Israel’s green party champion sets his sights on Knesset

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It’s no hyperbole to describe Alon Tal as the father of Israel’s environmental movement.

At 29, the North Carolina native founded Adam Teva V’din–Israel Union for Environmental Defense, which has won countless legal battles in defense of the country’s land and resources.

At 36, he founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura, which has become the Mideast’s premier cross-border training ground for environmentalists.

He’s represented Israel in global forums, served as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress and snagged a seat on the international board of the Jewish National Fund just a few years after suing them. He’s a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a prolific writer, author of several books and an activist who in 2008 won a life achievement award from Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Alon Tal

Now, at 51, Tal has embarked on a new career: politics.

As a founder and co-chair of the Israel Green Movement, the newly reorganized green party — its former leader was indicted for fraud and corruption — he aims to give political muscle to the environmental imperative he’s been instrumental in articulating for more than two decades.

That’s after he finishes his newest book, which he’s writing this year on sabbatical at Stanford University.

This is not a guy who dreams small.

Tal will outline his party’s “new deal” — a green agenda for Israel’s future — at a luncheon Thursday, Jan. 19 in San Francisco hosted by Hazon and co-sponsored by UpStart Bay Area and the Israel Center, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

He has been on a speaking tour organized by the U.S.-based Green Zionist Alliance, the first organization dedicated to promoting a sustainable future for Israel. And yes, he co-founded that group, too.

“Three years ago, we reached the glass ceiling in terms of environmental progress,” he said recently during a wide-ranging interview at a downtown San Francisco café. “All the environmental indicators are negative — the conservation of land, climate change, greenhouse gas. We have a minister of the environment [Gilad Erdan] who is intelligent and progressive and hardworking, and we’re still losing, because he doesn’t have a party behind him.”

So even though Tal might be more at home in academia, he’s thrown his hat into the political ring. He predicts that in the next Knesset, his party will win three seats, one of which he would occupy. Never mind that in the last national elections in 2009, the movement couldn’t muster enough votes to pass the threshold for even one seat.

Things are different, he says, since last summer’s tent protests galvanized a new generation of Israelis fed up with the country’s high cost of living and ever-increasing social ills.

“I think this kind of party could capture” people’s imaginations, he says with confidence. “I’ve seen the disenchantment. A shocking percentage of young Israelis don’t vote. But I think once we’re in the Knesset, they’ll see what we can do.”

The party’s agenda is as tied to social reform as it is to environmental protection and preservation. Affordable housing, better jobs, public education, an end to hunger (“A country with this high a level of food insecurity is not a Jewish country”) — they’re all on the table.

“The hyperprivatization has to be reined in,” Tal says.

But “this is not a socialist agenda,” he emphasizes. “These are traditional Zionist values.” He also insists that Israel’s green party is a Zionist party. That’s something he made sure of at its founding three years ago. For example, the movement supports Shabbat closures — not public transportation or cultural events, but enough to demonstrate that a Jewish state has a Jewish day of rest. “That’s part of embracing the nonconsumerist heritage of the Jewish people,” he explains.

“I’m the oldest guy in the party,” he continues. “Everybody is young. I had to do a seminar in Zionism for them — they thought Zionism was settlers beating up Arabs.”

Today’s Zionism is not the Z-word of years past, he says. “The first hundred years, Zionism was about survival, security, economic development. The next hundred years has to be about what’s behind that, the connection between the Jewish people and their land, between Jews and each other. Which means it’s not enough for a green party to rest on an environmental agenda. Our social institutions are linked to environmental problems, and there’s no time to waste.”

Tal is kind of on an adrenaline high right now as he maps out his party’s political strategy and platform. Yes, it could join a centrist or Labor-led coalition. No, he doesn’t mind politicking in Tel Aviv bars or at parlor meetings.

But his real passion is the land to which he’s devoted his career. Solar energy. Wind energy. Forests. Water. They’re all precious.

His primary research topic for years was water management and policy, with an emphasis on joint Israeli-Palestinian projects. In 2008, he co-authored an agreement for environmental cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority with Mohammad Said al Hmaida of Birzeit University. But he’s no apologist for the Palestinians.

In “Thirsting for Pragmatism,” his 2010 rebuttal paper to an Amnesty International report that blamed the West Bank’s environmental woes on Israel, he blasted the Palestinian leadership for mismanaging its own problems.

Instead of preparing to set up their own water system in the West Bank, for example, the Palestinians push for greater access to Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. “So more and more Palestinian homes get hooked up, and they become more and more dependent on Israel,” he points out. And that doesn’t help either people, he says.

“Look, we could solve this water problem very easily. But it’s a hostage to the broader [political] problem. People say, don’t do this or that unless we get concessions from the other side. But it’s not a political issue, it’s a humanitarian issue.”

And unlike hot-button political issues, environmental protection is something all Jews, within Israel and around the world, can and should come together to support, Tal says.

“There is no Israeli issue that is more compelling and more legitimate for American Jews to be involved in than the environment,” he states. “Many Israelis are resentful of Americans for Peace Now and other such groups, they say ‘your kids aren’t on the front line.’ But nobody says we don’t hold this land in trust for everybody.

“If you care about the Promised Land, if you want your grandchildren to see some semblance of the landscape that inspired prophets and pilgrims, you need to get on board and get involved. Because it won’t be left.”

Alon Tal will present a new green agenda for Israel at a free luncheon at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 at 332 Pine St., S.F. Email registration: [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].