PEACE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The expansion of the peace process is expected to bring about sweeping changes in the ability of Middle Eastern countries to address environmental issues. The Middle East constitutes a single environmental system which is particularly vulnerable to transboundary pollution. The countries in the region share similar environmental problems; regional cooperation is crucial to promote sustainable development and prevent the spread of pollution.
Future environmental cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors will be based on two critical elements: the creation of coordination mechanisms between the countries to deal with the question of shared natural resources and the development of joint projects designed to solve common environmental problems.
The Ministry of the Environment actively participates in the peace process through two tracks: multilateral and bilateral.
The Multilateral Track
Within the framework of the multilateral peace talks for regional cooperation in the Middle East, the Working Group on the Environment, headed by the director general of the Ministry of the Environment, has played a key role in setting forth proposals for future cooperation on environmental issues. Since the process was initiated in Moscow in January 1992, five meetings have been held, and subjects for regional cooperation have been identified. These include: emergency preparedness and prevention of marine pollution, especially in the Gulf of Eilat, development of sewage and solid waste infrastructures, combating desertification, environmental management and impact assessment, and public education.
A significant breakthrough was made in 1993 when the parties agreed to cooperate in combating marine pollution and oil spills in the Gulf of Aqaba. The operative significance of the agreement lies in the readiness of Jordan, Israel and Egypt to place pollution control equipment at each other’s disposal in case of an oil spill. The regional plan for cooperation on maritime pollution and emergency response in the Gulf of Eilat is based on three centers of operation: Jordanian (Aqaba), Israeli
(Eilat) and Egyptian (Nueiba), which will work in coordination and with mutual aid in case of emergency.
The Gulf of Aqaba, which is bordered by Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, poses a particularly urgent challenge. The natural resources and the climate of the Gulf of Aqaba make the area very attractive to scientists, sport divers and tourists from all over the world. On the other hand, Eilat and Aqaba are principal ports, with major oil terminals and chemical export facilities, which, along with the recreational facilities in the region, place major stress on the delicate ecosystem and threaten to damage it irreparably. The decision on emergency response, preceded by fact- finding missions and workshops in Japan and the USA, proved that only through full and open coordination can environmental problems be effectively addressed.
An Israeli proposal for a regional project on desertification has been significantly advanced in 1994. Today, the struggle against the encroaching desert is more pressing than ever. With a view to counteracting this trend, the World Bank has spearheaded an initiative for the establishment of regional centers on the study and prevention of desertification, with the participation of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and the Palestinians. The multi- million dollar project, to be financed by donating states and led by Japan and the World Bank, will serve as a model of peaceful and productive international cooperation, offering knowledge and expertise to improve the lives of people not only in the Middle East but in arid areas all around the world.
A World Bank delegation is currently preparing an inventory of regional institutes and experts on desertification, and an expert meeting will be organized to discuss means of advancing the subject. Several educational and research institutions in Israel have already expressed their readiness to take part in the project.
Still another major initiative focuses on the environmental future of the Mediterranean Sea region which constitutes an essential resource for millions of people. Members of the Working Group on the Environment have welcomed the European Union initiative on integrative management of the Eastern Mediterranean coast which is designed to develop channels of cooperation for the environmentally-sound development of the resources of this sensitive area. In the wake of the findings of a study mission to the area, the European Union has consolidated an action plan on integrated planning, manpower training, seminars and investments, which should go a long way toward paving the road toward integrated and comprehensive management of the Eastern Mediterranean coast.
Another project which has been accorded high priority within the context of the multilateral peace talks is environmental education. No environmental management program can be effective without the support of the people and education is the best tool available for nurturing support for environmental projects. Moreover, education can play a crucial role in building bridges of understanding among the people in this region. Israel has therefore welcomed the Jordanian proposal for establishing a regional education and information center and the Jordanian endorsement of the Israeli suggestion to declare a "Year of the Environment in the Middle East." Israel’s experience during the course of the Year of the Environment, launched in Israel in September 1993, may prove a model for similar consciousness-raising campaigns in the entire region.
Similarly, Israel has welcomed the Japanese initiative for a long- range endeavor on the preparation of a regional environmental code of conduct. The switch from a state of war and belligerence to a state of peace and cooperation requires, more than ever, the delineation of a new code of conduct which will govern the relations between the countries. The code of conduct should determine basic common attitudes towards the environment and should define values which are shared by all the people in the region concerning the protection of nature and the environment.
Other subjects on the environmental agenda for peace include: sewage treatment in small local authorities, solid waste treatment, industrial waste treatment, coastal planning, monitoring, and environmental impact assessment.
Over the past two years, the multilateral talks have progressed from the identification of shared problems to the formulation of concrete solutions and joint projects. The continuation of the talks is expected to help forge new paths toward cooperation and collaboration on the sensitive environmental issues facing the Middle East.
The Bilateral Track
Alongside its participation in the multilateral peace talks, the Ministry of the Environment is a full partner in the government effort to develop peaceful relations with individual neighboring Arab states. Several environmental components were incorporated within the framework of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements between the Government of Israel and the Palestinians (signed in September 1993). These include the establishment of an Environmental Authority by the elected Palestinian Interim Council and the creation of a joint Israeli- Palestinian committee on economic cooperation. Under the protocol for cooperation on economic and development plans, the two sides have agreed to establish a continuous committee for economic cooperation, which would concentrate, inter alia, on "an environmental protection plan providing for joint and/or coordinating measures in this sphere." Pursuant to this agreement, an interministerial directors-general committee was established, with the full participation of the Environment Ministry.
The director-general of the Ministry of the Environment heads the interministerial subcommittee on the environment. The environmental subcommittee has already prepared a position paper on the required coordination between Palestinians and Israelis on pollution prevention and environmental promotion and has defined fields for future cooperation. The document underlines the importance of management and sustainable development of land, water, air, marine and coastal resources.
Representatives of the Ministry of the Environment serve as members of professional committees on environmental issues, which have been established by Israel and Jordan. They take an active part in the Washington peace talks and have worked with their Jordanian colleagues on finding common solutions to the fly problem plaguing the Dead Sea region and in promoting environmentally-sound tourism in this region.
It is envisioned that peace will bring an unprecedented era of economic development to the Middle East. Means must be found to ensure that accelerated development does not lead to environmental deterioration, but rather to sustainable development for all countries in the area. Israel will be pleased to make the environmental expertise at its disposal available to its neighboring Arab states and to learn from the experience of its neighbors. The free exchange of experience and ideas by all parties is certain to have a positive impact on the future face of the Middle East.