The missed opportunity for environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors constitutes one of the great frustrations of Israel’s past fifty years. Numerous environmental challenges involve transboundary pathologies that require cooperative interventions. Israel will never have clean streams unless the Palestinians upgrade their sewage; Palestinians will never have clean air unless Israelis living on the coast reduce their air pollution emissions. The 115 species of animals that live in the area are blissfully unaware of borders and continue to wander back and forth, limiting the effectiveness of unilateral conservation strategies limited. If integrated pest management is actually going to reduce the level of pesticide usage, coordination is critical for eliminating resistance among insects or so-called “super bugs”. But even during the years of occupation, there was little priority placed on coordinating Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian environmental policies and initiatives.
To some extent, the environment has been held hostage by the broader conflict. With its new desalination capacity, Israel could surely share more water with its parched neighbors. But facing decades of recalcitrance, its governments have insisted on receiving some political concessions in return. The result is a race to the bottom. Even Israel’s fairly cautious State Comptroller issued a report in 2017 decrying the poor level of cooperation in water and other environmental matters.
But trend need not be destiny. As leaders in the region cast about looking for ways to break the diplomatic paralysis and deadlock – the environment offers a “win-win” opportunity to create confidence between Israel and its neighbors which should be seized. If there is one lesson that is clear since 1967 it is that Israel is not going anywhere. Neither are the Palestinians. And it is also a truism that both nations want to offer their children lives where they can drink the water and breath the air without fear of becoming ill. Let’s hope that the next fifty years bring greater harmony – not only in security and military affairs – but in the way humans treat their respective homelands.
The fifty years that have transpired since the Six Day War have not been good ones for Israeli or Palestinian natural resources. In fact, it is hard to think of an environmental indicator which has dramatically improved outside of forest coverage in Israel (as opposed to the West Bank) and reduction of oil in the Mediterranean. Biodiversity preservation, which made tremendous progress in Israel during the second half of the twentieth century, is in massive decline. Dozens of animal species are listed as threatened with extinction. Contamination of groundwater and streams is growing worse. Greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high. These problems are regional problems.
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist. Tal founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in 1990 and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in 1997.