Environmentalist and former Member of Knesset Alon Tal at a May 7 rally in Sunnyvale against Israel's proposed judicial reform organized by the Israeli expat group UnXeptable. (Photo/Galit Lipsitz Goldenthal)
Environmentalist and former Member of Knesset Alon Tal at a May 7 rally in Sunnyvale against Israel's proposed judicial reform organized by the Israeli expat group UnXeptable. (Photo/Galit Lipsitz Goldenthal)

Alon Tal, former MK and Israeli environmentalism pioneer, has strong words for Israel today

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For anyone who never got to witness one of Israel’s “fateful periods,” such as the 1948 War of Independence or the 1967 Six-Day War, Alon Tal has a message: Israel’s survival is at stake again.

The environmental activist, scholar and former Knesset member is speaking out about the continued turmoil over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul — reforms that proponents say are long overdue and that critics say grant dictatorial powers to the prime minister.

On sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, Tal is teaching a Stanford course this quarter on public policy and climate innovation. He excoriated the proposed judicial changes and the “extremists” behind them when he spoke at a May 7 protest in Sunnyvale organized by UnXeptable, a pro-democracy movement based in Israel.

“The destiny of the country is on the line,” Tal told J. in an interview prior to the protest. “It is a great concern but also greatly encouraging to see how a younger generation of Israelis have doubled down on democracy and how Israel’s friends around the world are doing their part.”

He was referring to the weekly mass protests across Israel this year, some of which have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets demanding that the government rethink the proposals and open the door to compromise. Last month, Netanyahu paused the legislative process so that behind-the-scenes negotiations could take place, but the outcome is by no means certain.

The North Carolina-born Tal, 61, made aliyah in 1980. He became an IDF paratrooper under the command of Benny Gantz, who in recent years co-founded the center-left Blue and White Party. Gantz served as defense minister and deputy prime minister in the previous government, while Tal became a Knesset member in 2021.

In the Knesset, Tal got to know the politicians now in Netanyahu’s cabinet, including Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich. Both are ardent proponents of Netanyahu’s judicial proposals.

Tal is not a fan.

“I knew the extremists,” he said. “There’s not a thimbleful of pragmatism in them. Despite the fact that their [policy] perspectives are onerous and problematic, from a political perspective they make it impossible to keep the government together. [Netanyahu] is destroying his legacy. Startup nation, the diplomatic achievements — that’s all going to be lost if he allows the extremists to drive the situation.”

Tal worries that Netanyahu’s overhaul would neuter the Israeli Supreme Court by allowing a simple parliamentary majority to overturn court rulings. In addition, he said, the “temptation to compromise human rights is always there. The Supreme Court provides protection to minorities and to possible victims of the other side — but also to ourselves, to maintain our decency, notwithstanding the conflict that has been forced upon us.”

The politicians that Tal calls extremists (several of whom belong to religious parties) are not necessarily committed to the notion of a stronger legislature and weaker judicial system. He believes they have a different agenda.

“Ultra-Orthodox parties don’t want a court system to tell them to study secular subjects, go to the army or recognize the rights of Conservative and Reform Jewish movements,” Tal said. “The national religious don’t want a court system which forces them to consider human rights of Palestinians in their efforts to annex the West Bank. And Netanyahu doesn’t want a court to interfere with legislation which would prevent his conviction or further indictments.”

Tal acknowledges that there is a need for some judicial reform, including possible limits on the power of the Israeli Supreme Court. He suggests that a more reasonable solution would be a requirement of a two-thirds majority of the Knesset to overturn a court decision.

I knew the extremists. There’s not a thimbleful of pragmatism in them.

Long before he became a Knesset member, Tal had been one of Israel’s pioneering environmentalists. He founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in 1990. Then in 1996, he founded the esteemed Arava Institute, which brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to address regional environmental concerns. He was also a longtime board member of the Jewish National Fund, which focuses on Israel’s forests and environment.

Tal worries the current government may adversely impact Israel’s reputation as a global environmental leader, especially if the Knesset can eventually overturn Supreme Court decisions.

“Environmentally, an independent court has proven critical to standing up to obtuse government agencies and rapacious developers and polluting factories,” he said. “Weakening the court’s power and the legal advisers in the government ministers bodes very badly for civil society’s ongoing battle to preserve the harmony between the citizens of Israel and the land of Israel.”

Despite it all, Tal said he remains hopeful Israel will correct course. Two recent polls from Channels 12 and 13 showed that parties aligned with opposition to Netanyahu, his Likud party and allied religious parties would lose up to 10 seats and their majority if an election were held today.

Tal credits an energized Israeli electorate and Jews around the world for the shift away from Netanyahu and his policy proposals.

“It’s very important for Israelis to know that the American Jewish community is not a fair-weather friend but will stand up and make their voice heard,” he said. “It’s also very important for the American Jewish community to know it’s a stakeholder. All Jews in the world have a place at the table and should come out and express their solidarity and love for Israel by protesting this government.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.