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


The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible. The unfolding peace process in the Middle East may well provide the first living laboratory for testing this principle. Here, in the cradle of civilization, environmental cooperation is providing a means of achieving peace and solving security problems. For the first time ever, environmental talks are serving as confidence-building measures to promote normalized relations among nations. For the first time, the environment constitutes a stepping stone toward peace, a meeting ground among nations as they forge new paths toward peaceful coexistence.

Environmental Benefits

While the Middle East environmental talks are targeted at achieving a political goalthe advancement of peacethe environment itself stands to gain from the process. The hostility which has characterized the Middle East for nearly five decades has too frequently left environmental concerns by the wayside as each country competed for precious resources, oblivious to the environmental needs of its neighbors. The situation was aggravated by inadequate financial resources which precluded the development of vital environmental infrastructures. Finally, environmental protection itself was accorded low priority in the struggle for survival.

The passage from a state of war to an era of peace has opened new opportunities for environmental cooperation among all parties to the peace talks. For the first time, such common concerns as dwindling resources, desertification, rapid development and pollution control are being addressed by the region as a whole. For the first time, Middle Eastern countries are developing a network of regional contacts on infrastructure development, resource sharing, eco-tourism, and the preservation of their unique natural and historical heritage.

While the past was characterized by competition over resources and disregard of mutual needs, the present is witnessing the creation of cooperative frameworks for the integrative management and protection of shared resources. Regional cooperation for the protection of the Gulf of Eilat from oil spills (a joint Israeli- Jordanian-Egyptian project) is already in the implementation stage. An environmental code of conduct for the Middle East, which defines realms of environmental cooperation and the tools needed to implement this cooperation, is now a reality.

The passage from enmity to peaceful cooperation should also witness the flow of international assistance and investment to this region to promote vital environmental infrastructures. At the request of the Working Group on Economic Development, the World Bank has already submitted to the donor community an assessment of the development needs and prospects of the West Bank and Gaza Strip economies. The document emphasizes the need for regional infrastructural networks, such as sewage and waste treatment facilities. In the area of marine quality, the peace process has helped secure the necessary funding for an oil spill contingency plan in the Gulf of Aqaba, based on the establishment of three marine emergency centers in Aqaba, Nueiba and Eilat.

Still another gratifying prospect is the possibility for cooperation in solving regional desertification problems. Thus far, world attention has been directed at Africa alone, and international aid has not been forthcoming for combating desertification in the Middle East. Today, within the framework of the multilateral track of the peace process, the World Bank has spearheaded a joint project on combating desertification in the Middle East with the participation of Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. As the countries in the region move from military combat to combating desertification and environmental degradation, this region may well see the fulfillment of the age- old prophecy of Isaiah, describing peace as the hammering of swords into plowshares and spears into sickles.

Overcoming Environmental Risks

While peace has opened the doors to environmental cooperation, accelerated economic development may place added pressures on the region’s natural resource base and fragile environment. If the challenge of sustainable development is to be met, all parties in the region must redouble their commitment to the protection of their environment.

Plans to transform Israel into a central commercial junction in the region are expected to increase environmental burdens on Israel’s infrastructure systems. As Israel takes its place at the crossroads of a new Middle East, cargoes from Arab countries will make their way to Israel’s Mediterranean ports on their way to world markets. The increased movement of trucks and other vehicles will significantly increase congestion on the country’s roads, bringing in its wake increased pollution and noise.

On another front, Israeli-Jordanian plans to develop the Jordan Rift Valley into a valley of peace and prosperity include several development schemes which may have a significant impact on environmental quality. One such plan is the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal. This large-scale development proposal, if implemented without the requisite environment assessment, may lead to a host of adverse environmental impacts, such as possible groundwater contamination and adverse impact on the ecological balance of the Dead Sea. Any decision on this complex project will require careful environmental analysis.

The development of a port in Gaza carries its own environmental implications, specifically marine pollution and disturbance of the sediment flow along the Mediterranean seacoast which may bring about erosion of Israel’s coastline.

Yet, the problems posed by these and other large-scale development projects are by no means insurmountable. Israel and its peace partners are investing major efforts to ensure that environmental considerations are incorporated in all development plans from the early stages of planning. At the dawn of the new era of peace, new means are being sought to ensure that development is carried out in an environmentally sound manner.

For example, to mitigate the environmental impacts of increased congestion on Israel’s roads, environmentalists have expressed opposition to the construction of a North-South artery within Israel and are working to ensure that new roads do not traverse population centers. Discussions are currently focusing on the transport of cargoes in East-West highways, using the shortest possible alignment. In addition, foreign vehicles crossing through Israel will be required to comply with Israeli environmental standards, such as catalytic converters. Other options currently being examined include East-West rail transport as a potential alternative to vehicle transport.

To formulate the optimal development approach in the sensitive Jordan Rift Valley, Israel and Jordan have agreed to launch an integrated program of regional planning and pre-investment studies, which will include, inter alia, environmental impact assessment for key proposed projects including the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal. It is significant that the terms of reference for the preparatory phase of the development study specifically call for the preparation of an environmental profile of the study area, including preliminary identification of environmentally-sensitive areas and screening of proposed activities which would require environmental assessment. On the basis of this profile, an integrated development master plan for the area will be prepared. All the participants in the Jordan Rift Valley plan are cognizant of the fact that the development of the area must be based on the sustainability of development options and the careful management of the fragile environment and resource base.

A major breakthrough is an agreement whereby all donors will apply the same environmental criteria which are required in their respective countries, including environmental impact assessment, to the implementation of development projects in the Middle East. The Dutch, for example, who have undertaken to develop the port of Gaza, are conducting an environmental impact statement to assess the environmental impacts of the project. All necessary mitigating measures will be instituted to ensure that damage to Israel’s coastline does not occur.

Special efforts are also being invested in opening up avenues of communication with the Palestinian environmental authority on such subjects as information exchange, training and common environmental standards. Thus far, Palestinian environmentalists have expressed their readiness to promote such cooperation.

The Road to Peace and Environmental Protection

The Middle East, comprising diverse geographical and climatic zones, constitutes a single environmental system which is particularly vulnerable to all forms of transboundary pollution. The expansion of the peace process promises to bring about sweeping changes in the ability of Middle Eastern countries to address environmental issues. New frameworks for cooperation and new sources of funding promise to help combat the spread of pollution and to solve environmental problems.

The Working Group on the Environment, perhaps more than any other group within the framework of the multilateral peace talks, has already achieved consensus on several concrete projects designed to promote environmental cooperation in the area. The Environmental Code of Conduct for the Middle East, endorsed in Bahrain during the latest round of the multilateral peace talks on the environment, is one of the first environmental dividends of the peace process. At the same time, the environmental talks have played a major role in forging new bridges of understanding among the diverse people who inhabit this area of the world. For the first time ever, Arab states such as Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain have opened their doors to Israeli representatives within the framework of environmental meetings. Environmental talks within the context of the peace process have helped contribute to improved relations with these countries.

Israel fervently hopes that the continuation of the peace process will indeed usher in an era of peace, environmental quality and sustainable development, an era in which the environment will reap the benefits of the peace process and the peace process will reap the benefits of environmental cooperation.