Remarks by Majallie Whbee, Director General,
Ministry of Regional Cooperation
to the World Summit on Sustainable Development

Regional Panel
Johannesburg, August 29, 2002

Regional cooperation and sustainable development are intimately intertwined. Countries sharing common borders, invariably share common eco-systems. Cooperation and coordination are the only means by which synergies can identified, negative externalities avoided and sustainability attained.

Unfortunately, sustainable development in the Middle East has historically been a victim of the protracted conflict. It scarred not only the landscape, but the livelihood of our peoples. Border areas, rather than evolving as cosmopolitan crossroads, became marginal outposts. We competed for scarce resources rather than pulling together to find solutions to common problems. Opportunities to rationalize water and land use management were ignored. National planning was conducted under the assumption that each country was an island onto itself. As a result, neither the environment nor the economy was allowed to flourish.

In a very real sense, sustainable development in the Middle East is predicated on regional cooperation, a goal to which Israel is deeply committed. The benefits of regional cooperation are far too great to ignore. In the case of environmental management, cooperation is essential for even the most basic level of co-existence. Through cooperation we can proactively build a better present while working towards a brighter future. The very process of conceiving, planning and implementing joint initiatives can help consolidate confidence in peace and propel regional capacity building forward.

Israel has concluded peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. While attracting little attention, regional cooperation in agriculture, water, sewage management, earth science research, coral reef eco-systems, public health, oil spill prevention, integrated pest management and other areas have made positive contributions towards sustainability. We look forward to deepening the process of regional cooperation in both bi-lateral and multi-lateral frameworks.

The situation with the Palestinian Authority is less encouraging and the problems more acute. The events of the past two years have not benefited either side and they have been detrimental to the cause of sustainable development. The time has come to reverse this process and build a positive dynamic.

Israel’s Ministry of Regional Cooperation, of which I serve as Director-General, is entrusted with planning for "the day after. We firmly believe that, despite the vast political uncertainty, "the day after" can and should begin today. We together with the Palestinians can undertake projects involving social and economic cooperation that neither impact or compromise the national aspirations or security of either side. Projects for sustainable development rank high on the list of possible projects.

The time for action is now. Any number of projects can be launched that are not contingent on the outcome of either current internal developments in the Palestinian Authority or future bi or multilateral arrangements. Surely the process of planning can commence. We can create partnerships with and between NGOs and local authorities to set into motion a process of cooperation free of political implications.

The environment is one extremely vital sector in which this can be implemented relatively easily. For far too long the environmental projects have been held hostage by the fluctuations of the peace process. The time has come to put a stop to this, since there is so much at stake and the environment cannot wait.

Earlier this year, the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee, issued a call to keep the water infrastructure out of "the cycle of violence". We can go one step further by building and improving water infrastructure and by addressing problem areas that today compromise the quality of life for both Israelis and Palestinians.

We have identified key actions that can, and in some cases, are being taken to improve water quality in various locations throughout Israel and the PA.

  • Palestinian towns can link themselves to Israeli built sewage systems to stem the flow of sewage into sources of fresh water and improve health conditions for all area residents.
  • A plan to transfer fresh water from Israel to the Palestinian Authority through five separate pipelines can be implemented almost immediately. Implementation is contingent solely on the willingness of the PA to let it happen.
  • A series of sewage purification plants can be constructed or upgraded in key Palestinian cities and towns to improve the quality of life both in the PA and in Israel.

Another initiative is a project to clean up more than 30 streams throughout the West Bank. The proposed program involves cleaning primary and other channels near population centers to prevent pollution of drinking water, mosquito infestation and to enable better water and sanitation management on an on-going basis. The Ministry of Regional Cooperation has undertaken to finance this enterprise.

These are just a few examples of specific actions that can be implemented to improve environmental conditions for both Palestinian and Israeli residents. We are open to any proposal that may be forthcoming from our Palestinian colleagues, the donor community or from civil society groups.

For some projects, financing may be an obstacle, but one that can be overcome. For some, however, the primary obstacle to implementation is will. This can and should be overcome instantaneously. These initiatives do not create new political realities that will have to be undone sometime in the future. In stark contrast to the zero-sum game of diplomatic negotiations, they create a sum-plus opportunity that can lead to additional mutual benefits in the future.