problem, they would shudder. Similarly, we must take immediate steps to rehabilitate our rivers, with specific goals for purifying a designated number of streams each year. Today, we can no longer find any river to heal and restore our bodies and souls. Finally, we must tackle air quality nuisances, in Haifa Bay and other polluted industrial areas, and we must strictly control the menace of hazardous substances and waste.
I hope to be in the position, within a month or two, to present national programs for solving the waste and sewage problems. Hopefully within a few months this ministry will know exactly what it expects from itself and what it expects from others over the next several years.
S.G: What are your first impressions concerning the prospects for cooperation from other factors in accomplishing your goals?
Y.S. I was actually pleasantly surprised. Public opinion is receptive to the environmental message and since we are nearing municipal elections (in November), I will not be surprised if the environmental issue will head the list of priorities which will guide every citizen in his choice of mayor. It is a well-known fact that politicians generally follow public opinion. If public opinion is turned toward the environment, so will political opinion.
I do not believe that the government views the Ministry of the Environment as an environmental nuisance. The ministry is gradually being integrated into the planning and executive functions of government, and hopefully in the future, this will be translated into budgetary terms as well. I hope that my public standing and past experience will help accord the environmental issue the position it deserves.
S.G: What are your views regarding Israel’s stance in the international community?
Y.S: Israel has much to learn, but also much to contribute. We, in Israel, have made unique progress in a number of areas drip irrigation, water conservation, solar energy, to name but a few. I would like to focus on one such achievement reversing the process of desertification. Since combating desertification is a concern shared by all Middle East countries, dynamic and coordinated regional efforts are needed to understand the reasons for desertification and to develop ways to prevent it. Our ministry, through the concerted efforts of the director general, has succeeded in impressing our Foreign Minister and Prime Minister with the ability of Israel to be a world leader in this area. We are now preparing for the possibility that the coming years will bring peace to our region and that Israel will be able to fulfill a decisive role within the framework of regional cooperation, serving as a junction point for developed nations which want to contribute and developing nations which are still dependent on others for guidance and help.
S.G: What is your message to the public; what can it do to improve the cause of the environment?
Today, the private citizen can do a lot. Firstly, the public must begin to pressure heads of local authorities. In the past, mayors were re-elected without fulfilling their duty to their constituents in such essential areas as solid waste and sewage. This is both distressing and unforgivable. As we approach the upcoming municipal elections in November, I hope to convince every citizen to carefully consider for whom to cast the decisive ballot on the basis of environmental criteria which touch directly on his health and wellbeing. It must be clear to every elected official that if he continues to be negligent in these vital areas, he will forfeit his chances for re-election.
Two major breakthroughs are expected in the very near future which will usher in a new era of citizen participation. Firstly, the obstacles impeding the passage of a recycling law have finally been removed, and soon every citizen will have an active role to play in reducing solid waste and separating at source. Moreover, the advent of eco-labeling in the coming months will make environmentally-friendly products part and parcel of the consumer landscape. Each individual will have a chance to opt for a cleaner and safer environment, through the purchase of environmentally- friendly products. This, in turn, will encourage Israeli industry to improve the quality of the environment through waste reduction, recycling and environmentally-sound technologies. There is no shortage of things for the committed citizen to do: collect batteries and discard them in specially-designated containers, become a cleanliness trustee, separate at source, buy environmentally-friendly products, lobby for environmental improvements on the local and national levels. Every individual act will make a collective impact strengthening our common resolve to preserve and improve our environment.