Environmental cooperation between Israel, Arab states, can build peace

Something hopeful is happening here, under our very nose. It is hard to believe that it is going on virtually in secrecy and not being highlighted on every Israeli public diplomacy site. Even as leaders talk about annexation, about severing diplomatic ties and international boycotts, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are cooperating under the radar, as they have been doing for years.

Whether or not we want it, Israel and its neighbours share the same environment, wildlife and nature, which do not recognise human borders or political conflicts. Initiatives along the borders and beyond amalgamate knowledge, good will and resources in an effort to protect the cherished nature we share.

Given that ecosystems transcend political borders, irresponsible exploitation of natural resources or pollution on one side of the border can damage natural trans boundary habitats and the natural resources of those living on its other side. Population growth, dwindling natural resources, and current and future climate change could have a domino effect – setting off a severe chain reaction resulting in ecological, economic, social and ultimately political instability in the Middle East – with or without annexation. Many scientists, for example, explain that political events such as the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war were affected, among other things, by such a domino effect.

Cooperation or joint management of natural resources could yield synergy and more efficient and sustainable exploitation of these resources, both in ecological and social-economic terms. The exchange of knowledge, technologies and data, along with the pooling of economic and human resources for enforcement and monitoring, enhance the protection of healthier habitats, social-economic resilience and people’s quality of life. They also reduce conflicts, improve relations between states and promote regional stability. A regional perspective that also relates to aspects of natural resources, climate and habitats could also generate new insights, surprising partners and a new foreign policy dimension.

In addition to the regional cooperation on energy and water issues about which we hear on the news, Israel is also involved in conservation of valuable marine, desert, mountain and valley habitats. Surprisingly (or not), four particularly interesting initiatives are taking place in political peripheral but very ecologically valuable fields. Two involve transborder environmental education, bringing Palestinians and Jordanians to the Israeli desert to study and promote joint environmental projects.

They are the Arava Institute’s environmental studies program for international students (in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University), and the Cross-Border Youth program of The Dead Sea-Arava Science Center (DSASC). These two institutes also advance other forms of across border cooperation with Jordan, the West Bank and even the Gaza Strip on water management, solar energy, agriculture and nature conservation. Israel could serve as a “light unto the nations” by propagating its scientific and technological capabilities in these important fields. It makes the most sense to start with “the nations” living alongside us whose actions affect our environment and nature.

The Red Sea Transnational Research Center is yet another impressive initiative, bringing Israel together with no fewer than seven Arab and Muslim states bordering the Red Sea, among them Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to monitor and protect the Red Sea’s corals. The project, initiated by Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University, was established under the auspices of the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne – a European sponsorship that made possible this unusual cooperation.

The Center activities includes knowledge and data sharing, and joint sailing and diving expeditions that support joint monitoring activity. The Red Sea has a unique and valuable ecological system. It not only provides a home for many organisms and species, but it is also of international importance given the “bleaching” of many coral reefs around the world and their destruction by rising water temperatures and pollution. Bleaching has not been detected in the Red Sea, which makes it an highly important case study. Scientific cooperation between Israel and Jordan in tracking and monitoring the corals began in the 1990s and yielded significant scientific and ecological benefit. Nonetheless, Israeli-Palestinian flare-ups often stop or delay these projects.

The fourth initiative is the Army for the Protection of Nature (Tzva Hahagana Lateva), a joint initiative of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Although this initiative involves unilateral biodiversity protection in restricted areas, such as military bases and firing zones, it has also involved environmental cooperation with Jordanians and Palestinians.

Projects include, for example, protection of the bat population in the Jericho and Dead Sea area, sea-turtle protection in the Red Sea, and enabling the passage of wildlife through fenced off areas and parts of the Israel-Jordan border. The IDF launches eight or nine such projects annually to advance environmental principles, protect or rehabilitate habitats and train soldiers, especially officers, to avoid environmental damage or to repair environmental damage resulting from their activities. Since 25% of Israel’s state land is controlled by the military, such projects’ potential for ideological and ecological change is immense.

The greatest advantage of environmental initiatives, beyond their ecological benefits, is the fact that the public on both sides of the conflict view them as being distinct from politics. These initiatives therefore tend to attract support or, at least, generate less public opposition compared with cooperation in other spheres viewed as more controversial. However, the fact is that nature and the environment are intertwined with the economy and/or politics, and if we do not protect them, they could lead to local and regional instability and exacerbate existing conflicts.

That goes both ways. Political and diplomatic developments have halted past environmental cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and Jordan under public pressure to avoid cooperation with Israel. There is real concern that annexation would halt or damage many of these initiatives.

Finally, joint environmental initiatives are not only of ecological importance. They create an important precedent and a launching pad for cooperation in additional, more political fields. Such initiatives generate hope for a more promising future here should our priorities change. We must protect and develop them.

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