Israel, judging by the size of the delegation it sent to the Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow that opened on Sunday, is a world leader in the battle for climate change.
Except it isn’t.
Except that would be a lie.
The truth is that the size of this delegation says nothing about the importance that the Israeli government and public have placed on the issue over the years.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Paris in 2015 to participate in the latest global climate conference was a more accurate representation of where this issue fits on the Israeli pyramid of priorities. He attended that conference along with his wife, Sara, and the minister of the environment at the time, Avi Gabbay.
Netanyahu delivered a five-minute speech at that conference, the time allotted to all the leaders there. But more tellingly, his meetings with a host of world leaders on the sidelines of the conference, from then-US President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not focus on climate. They focused on Iran, the Palestinians and the settlements, not carbon footprints.
I covered that conference, and the two stories sent from Paris, one of them based on a briefing Netanyahu gave reporters there, were about everything but the weather. What most caught the attention of the Israeli public at that conference was whether Netanyahu would shake hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (did) when they were close to each other for the “family portrait” taken of all the leaders present. .
If you doubt this, take a look at last week’s State Comptroller’s Report, which essentially says that Israel has failed to deal with the climate crisis.
Israel not only set low targets, in terms of reducing its carbon footprint, reducing the number of cars on the road, and increasing its use of renewable energy, but even those targets that it failed to meet.
Anyone who has lived in this country for some time did not need the Comptroller’s report to point out a neglect of environmental problems. All you have to do is tour the country to see how the public (forget about the government for a minute, but the public) treats the environment. And it is not with great care and respect.
Walk around the outskirts of Jerusalem and you will see garbage scattered everywhere; camp near the Kinneret, and the scene is picturesque if you can overlook the garbage; Drive through the hills of Galilee, and it all seems pastoral and even biblical, until you see the old car helmets in a field beyond.
One of Israel’s stark paradoxes has been the degree to which the Jewish people placed the Promised Land on a pedestal throughout the generations, compared to the way some people treat the physical land in the here and now. One would have thought, judging by lyrical poems to Eretz Yisrael in the past, that those who live in it now will make sure to keep its hills free of trash and its springs gurgling pristine. But one would be wrong.
Truth be told, things have improved significantly over the years. But environmental awareness, both at the government level and at the level of how people treat the environment, lags far behind what it is in other parts of the West.
The excuse in the past has always been that Israel, surrounded by enemies and in a constant battle for survival, cannot afford to focus on environmental issues. Those are concerns for countries like New Zealand and Canada, which have no enemies next door or in the vicinity trying to wipe them off the map.
In this concept, concern for the climate is equivalent to healthy food, the prerogative of the rich. Just as only the wealthy can afford to buy sprouted whole wheat bread and organic vegetables on a regular basis, only those countries with no real existential challenges can care about the environment.
Furthermore, they used to tell us, since Israel has to deal with so many acute problems in the short term, it cannot focus on the long term ones. And there is no greater long-term problem than the weather. How much can you really worry about global warming 1.5 degrees every few years, when you’re trying to prevent Iran from developing a bomb that could incinerate it tomorrow?
But those arguments are no longer washed away. Not because Israel’s short-term challenges have disappeared or become easier, but because the country is large enough, developed enough, and rich enough to juggle several different problems at the same time. You can budget funds to plan a pre-emptive strike against Iran and still turn away from coal. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Israel’s long neglect of environmental and climate issues reflected a nation living in an abnormal situation. The fact that the country is now sending such a large delegation to Glasgow speaks of a nation that has reached a certain degree of normalcy.
Rather than saying that we can’t take care of environmental issues because we have so many other things to worry about, the size of this delegation sends a different message: this is now one of the things we need to worry about, like everyone else. ; like a “normal” country.