Israeli Environmentalists Hail U.S. Move to Scrap Voa Project

Environmentalists here are rejoicing over the Clinton administration’s decision to scrap plans to build a Voice of America relay station in the environmentally sensitive Arava region of the Negev desert.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which called a news conference Sunday to savor the news, termed its campaign against the station “the most difficult and drawn-out battle” in its history. It said the campaign’s successful end is “a just reward for our extensive efforts.”

But Yoav Sagi, chairman of the society, acknowledged there were several factors at play culminating in the decision, which was leaked from Washington but not formally announced.

The $400 million projected cost of the relay station simply made no sense at a time of U.S. budgetary constraint, said Sagi, especially in light of changing geopolitics.

The station was intended to enhance U.S. broadcasts to the Soviet bloc as an integral part of Cold War strategy. The end of the Cold War has eliminated the project’s justification, opponents had argued.

The agreement to build the station was signed between the U.S. and Israeli governments in 1987 and had been heavily promoted by the Board for International Broadcasting, headed by Malcolm Forbes Jr. Advocates said it would have created 600 jobs.

From the start, it was feared the transmitters would endanger what is part of a major bird migration route between Europe and Africa. Environmentalists were also upset that the plans called for the elimination of a nature reserve so that an air force training base could be relocated.

Arava residents and the nature society appealed to the High Court of Justice, which set a precedent by ruling in July 1991 that environmental impact studies of the project had to be considered before any decision could be made. Subsequent studies reinforced their concerns.

The society had spearheaded an international campaign against the project, lobbying the Knesset and the U.S. Congress and in the process enlisting the help of ornithologists and other conservationists worldwide.

It had stepped up its efforts in recent weeks, calling on President Clinton to re-evaluate the project and its “unwarranted damage to the environment.”

The current Labor government was also decidedly less enthusiastic about the project than its Likud predecessor.

Israel’s Environment Ministry had no comment on the U.S. move and referred inquiries to Sagi’s organization, with whom it has worked closely on the controversial plan.

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