While water and environmental issues should serve as “a common denominator” among nations, resolving such issues in the Israeli-Palestinian neighborhood is being hampered by the larger political conflict, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said on Monday.
“It should be a common interest to work together, to share water, to work together toward improving the environment,” said Livni, who serves as Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians. “Yet the fact that we have this conflict going on for so many years prevents solving these issues.”
Livni was addressing participants in a Tel Aviv conference titled “Cross Border Environmental Issues and Water Resources in the Context of the Peace Process,” organized by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) and the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
Because environmental challenges such as water and sewage issues threaten the region’s quality of life across borders, forging forward with cooperative solutions must no longer be held at the mercy of the greater political conflict, experts from all over the world agreed at Monday’s conference.
“Environmentalists start with the commons,” said Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs op-ed columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for The New York Times. “If you don’t collaborate to protect the commons, nothing will save you.”
Going “green” and collaborating on environmental issues is advantageous on geostrategic and geopolitical levels, Friedman explained, adding that Mother Nature “doesn’t care what religion you are.”
“Mother Nature, she’s just chemistry, biology and physics,” he said. “Mother Nature always bats last and she always bats 1,000.”
For Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israel director, a transboundary “environmental disaster” has ensued in the West Bank – and therefore also in Israel proper – from Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements failing to treat sewage properly. He advocated the idea that water must be shared more fairly between Israelis and Palestinians, referring to the dependence of many Palestinian communities on rain water and expensive water tankers rather than a reliably running tap.
“We also see too many examples of the environment being held hostage by the conflict,” he said.
Dr. Muhammad Hmaidi, former director-general of the Palestinian Environment Ministry, agreed that the “environment is still a hostage of politics.”
Although stressing that the Palestinians “should have complete control over land and resources in the West Bank,” Hmaidi said that the parties must work to improve quality of life in the region even before the negotiations are through.
“We all believe that the scarcity of natural resources, the need to protect the environment, Mother Nature, cannot wait any longer,” he added.
“Let us put hands together and protect the environment before it is too late.”
Cooperation among the governments on water issues has, to a certain extent, already started occurring, former Israeli water commissioner Prof. Uri Shani pointed out.
Shani led the negotiations behind a December 9 trilateral memorandum of understanding on water sharing, signed by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian government officials.
According to the agreement, Jordan will sell Israel water from an Aqaba desalination plant in the South, in exchange for Israel selling an increased amount of Lake Kinneret water to its neighbor in the North. As an added part of the understanding, Israel will enable the sale of additional water to the Palestinian Authority.
“I believe that we should use the water to extinguish the fire,” Shani said. “Lack of water is so important that no government can use water as a prisoner of war to solve the conflict. It’s impossible.”
The agreement is already moving forward, and Shani stressed the importance of employing desalinated water in order to solve acute water problems.
“We have proved that we can work together,” Shani said. “It’s not a dream. We do it.”
Although Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians were able to come together for this trilateral memorandum of understanding, progress on many burning environmental issues among the neighbors has been stalled due to stagnation in the larger peace process.
Now, Livni explained, the sides are waiting to receive the American framework for negotiations from Secretary of State John Kerry. While the sides are waiting, however, environmental problems like water – which is a core issue on the negotiations table – are constantly increasing, she stressed.
“Basically we cannot wait,” Livni said. “But we are waiting to solve all the core issues on the table, while we are affecting our possibility to solve these core issues.”
Oftentimes, even though experts on shared issues like water know they need to meet and move forward collaboratively, misunderstandings and lack of trust can hamper such meetings, Livni explained.
“The idea now while negotiating is to give an answer to the core issues, including water and others,” she said, expressing hope that the respective leaders will receive the framework positively.
“The fact that we are talking about a common goal and common interest, this is something that relates not only to water and environment,” Livni added. “This is something that relates to the concept of two states and two peoples.”
Emphasizing that discussing peace options is not simply an act to perform “to appease John Kerry,” Livni said she feels proceeding with the negotiations embraces “the new vision of Zionism.”
“It is clear to me that the Jewish people didn’t dream for 2,000 years about an isolated state or a state that controls other people,” she said. “The only way to keep these values of a Jewish democracy in harmony is to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.”
With regards to the future framework for negotiations, FoEME leaders at the conference launched a new campaign, calling upon Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Kerry to forge ahead, as water and environmental issues can no longer wait.
The campaign is based on 10 pillars, including among them the idea that “a thirsty neighbor is not a good neighbor” and “nature knows no borders,” as well as the idea that transboundary streams cannot be rehabilitated without waste water treatment solutions in the West Bank. Shared groundwater resources not only require a shared solution, but such sharing also has the potential to serve as a catalyst for trust-building in the region, the pillars say.
“I think it must be the call of the environment community that the peace process issues move forward,” Bromberg said.
“Because if we as an environment community don’t understand that the clock is ticking, who will understand?”