An Interview with MK Yossi Sarid
The Palestine-Israel Journal: According to the Hebrew daily
Ha'aretz (May 10, 1998), a Palestinian spokesperson repeated the
Palestinian stand that they would not cooperate with Jewish
settlements on environmental problems. Do you think this policy
towards the settlements, which stems from the Palestinians' refusal
to give them legitimacy, is justified? Is this primarily an
environmental or political problem, in your view? Do you see a way
Yossi Sarid: Like all such questions, this is a particularly
difficult one. I will state my mind on it openly as I did when I
served as the Minister of the Environment. Environmental problems
have nothing to do with politics. You know my attitude toward the
Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. I am one of the
very few people on the Israeli political scene who opposed the very
founding of all the settlements in the occupied territories, with
no exception whatsoever. In this respect, my record with regard to
the Jewish settlements is absolutely clear.
However, environmental problems are of a different nature, and
without cooperation between all those involved, there is not the
slightest chance to even try to begin solving the problems. There
is a political debate which will decide the future fate of the
Jewish settlements. As far as I am concerned, most of them will
either be uprooted or will fall under Palestinian sovereignty. But
whatever the political solution, they will be there and the
environmental problems will be there, and they are not going to
change. So, when I was Minister of the Environment, we all came to
the conclusion ¬the Palestinians as well as the Israelis -
that without cooperation there will be nothing. And I believe that
this was not only a theoretical conclusion. It was a practical one.
I still remember very vividly that some European governments said
that they are ready to help with regard to environmental
difficulties and very severe problems everywhere, but in the
occupied territories in particular, and they were ready to sponsor
joint projects. As far as I could judge, the Europeans were very
enthusiastic about assisting in this respect because, first, they
like to support joint ventures; second, because it was a very
concrete project; third, because the Europeans think
¬surprisingly enough - that sewage, for example, is very
dangerous, even a threat, to everybody. The German government, for
example, asked the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government
to sign a joint letter in order to facilitate or to enable the
beginning of new, very promising projects. As far as I remember, I
signed the letter on behalf of the Israeli government and Mr. Nabil
Sha'ath signed on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Then came May 29, 1996, and the Netanyahu government. Everything
was stopped, like all joint projects with the Palestinians. This is
to say that the Palestinian Authority was ready to cooperate in
this respect, regardless of the future and the final status of the
occupied territories and of the Jewish settlements. The settlements
are not going to be wiped out. They will be there either under one
sovereignty or another.
Even though we have to draw a distinction between environmental
problems and political problems, this is very difficult in practice
because life is much more complicated than theories. On the ground
today there is, in general, no Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and
there is no cooperation in the environmental field. It is very
unfortunate and we are running out of time, but what can we do
about it? Without political progress there is no progress on the
So what are the prospects?
We are polluting the Palestinians and the Palestinians are
polluting us, and if the Palestinians take care of their own
environmental business and we take care of ours, nothing will come
out of it. The occupied territories, environmentally speaking, were
very neglected by us, by the Israelis, during the last 30 years.
The Palestinian Authority is not at this stage in a financial
position to facilitate and to sponsor major environmental projects.
They cannot afford it. Cooperation is necessary, but I believe that
the Palestinian Authority is not very enthusiastic now about
cooperation, and I do not feel that the Israeli government is very
enthusiastic about it, as far as I know.
There was a special budget of the Ministry of the Environment
dedicated to those joint projects, and as far as I understand, such
a budget no longer exists. The budget totally disappeared. That is
to say that the intention of the Israeli government is not towards
cooperation. I believe that this is also the attitude at the
present moment of the Palestinian Authority, and that's it. It is
to be regretted. After we have neglected the environment in the
occupied territories in the West Bank for 30 years, this situation
at the present moment indicates that it is likely to continue to be
ignored, and we are approaching total catastrophe from an
environmental point of view. We are not talking politics now.
I will give you a scoop, which may surprise you. When I served as
the Minister of the Environment, I more than previous ministers,
supported the agencies dealing with environmental issues in the
Jewish settlements. My friends asked me, Why do you do that? Why do
you support them? I said, because whatever the future of these
settlements will be, they will be there. They are polluting very
severely and very dangerously, and that problem must be solved. I
believe that this is the right thing to do.
They are polluting into Palestinian areas.
Into Palestinian areas, into Israeli areas, everYWhere. You know,
sewage has a very strange nature. It knows no MK Yossi Sarid
boundaries and it flows from east to west. Whatever flows from the
east comes westward into Israel. When it comes to environmental
problems, it is a reality that there are no boundaries. I looked
very carefully into ensuring that those budgets would be dedicated
exclusively to the environment and not to any other projects. And I
am quite sure that I did the right thing.
This is the irony of history. One day, when we hope that there will
be peace and coexistence between us and the Palestinians, the
solution will be found. I can assure you that without solving the
environmental problems, we will give the Palestinians hell and the
Palestinians will give us hell, and it will pollute the peace. The
peace will be very polluted, and we will hate the Palestinians for
what they are doing to us and the Palestinians will hate us for
what we are doing to them.
We can often define environmental problems as existential
People don't understand it, but it is true because they relate to
the quality of the water we drink, the quality of the air we
breathe and the quality of the ground we live on. So we are talking
about deadly and very serious problems.
Can you end by saying a few words about how you see the very
strong criticism on Israeli environmental policy at home, as
recently published by the Greenpeace people?
We talked before about the fact that Israel neglected environmental
problems in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, but the same is
true with regard to Israel as such. Environmental issues are,
unfortunately, not at the top of our national agenda. I'm not too
objective, of course, but at least I believe that I had some
success in placing the environmental issue higher on our national
agenda when I served as minister.
Now the issue has disappeared, vanished. I do not think that the
present Minister of the Environment is very interested in the
environment, and I do not think that the Ministry is as active and
as determined as it was when I was minister. So I understand why
the Green community, all those involved with environmental issues,
are highly frustrated about the present situation.
Greenpeace representatives came to see me recently and it is a fact
that I was the only Minister of the Environment in the region to
maintain very close relations with the Green community, and the
Green community, including their more militant wing, saw me as
their representative. They are not easy people, by the way, but I
greatly appreciate the role they are playing. Now, under the
present government, there is a different situation and nobody is
really very interested in environmental issues.
How can that be? How can people be so short-sighted? It sounds
This question is very relevant not only to this area of life. Here,
it is because the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, are very
deeply involved in what they see as existential problems. So they
mislead themselves into believing that they can ignore
environmental problems for the time being. But this is a mistake, a
very grave mistake, and we are going to pay a very heavy price for
this illusion, all of us.