A “Green New Deal“ for Israel?

Creating Political Will for Green and Progressive Policies in the Next Government of Israel - Interview with outgoing Knesset Member Dov Khenin
ח"כ דב חנין בהפגנה בת"א נגד גזענות בדיור ובהפגנת "כל העם אופוזי ציה"
Teaser Image Caption
MK Dov Khanin during a protest in Tel Aviv

Elisheva Gilad (HBS Israel, Environment and Sustainability Program Coordinator): Good morning and thank you very much, we know your schedule is incredibly busy, we very much appreciate your time this morning. I’m calling this interview “A Green New Deal for Israel?”, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It’s such a hot topic right now in the States and I wanted to talk to you about how to create political will in the next government. So, you were one of the first advocates in Israel and certainly the first national politician in Israel that really started making the connections between environment and sustainability, and social and economic issues. In fact, you established and led the Social-Environmental Lobby in the Knesset. As you look back now, how did the lobby contribute to understanding environment in a more cross-cutting way?

Dov Khenin (Knesset Member, The Joint List Party): Well, the answer to the question is a bit complicated. Because we should clearly differentiate between our ability to deeply influence the mindset of politicians and our ability to change concrete issues on the ground. Paradoxically, we were hugely influential in changing things, but relatively, we failed at really changing the mindset of Israeli politicians. Let’s begin with the positive side. Being a Knesset Member, I was able to pass through many laws, which may sound strange for people in Germany, because I’m a member of a small political party, which is far from the Israeli mainstream, to put it mildly. Therefore, I think it would sound strange for people in Germany that a politician from the opposition was able to pass more than one hundred different laws, a huge number, much bigger than any politician from coalition parties, but I would like to stress that these more than one hundred laws, the number is not the issue, but the content - very important social, environmental and feminist legislation. With regards to the environmental angle, I was able to pass through huge pieces of legislation. The Polluter Should Pay bill, Environmental Enforcement, Protection of the Sea of Galilee and Eilat Bay, and many other big laws, that actually I consider to be the environmental revolution of Israeli legislation. Let’s take one very interesting example - The Israeli Clean Air Act, which we recently celebrated a decade since it was passed. As you probably know, passing this law was extremely difficult. Not only was it opposed by the government, but also very important economic interests. After a decade, the Israeli government conducted research on the economic impact of the Israeli Clean Air Law. The research has shown that all the economic interests opposing the law were actually very correct in that opposition. Because the economic cost of this law was approximately 37 billion shekels, which is 10 billion dollars over the last ten years. So this private legislation cost Israeli polluters approximately 1 billion dollars a year. So it is very clear, looking at these numbers why all these very strong economic forces did everything possible in order to stop this legislation. However, I should mention, that on the other side, this research has shown that while it cost Israeli polluters 37 billion shekels, Israeli society as a whole benefited with the huge sum of 115 billion shekels. So with each dollar the polluters invested in reducing air pollution, Israeli society gained 4 dollars. So this is huge, this is something really big in Israeli terms. I am not sure that these are very huge numbers in German terms, but in Israeli terms they are huge. So, on the one hand we were able to pass through really big changes, and our polluters have to pay. Our legislation is, I would say, better than singular mechanisms we have in Germany. So I am very proud of it, this is the positive side. Huge possibilities to change things on the ground, to pass through huge pieces of legislation, to prevent very dangerous developments on the environmental radar.  But, at the same time, I would say that we were not able to change the mindset of Israeli politicians whatsoever. We were not really able to create a change whereby the Israeli arena really adopts an agenda of sustainability. And this is I think a very important paradox and I think it should lead to an analysis wherein conclusions are drawn.

EG: Clearly it is really difficult to promote complex messages and long-term policies in these issues in the government. But what in your view are the most effective strategies or mechanisms that one should put into the next government in order to try to create these connections?

DH: Well the most important thing to my mind is mobilizing public opinion and mobilizing the Israeli public. Whenever we are able to mobilize the Israeli public, and we are able to mobilize it on concrete issues, not on the overall agenda, but on concrete issues, we are able to win. You should understand that in a way Israeli polity is very primitive, it is very much organized around one axis, which is war and peace, the relations with the Palestinians, settlements, and so on. When you are on this axis, then everything is very rigid. This is a big minus of Israeli politics, because you cannot really develop interesting discussions on anything that is outside of this axis. Things outside of this axis are considered to be apolitical, and therefore not interesting. At the very same time it is also a plus, because, when you leave this political axis of war and peace, your ability to move forward is much bigger than what you have in Germany, in Europe or in the United States. If you speak about the climate crisis in the US, you are probably a Democrat, not a Republican. In Israel, most politicians don’t have a clear-cut view on these issues, they are not considered to be really political. And that is paradoxically, both a minus and a plus, and we were able to use this dialectic very effectively in our efforts to advance change in concrete issues.

EG:  You have been such a strong leading voice for socio-economic and environmental justice over the past 12 years in the Knesset and this voice will be sorely missed. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that a couple of other current MKs who are real environmental advocates in the current Knesset, may not be present in the next Knesset. So, what are the prospects for creating political will for these topics in the 21st Knesset? Can you identify any opportunities?

DH: Well, this is a very important question and I’d like to put it in more general terms. While progressive people around the world tend to see Israel mainly from the angle of dangers and problems, which is unfortunately correct, there are many dangers and negative developments happening here in Israel, some of these people tend to ignore the possibilities existing in Israeli society, which are very important and very present. Let me give you one example: back in 2011 we had I think the biggest social protest movement in Western society. Well in relative terms surely, but also in absolute terms. I had a few years ago a meeting with some of the leaders of Occupy Wall Street, who were very proud to tell me that they had a demonstration of 60,000 people in New York which is really very nice, but here in Israel we had demonstrations ten times bigger, in a much smaller society. So, Israeli society is very complicated. While we do have clear and real dangers here, some of them have implications not only for ourselves, but also for you in Germany. But at the same time there are real possibilities in Israeli society, and the issue at hand is how to translate that potential into practical action and change. So, coming back to your question, I think there are real possibilities of creating real change in Israel in many fields and areas including the social-environmental issue. But again the precondition for this is our ability to deeply analyze Israeli society, to really understand the undercurrents existing in this place, and to be able to create a strategy that will make it possible to mobilize very different political and social forces to put pressure on the political arena in the right direction.

EG: The German Green Party was one of the first in Europe to talk about an ecological transformation of the economy, through a green deal. The first steps were taken in the red-green coalition with some key renewable energy legislation. And if you look at the Israeli context, are you able to identify any similar entry points that might be able to create this integrated approach?

DH: Well, I think that Israel has great potential for changing its direction towards renewable energy. And as a matter of fact, we have really interesting beginnings in Israel, let me give one example: the area of Eilat-Eilot in the southern part of Israel is really making a kind of renewable energy revolution. It set a target of transforming all the energy systems of the region to renewable energy, and they are really making progress, they are really invested in this goal. Unfortunately, the State of Israel as a whole is very far from that. And that is a paradox, for me it is a tragedy that Germany is using much more energy from the sun than we are in Israel. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry, but this is totally strange. There are big possibilities objectively speaking, and there are not only possibilities existing on the environmental level, but also on the practical level of creating support of this development. Of course, there is some complexity with the natural gas that Israel found. While I think that natural gas is something we should use in order to very quickly eliminate all the coal power stations in Israel, and to get rid of some of our dependence on oil. But at the same time, gas might be also a curse in that it could prevent the rapid development of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

EG: You have been such a strong ally with civil society throughout your years in the Knesset, what in your assessment do environmental organizations need to do more of or differently in order to work more systematically with the government?

DH: Well, as you know, before becoming a Knesset Member in 2006, I served for three years as the chairman of the Israeli Union of Environmental NGO’s, so for me the Israeli environmental movement is in a way my home and I have a lot of appreciation for the people in the environmental movement. They are very brave people, they are sometimes struggling against all odds, and they do have important achievements. However, when looking at the Israeli environmental movement as a whole, I think that we should also understand our shortcomings and the most important shortcoming that I see is that we as a movement are totally lacking a strategy, whereby we understand how is it possible to mobilize and whom exactly would we like to mobilize. This is a major drawback of Israeli environmentalism and in a way, from my perspective, environmentalists are fighting very bravely but like blind people, who are not really understanding the arena, not really understanding the social, political and economic forces they are fighting against and such a way can not really succeed. It can create frustration, it can create major failures and it will not move us forward. Therefore, the most pressing thing for the Israeli environmental movement is to develop a clear-cut, deep, new strategy. I would say very openly, that this challenge is not only a challenge of the environmental movement. This is a challenge of all progressive forces existing in Israeli society. We have many different progressive forces on many issues - issues of peace, of equality, of democracy, of LGBT rights, animal rights, but a lack of strategy is the common denominator of all of them.

Steffen Hagemann (HBS Israel, Head of Office): How do you explain that? Why is there a lack of strategy?

DH: That is a very big issue. But let me turn the question to you. Because the Israeli environmental movement is very dependent on funding, and looking at the funds that all the very good people like yourselves are spending on Israeli environmentalism and let me tell you openly, it is not only you, if I were you perhaps I would do the same thing, so this is not supposed to be criticism. When someone comes to you with a pressing issue, there is a clear and pressing danger that there will develop some terrible things around here and we need some money to fight against it. This is what you would probably to do help them, their emergencies. Now in Israel emergency is our routine, we can not really dream about situations whereby emergency is not on the table. So, we are moving from one emergency to another, and the funds that support the Israeli environmental movement in a way support this tendency and I can really understand it. But at the very same time, again dialectically, it is a problem. Because if you just move from one emergency to another, you are not able to create a clear-cut program and more than that, you are not really able to create a clear-cut strategy. And that is becoming a major hinderance for environmentalists and progressives at large I’d say.

SH: In Germany there is a lot of criticism about the Green Party being like a middle class party. That it failed to connect to different parts of German society. Would you say the same is true for Israel and the environmental movement in Israel?

DH: I am not willing to comment on German politics, which I am not an expert on, but I would say, that in Israel without mobilizing popular classes, your ability to really change things is very limited. Let me give you one, very clear example. The struggle this year against the deportation of asylum seekers, for me it is not a new struggle, you know I was the only Knesset member to oppose in 2008-9 a government bill that sought to impose 20 years imprisonment on each Israeli that is doing something to support asylum seekers in Israel. This is totally crazy, isn’t it? I was the only Knesset member to oppose it. We were able to stop this legislation, but stopping the legislation, just stopped one horrible thing. But we could not really change the overall direction of government policy vis-à-vis asylum seekers. When Netanyahu’s government decided to deport the asylum seekers at the beginning of 2018, we did something very different. Instead of repeating the very well known pattern of mobilizing the Israeli liberal elite against this very cruel decision, which in a way was the way that Netanyahu wanted to see the debate develop, it was a part of his political goals, we created something completely different. We focused on mobilizing the local strata of South Tel Aviv against deportation. The campaign was “South Tel Aviv Against Deportation”. We put many hundreds of balcony banners in South Tel Aviv. The biggest demonstration against deportation was in South Tel Aviv, not in the center, not in the north. The speakers at the demonstrations were local Israeli residents of the neighbourhoods of South Tel Aviv. Now, this changed the whole political equilibrium around which the debate was arranged and it made it possible for us to win this. I would say also that in the recent municipal elections in Tel Aviv, the so called radical coalition we were able to create from progressives from the centre of Tel Aviv, Arab citizens from Jaffa and residents from South Tel Aviv, got very good results, we got four members into the city council out of thirty. For a new movement this is relatively good, but the most important thing is that we won almost all the areas of South Tel Aviv. We won them and the Likud came in third place. And a local anti-asylum seeker movement in South Tel Aviv totally failed and they didn’t make it into the city council. So I think this is something very important to analyze. In Israel you should really put a major emphasis on mobilizing popular strata. The ability of conservative and right-wing forces to rely on Israeli popular strata is one of the most key issues of Israeli politics that no progressive can ignore and unfortunately forces in the center and left of center parties continue to ignore even in this election campaign and this is again something that shows you they totally lack strategy. In the last elections, back in 2015, I was in many places outside of the center of Tel Aviv, and there were many people that told me that I am the first politician not from the right-wing to visit them. Now these people didn’t vote for me or my party, but can you imagine, that the Labor Party did not try to speak to these people? This is again a manifestation of what the lack of strategy can lead to.

SH: We wanted to zoom out a bit at the end, maybe talking a bit about the progressive left in the current elections, you just touched upon it. I am always wondering why the left can’t benefit from this discontent that there is with Netanyahu.

DH: In order to benefit from discontent, you need to speak with the people who are discontented. Unfortunately, the left is very far away from that, they do not speak with them, but I am not sure they really see them and understand what is going on there. Some people in the liberal left have some kind of an elitist viewpoint on popular masses. For them, these people are very strange and vote against their real interests. And they look upon them as an anthropologist looks at a very strange tribe far away. That is again a tragedy.

SH: The question is, will that ever change within the current political party structure?

DH: Is the present party system able to do it? I am not sure. I think that all parties in the center and the left in Israel are in different deadlocks. So I think that one challenge we do have in the Israeli progressive arena is to reinvent our ability to create movements and forces. And in order to do so, what is very important to stress, is that there are no real shortcuts in this. To create it, you can’t just announce tomorrow: let’s build a new party. To create this requires something more deep and it involves not only creating new strategies, but also building new tools, new kinds of movements, political parties in Israel are not very popular among young people. Are we able to invent new ways of mobilization for young people? This is a very important issue and I am sure that if we will be able to invent new tools and new mechanisms to mobilize people, I think that we can win.

SH: Some of the young leaders of the 2011 social protests, they are now members of Knesset.  Do they understand this necessity? And could they be partners for that?

DH: Everyone can be a partner, but entering the Israeli political arena also has its drawbacks. You can bring social protest into politics but you can also bring politics into social protest. And party politics in Israel is a big problem. Because if you are for example entering the Labor Party, try to be elected as a labor politician, of course it is much better than being elected as a right wing politician. These young people you mentioned, they are very capable, they are very good people. But being elected in the Knesset has its own prices and being part of a political party in Israel has its own price.

So how can we change the direction of the ship? If not from the ship itself then dealing with the undercurrents in Israeli society. And again, I am not pessimistic about these currents, there are problems, there are dangers, but there are also possibilities. That is the place of strategy - how you deal with the problems, how you overcome the hardships, how you translate potential into practical action. But it is possible. And because I think the most important thing in the Israeli reality at the moment is changing the undercurrents that is something that I would suggest to everyone who is able to do it, to concentrate on this. I think this is the most pressing issue. I do not want to just preach to others, so for me the conclusion is that I should try to do it myself.

 Let me take this opportunity to thank you. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been for many years very empowering in helping environmentalists and progressives in Israel. I know that in German terms you are not the biggest political fund. But your influence, your very good and important influence here in Israel is something very important. We do appreciate it very much, so thank you!

SH: Thank you, this is important feedback.

EG: Thank you Dov. We look forward to seeing what your next steps are.

DH: Toda raba!