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 out?

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 environmental aspect.

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 problems.
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 irrational.
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.