Tackling climate change through a regional and global lens could foster increased regional stability, expand Israel’s circle of peace and normalization, and provide greater prosperity, according to a report published by the Middle East Institute this month.
However, the report said, the coming to power of the Netanyahu administration has led to a “slowing down” of Israel-Arab relations, thereby limiting the advancement of environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors.
Nimrod Goren, Ofir Winter, and Maya Negev wrote the report under the auspice of President Isaac Herzog’s Israeli Climate Forum. It is based on interviews with government officials, mostly done toward the end of the Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid administration.
Opportunities for regional cooperation
In a commentary about the report, the authors said, “Climate change is presenting Israel with numerous opportunities for enhanced regional cooperation, and the international community can help realize them.
“But, should the Netanyahu government continue its current policies toward the Palestinian issue – the potential will not be realized, and missed opportunities will mount. In that case, as regional countries enhance their cooperation on environmental issues, Israel might be left out.”
The report offered Israel seven areas on which to focus to achieve greater climate collaboration:
- Promoting "regional climate resilience," especially in the areas of water, food and energy security
- Cooperating with "unofficial or semi-official" regional elements to bypass political limitations
- Increasing interaction between Israeli ambassadors and their Arab counterparts
- Mapping the regional countries' climate change and environmental needs and how Israeli could learn from or assist with them
- Initiating an annual regional climate conference
- Tapping into the diplomatic strength of the United States and European Union to build multilateral regional and tripartite climate initiatives
- Focusing on the issues that will equally benefit Israel and the regional countries involved
Abraham Accords and climate cooperation
Israel was able to step up its regional climate cooperation with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 and the establishment of the Negev Forum in 2022. However, the authors noted there is no specific regional working group on climate and environmental issues nor direct cooperation between Israeli and Arab environment ministries.
According to the report, Israel’s full climate cooperation potential with its neighbors cannot be realized before a breakthrough toward Israeli-Palestinian peace exists.
“Palestine is part of the region,” explained Dov Khenin, chairman of the Israeli Climate Forum, in a briefing on the report. “You cannot just put Palestinians in the box, close the box, and keep them there.
“The climate crisis will not wait until we finish dealing with our problems,” he continued. “We should find ways to solve the conflict of the 20th century to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.”
To date, the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank has managed to achieve what the authors called “ad-hoc cooperation” with Palestinian municipalities. In addition, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are members of a handful of multilateral initiatives, such as the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). Further, there are examples of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation led by civil society organizations, although limited.
“Israelis and Palestinians share a long border and similar air, food, climate, water, and ecosystem environmental challenges but do not formally cooperate on most of them, due to the political circumstances,” the report said, calling on the US and EU to intervene and advance the inclusion of the Palestinians in Israel-Arab cooperative endeavors.
“Efforts should be made to ensure that existing regional projects (such as the Israel-Jordan-United Arab Emirates water-electricity swap deal) also benefit the Palestinians (including those in Gaza),” the authors wrote, “and to include Palestinian interests and needs in new projects that may be developed via mechanisms such as the Negev Forum.”
According to the report, Israeli officials see Morocco as the regional partner with the most potential for climate and environmental cooperation, specifically in the areas of renewable energy, water, agriculture, fishing, and desertification.
Last year, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Morocco’s National Office for Electricity and Drinking Water (ONEE) and Israel’s national water company Mekorot at the Global Investment Forum in Marrakech. This spring, a series of visits to the country by Israeli ministers, including Economy Minister Nir Barkat and Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, indicated that Israel is stepping up efforts in that direction.
Moreover, Israel dispatched an agricultural attaché to Morocco, a position that only exists in a few countries.
The report noted that the UAE’s main environmental interest is in food security and the blue economy, while Bahrain mainly focuses on water, agriculture, and desertification issues. However, no practical progress with Bahrain has occurred on climate-related topics.
Israelis also perceive the potential for environmental cooperation with Turkey, although the authors noted there has yet to be contact between relevant counterparts. Israel also aims to collaborate with Egypt and Jordan, although “the possibilities of doing so are limited by political constraints in both countries,” according to the report.
Finally, the climate crisis could catalyze improved ties with Arab or Muslim countries where Israel does not yet have diplomatic relations, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman.
“Israel has shared environmental interests with these countries on issues like desertification, water shortages, global warming, climate refugees, and food security,” the authors wrote. “Indeed, despite the lack of official relations, media reports suggest some back-channel engagement and knowledge exchange is taking place that could expand in the future.
“In contacts with these countries, and the Gulf states in general, the Israeli business sector must assume a central role given the great importance accorded to financial interests in the Gulf.”
The report highlighted that despite numerous MoUs, little has yet to be implemented. Part of this, the authors said, is because of political and administrative challenges on the side of the Arab states and partly because of the low priority that climate and environmental issues receive by Israeli officials.
“On issues relating to the environment and climate, countries perceive matters differently, and in some counties in the region – including Israel – there are prominent interests and agendas that push back on or marginalize environmental issues,” according to the report.
Looking ahead, the authors said the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), which will take place from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai, could create “significant opportunities for Israel,” both because it could encourage Israeli ministries to put more of a focus on environmental issues and because it could lead countries in the region to do the same. COP28, the report said, could “give experts, business people, and government representatives from Israel access to broad Arab audiences to present their expertise and establish ties.
“The ramifications of climate change are already evident,” the authors concluded. “Obstacles must be overcome to broaden and intensify regional environmental cooperation.”