Environmental challenges are creating new priorities for countries in the Middle East and the Mediterranean and increasing cross-border cooperation – including between Israel and Arab countries. Such cooperation can assist in tackling climate change through a regional and global lens, can foster regional stability, maintain and expand circles of peace and normalization, and increase prosperity and economic development.
This trend, together with progress in Israel-Arab relations following the Abraham Accords, creates new opportunities for regional environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. However, these opportunities’ full potential cannot be realized prior to a breakthrough toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. Moreover, the composition and policies of Israel’s current government pose additional challenges to Israel-Arab relations and have led existing cooperation to slow down. Nevertheless, and despite being limited in scope, regional cooperative endeavors are taking place and efforts to sustain them are underway.
The convening of the 27th (2022) and 28th (2023) United Nations Climate Change Conference summits in the Middle East – in Egypt, and in the United Arab Emirates respectively – helps such cooperation evolve. In addition, Israel and several Arab states (such as Morocco and the UAE) have signed bilateral agreements for cooperation on environmental-related issues. Minilateral endeavors, like the Israel-Jordan-UAE water-electricity swap deal and the Israel-Morocco-EU water dialogue, have been launched; and multilateral mechanisms and initiatives – including the Union for the Mediterranean, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, and the East Mediterranean & Middle East Climate Change Initiative – enable Israel and its neighbors to jointly engage in tackling climate change.
President Isaac Herzog has called for regional environmental cooperation during visits to neighboring countries and introduced a visionary concept of a “renewable Middle East,” based on inclusive regional frameworks. The international community has a clear interest in enhancing such regional environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors, also with the aim of advancing Israel-Arab normalization and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The US and Europe are best positioned to achieve this advancement and can do so via the following pathways:
How can the US and Europe promote Israel-Arab environmental cooperation?
First, by providing third-party support: The US and Europe should further encourage and enable environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. They can be formal partners in cooperative endeavors, provide funding and technological assistance, convene support, assist with training and expertise, and serve as benefactors to ensure success. Third-party involvement is necessary to spark new cooperation and reach agreements, but also to ensure that understandings reached are implemented in a concrete way. Such involvement can increase the motivation of Israel and its neighbors to work together and can assist the countries involved in overcoming political, bureaucratic, and public opinion obstacles.
Second, by focusing on tangible benefits: When seeking to encourage regional environmental cooperation, the US and Europe should focus on initiatives that are likely to bring tangible benefits in the near term. This will make cooperation more likely and legitimate. Selected initiatives should be those that address the concrete needs of the countries involved – and play to their added value – but also have a potential global scale impact, beyond just the region. Relevant issues to engage in could include renewable energy, food security, innovative technologies, sustainable tourism, water desalination and reclamation, public health, and the blue economy.
Third, by including the Palestinians: Israelis and Palestinians share similar environmental challenges but do not formally cooperate on most of them, due to the political circumstances. The US and Europe should advance the inclusion of the Palestinians in Israel-Arab cooperative endeavors, with a political horizon of advancing the two-state solution.
Messages underscoring the US and European interest in seeing this happen should be conveyed to relevant countries in the region, to make it clear that they do not see the advancement of Israel-Arab cooperation as a way to sideline the Palestinian issue. This could also assist in fostering some mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians and in creating joint interest in stability and de-escalation. Efforts should be made to ensure that existing regional projects (such as the Israel-Jordan-UAE water-electricity swap deal) also benefit the Palestinians (including those in Gaza) and to include Palestinian interests and needs in new projects that may be developed via mechanisms such as the Negev Forum. An effort should be made to leverage the joint and equal participation of Israel and Palestine in the EMGF and the UfM as well as to increase their cooperation – under a multilateral umbrella – on environmental issues.
Fourth, by encouraging multilateralism and inclusivity: Multilateral initiatives dealing with climate change have already proven their ability to bring rival parties to the same table. This is likely to continue, given the forecasts about the increasing negative implications of climate change for the region. The US and Europe need to empower regional and multilateral frameworks, making them more effective, ensuring coordination between them to avoid duplication of efforts, enhancing their inclusivity by bringing in additional countries (such as enabling Turkish and Lebanese involvement in the EMGF), fostering interregional connectivity (by providing observer status to relevant countries from other sub-regions), and enhancing engagement without recognition between rivals (as was the case with the Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal).
The US and Europe can also work to ensure that existing regional mechanisms – such as the EMGF and the Negev Forum – develop a specific focus on climate and the environment, and encourage the participation of civil society actors, not just officials.
Fifth, by investing in civil society: Parallel to efforts toward enhancing cooperation between governments and officials, the US and Europe should also acknowledge the important role that civil society organizations can play in fostering regional environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. Examples of this are already mounting and having a concrete impact, in terms of content and of fostering constructive societal engagement. The US and Europe should therefore increase their investment in supporting such cooperation. They can do so by linking environmental activists and professionals from regional countries, providing them with opportunities for joint learning, training, strategizing, and sharing best practices and lessons learned, as well as developing cross-border or regional projects.
The US and the EU can ensure that existing funding schemes related to civil society cooperation in the region also include beneficiaries working on climate change, or seeking to enter the field. Finally, they should elevate environmental cooperation between regional NGOs and think tanks to also advance peace, security, stability, and prosperity.
COP28 in the UAE is already around the corner (November 30-December 12). Israel plans to be represented there by both its president and prime minister and is already involved in planning and preparation. However, the far-right composition of its current government and its policies on the Palestinian issue are taking a toll on Israel’s regional foreign policy and causing the development of Israel-Arab relations to significantly slow down.
Even this year’s Negev Forum ministerial meeting, originally slated to take place in Morocco in March, is being repeatedly postponed due to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Climate change is presenting Israel with numerous opportunities for enhanced regional cooperation and the international community can help in realizing 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.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and president of the Mitvim Institute; Dr. Maya Negev is head of the Health Systems Policy and Administration Program at the University of Haifa; Dr. Ofir Winter is a senior researcher at the INSS.