Israel’s High Court Bows to Birds, Blocks Voa Transmitter in Negev

The High Court of Justice dealt a severe setback Monday to U.S.-Israeli plans to build a powerful Voice of America radio transmitter in the Negev, ordering the government to conduct an extensive study of the possible effects the giant facility would have on the ecology of the region.

Environmentalists estimate it will take at least 18 months.

The court acted on appeals filed last year by the Society for the Protection of Nature, other environmental groups and residents of the area.

One of their primary concerns was that electromagnetic emissions from the 16 planned antennae towers, each 70 stories high, might disrupt the natural “navigational” systems of the thousands of migratory birds that fly over the Negev each year.

The petitioners also contended that local animal and bird life would be gravely affected.

The High Court accepted their complaint that the government had agreed with the U.S. government to build the transmitter without conducting an adequate study of its possible ecological consequences.

The project was a subject of political as well as ecological controversy in Israel from the moment the government first agreed to it in principle early in 1985, at the prodding of the Reagan administration.

The billion-dollar transmitter designed to relay VOA and Radio Liberty broadcasts to central and southern Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa was clearly an instrument of the Cold War.

American engineers selected the Negev site as ideal to overcome Soviet jamming.

A Labor-Likud unity government was in office at the time, headed by Laborite Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Then-defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly made a verbal commitment to President Reagan at a White House meeting in January 1985.

Rabin reportedly acted on a decision secretly taken by the Israeli leadership several weeks before.

The “sweetener” of the deal was that at least $300 million of the U.S. investment would go to Israeli firms, infusing the sluggish economy with hard cash and jobs.

A written agreement was signed in July 1986 while then-Vice President George Bush was visiting Israel.

But there were already heated discussions among environmentalists who opposed the project, industrialists who favored it, Israelis who believed Israel should stay out of the Cold War — if only for the sake of Soviet Jewry — and those who thought the Jewish state should participate in the propaganda struggle with communism.

Considering the changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe over the past two years, many here hoped U.S. policy-makers would drop plans to build the transmitter. But Washington so far has shown no sign of reconsidering.

NEXT STORY