Israel Environment Bulletin Winter 1995-5755, Vol. 18, No. 1


Shoshana Gabbay: In your capacity as Director General of the Ministry of the Environment and head of the Israeli delegation to the multilateral peace talks on the environment, you have played a pivotal role in the regional efforts to promote peace and protect the environment in the Middle East. Looking back, how can you summarize this period?

Dr. Israel Peleg: I feel both proud and privileged to have taken part in this historic period which has witnessed the birth of the Middle East peace process. During this time, my colleagues and I have worked long and hard to ensure that the path to peace will coincide with the path to sustainable development in this region.

On the multilateral track of the peace process, we already have a good track record. A regional project for cooperation on maritime pollution and emergency response in the Gulf of Aqaba has been launched; our proposal on combating desertification has been promoted with the aid of the World Bank; and under the leadership of the Japanese delegation, a regional environmental code of conduct has been adopted. On the bilateral track, our ministry has played an important part in incorporating environmental aspects into the peace treaty with Jordan and into the Declaration of Principles with the Palestinians. I think we have already shown that regional cooperation on the sensitive environmental issues facing the Middle East is possible. The challenge today is to implement the agreements and projects, to translate understandings into concrete action, to act together in protecting and managing the precious natural resources which we all share.

Shoshana Gabbay: How will the era of peace impact the environment?

Dr. Israel Peleg: So much depends on our foresight today in planning for tomorrow. The era of peace in the Middle East has the potential to foster mutual cooperation and coordinated initiatives which will provide a valuable impetus to environmental activities which will benefit us all. On the other hand, peace in the Middle East is expected to usher in an era of rapid economic development which will inevitably put enormous pressure on the limited and fragile resources of our region. It is our mission to ensure that economic growth will be carried out in a sustainable manner. This can only be achieved by improving the capacity of each party to deal with environmental issues, and by initiating joint and cooperative projects in the different spheres of the environment.

Shoshana Gabbay: Can you cite any positive examples in which environmental considerations have been incorporated into regional development plans as a result of the peace process?

Dr. Israel Peleg: One of the important outcomes of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan is a plan to develop the Jordan Rift Valley

(JRV). This ambitious scheme, born as a result of deliberations within the framework of the Trilateral (Israel-US-Jordan) Economic Committee of the Middle East Peace Talks, calls for developing the JRV in a way that will reap its full economic potential while preserving its valuable resource base. Both Jordan and Israel have agreed that the process of developing the JRV should begin with a preliminary study which will serve as a first step toward the preparation of an integrated development master plan for the area. The parties reached consensus on the terms of reference for the development project and called upon the World Bank to assist in advancing the planning process. It is significant that both the terms of reference and the World Bank preliminary report emphasize the importance of environmental management as part of the planning process. They underline the need to check every step on the development path to ensure that the unique environment and heritage of the JRV is not compromised. We suggest that this approach be taken for other development plans currently on the drawing board, including those generated by the Casablanca Economic Summit held in late October 1994.

We are well aware that economic development and the creation of trade relations between Israel and its neighbors through the opening of borders to land, air and sea transport are a necessary basis for peace. On the other hand, we cannot allow for a situation whereby the benefits of economic development will be outweighed by heavy environmental costs. If we are to ensure quality of life and the environment in Israel and in the entire region, we must guarantee that environmental standards and principles are not compromised.

Shoshana Gabbay: What can Israel do to help bring about sustainable development in the region?

Dr. Israel Peleg: The Planning Division of the Ministry of the Environment has prepared a document on sustainable development in the Middle East. The economic development anticipated in the region obliges us to formulate, still in the early stages of planning, a wise development policy which will prevent the creation of environmental nuisances and risks and will guide developersboth local and internationalto projects designed to bring the maximum benefit to both present and future generations of this region.

Over the past twenty years, we in Israel have made substantial progress in enacting the relevant legislation and implementing an environmental policy targeted at preventing environmental degradation through the incorporation of environmental considerations into the planning process. When establishing regional infrastructure systems (such as land and air transportation systems), the guiding principles must be the prevention of environmental damage and degradation and full compliance with accepted environmental standards.

Shoshana Gabbay: What are some of the specific environmental principles which must underlie development policy within the framework of the peace process, especially in relation to Israel?

Dr. Israel Peleg: When formulating development policy, the importance of preserving land reserves for future generations must be taken into account as well as the protection and preservation of open spaces and landscapes for recreation and tourism. The Middle East is characterized by unique ecological and historical valuesa wide diversity of flora and fauna, magnificent landscapes, and a rich cultural heritage sheltering many religious and historical sites that are sacred to the three great religions of humankind. These must not be sacrificed in the name of development and economic progress.

In terms of Israel, specifically, current plans call for its transformation into a regional center for infrastructure and services. In light of the fact that this country is already characterized by a scarcity of land reserves and by one of the highest population densities in the developed world in the area north of the Negev, the siting of land-guzzling infrastructures must be carefully assessed.

Shoshana Gabbay: What solutions can we forward to solve environmental problems?

Dr. Israel Peleg: Adapting land use to physical conditions makes for more efficient planning and serves as a good basis for solving environmental problems. It is imperative that we plan land uses in accordance with the suitability and sensitivity of land resources. Thus, for example, landfills should be sited in areas of low hydrological sensitivity and low risk of aquifer pollution while mining for raw materials should be concentrated in areas with high geological reserves and low landscape sensitivity.

To help preserve precious land resources, full use should be made of existing facilities, and infrastructure systems should be unified wherever possible. When planning for new environmental infrastructures, such as sewage and solid waste facilities, we must ensure that they will be capable of keeping up with accelerated development in terms of capacity. Such considerations must be raised at the earliest stages of development planning and financing.

On the positive side, developments in the post-industrial era can foster the implementation of innovative technologies which will allow for economic development without environmental degradation. It is of utmost importance that economic development in this region be based on the experience of the OECD, especially in light of the fact that many large-scale projects are likely to be financed with Western aid. Such organizations as the World Bank, which has been active in various aspects of the peace process, have already underlined the need for incorporating environmental considerations in development plans for the region. We totally endorse this approach.

Shoshana Gabbay: What would you say is the single most important prerequisite for environmentally sound development in this region?

Dr. Israel Peleg: It is imperative that a process of environmental assessment and review is established. Environmental aspects must be incorporated into all development projects from the earliest stages, side by side with engineering and economic aspects. Relevant environmental issues must be identified at each stage of planning and implementation, and an environmental consultant must be included in each planning team.

For projects with significant environmental impact, a process of environmental impact assessment is necessary. Such a process is well-rooted in Israel and in the world at large. Projects which should be required to undergo environmental assessment include energy generation, roads, interchanges and railroads, canals, and industrial areas. In addition, any policy decisions which are expected to bring about a significant change in the use of existing structures or facilities must undergo environmental assessment. One area of special concern is the vastly increased burden which will be placed on Israel’s transportation system. For example, the anticipated movement of trucks from Jordan to Haifa port through the Jezreel Valley may pose a significant environmental threat in terms of air pollution and noise.

Shoshana Gabbay: At this juncture, what are your hopes and apprehensions regarding the future of environmental protection in the Middle East?

Dr. Israel Peleg: Peace is not necessarily colored green. New infrastructures for housing, roads and industry involve a high risk of environmental damage. Increased industrial development and vehicular traffic threaten to take a heavy toll in terms of increased energy consumption, air pollution, noise and waste.

As in all aspects of life, the environment will inevitably be affected by the passage from an atmosphere of war and hostility to an atmosphere of peace and cooperation in the Middle East. Whether peace will take a toll in the form of added pollution and environmental degradation or will lead to sustainable development and the integrative management of natural resources for the benefit of all residents of the region

will ultimately depend on our actions today.

I, for one, sincerely believe that the era of peace is the time for the environment. With the advent of peace, Israel and its neighboring countries will finally be able to allocate the necessary resourcesboth intellectual and financialto ensure a better environment and a better quality of life for all the people in our region.