How Israeli-Arab regional cooperation helps fight climate change - opinion

April 07, 2022

By Jodie Cohen

It’s remarkable that a country the size of New Jersey is able to help much larger countries across the region and beyond.

Preventing the next terror attack has been at the forefront of most Israelis’ minds over the past couple of weeks. This has overshadowed what should have been a celebratory time in the country, not only with the upcoming festival season, but also with the regional diplomacy that has taken place on a historic scale. 

Who would have predicted only two years ago that Israel – the world’s only Jewish state – would have welcomed foreign ministers from four Arab countries at the Negev Summit? Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry, Morocco’s Nasser Bourita and the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan joined US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and their Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, for two days of talks.

To quote the well-known Passover expression, had Israel just participated, some might have said “dayenu” (“it would have been enough”). But Israel didn’t just participate – it hosted the summit.

While the focus was on regional cooperation, including of course security, part of the discussions reportedly focused on climate-related issues. Clean energy is a priority for the UAE, sustainable agriculture was on the agenda for Morocco, and Egypt is concerned about both food security and the energy crisis.

At the summit, Israel and Bahrain signed a framework agreement for cooperation, which is expected to include collaboration in the fields of technology, health and agriculture, as well as defense. And the week following the summit, Israel and the UAE formulated a free trade agreement, with huge potential for cooperation in areas such as agriculture, energy, health and water (including water conservation, smart management, purification and desalination).

Furthermore, Morocco and Israel signed an economic cooperation and trade agreement in February. This aims to develop trade in areas like agriculture and food, among other sectors. 

It is clear that the Abraham Accords – as well as the need to share climate technology – are leading to cooperation across much of the region, and are also deepening the relationships Israel already had with Egypt and Jordan. Israel and Jordan, for example, recently announced an agreement whereby Israel will supply land-locked Jordan with desalinated water, and Jordan will house solar panels, which will provide clean energy for land-stretched Israel.

This can only be positive in the fight against important global issues such as climate change. 

Climate doesn’t recognize borders

As Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change reportedly said, the climate crisis “is a global issue – it does not recognize borders, political ideologies or anything.” She was speaking at the first ever UN Middle East and North Africa Climate Week, which was held in Dubai at the end of March. 

While some in Israel questioned the fact that Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg didn’t attend the climate summit, she was leading Israel’s delegation to an  Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Paris at the time. Israel was represented at the summit by the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy for climate change, Ambassador Gideon Behar, in coordination with Zandberg. 

I’m not going to say “dayenu” to the fact that Israel participated in this summit. It included panel discussions with the environment ministers of countries like Lebanon and Syria, which still don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel wasn’t included in those panel discussions. It’s an indication that while climate change affects everyone, the region still has a way to go in being able to work together.

However, Behar did participate in a roundtable on the fringe of the summit, where he offered to share Israel’s technology with its Middle East and North African neighbors to help tackle climate change. He specifically highlighted Israel’s technology to move agriculture from being rain-fed to drip-irrigation led, supporting food security as well as water management. 

Behar spoke about how Israel is at the forefront of developing alternative proteins. These are also helping to enhance food security and avoid climate-harming greenhouse gases associated with raising cattle. He referred to Israel’s national agricultural R&D center, the Volcani Institute, whose 200 scientists are helping to protect stored grain from mold and pests, further supporting food security. The Volcani Center accounts for more than 75% of Israel’s agricultural research and innovation, and has been called the driving force behind the country’s agricultural expertise.

Behar also talked about Israel’s renewable energy technology, and how the country is helping to solve the challenge of storing energy for times when there’s little sun. And he spoke about Israel’s leading role in reforestation efforts, successfully planting trees in areas with little annual rainfall. 

If you just take a step back and think about it for a minute, it’s remarkable. A country the size of New Jersey and half the size of New Delhi, with a population of only 9 million people, is offering – and able – to help and work with much larger countries across the region and beyond. 

Take India, for example. Prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Narendra Modi met on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November. Bennett was supposed to travel to India in April, visiting Delhi and Bengaluru among other places. The trip unfortunately had to be postponed because of Bennett catching COVID-19, and also no doubt because of the terror wave gripping the country. 

However, when the trip is rescheduled, the two will discuss ways to strengthen cooperation further in research, development and innovation, covering areas such as agriculture and climate change. Israel partners with India in water recycling and drip irrigation projects. These not only help with saving water – hugely important in a country facing rising temperatures – but also improving livelihoods for farmers.

A renewable Middle East

In a speech made in the wake of the COP26 climate summit, President Isaac Herzog outlined his vision for a “Renewable Middle East.” He said Israel’s “arid desert of thousands of miles exposed to the fierce sun – can be a source of energy, and in fact a source of life, not only for our whole region, but also beyond – for Europe, for Asia and for Africa.”

He talked about meetings he was holding with Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, and how he was in “close and warm contact” with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan the UAE and even the Palestinian Authority. He set out his ambition of getting them “all on board for a regional partnership confronting the climate crisis.”

The next opportunity might be the next global climate summit, with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad hosting COP27 later this year. Following that, COP28 will be hosted in 2023 by the UAE, another global player in renewable energy and environmental protection. 

The year 2023 will also see the 2nd annual Negev Summit, which will hear from working groups covering the issues of water and food security, energy and health, as well as other important topics including security, education and tourism.

As Blinken said at the conclusion of the first Negev Summit, it appears that “normalization has become the new normal,” and we can expect more cooperation to come over the next couple of years… so let’s not say “dayenu” quite yet.

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