A rare meeting, which has not taken place in years, was held at the headquarters of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Geneva over the weekend between representatives of the Knesset and Members of Parliament from Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, as well as representatives of the Palestinian Authority.
The meeting, organized by the IPU through its Committee on Middle East Questions, focused on finding common solutions to the water crisis which is predicted to worsen significantly across the Middle East over the coming decades.
Future round-table meetings between the sides are expected to focus on issues related to the environment, health, food and energy. Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur, the Knesset`s senior diplomatic advisor, is spearheading the project on behalf of the Israeli parliament.
Israel was represented by MKs Ksenia Svetlova and Erel Margalit (both from the Zionist Camp faction), Ben-Hur and Oded Distel, director of the Economy Ministry`s Investment Promotion Center. Members of the IPU Committee also attended the meeting.
The meeting focused specifically on water desalination, drip irrigation systems and the Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal. Israel`s representatives presented a number of projects related to these issues, and MK Margalit will be invited to present joint projects at the IPU Assembly in October.
(Oded Ben-Hur and Ksenia Svetlova at the meeting)
The sides agreed to set up a workgroup consisting of representatives of all those who attended the meeting to examine the ideas that were presented. The group will consist of three or four parliamentarians, an equal number of experts, the Secretary General of the IPU, and the Knesset`s diplomatic advisor. The group will focus on preparing a number of concrete projects which can be implemented in the short term.
Ben-Hur said the meeting was ”very positive, particularly in light of the fact that most of the discussions focused on cooperation and the development of joint projects, not on issues related to the Mideast conflict. I am pleased that interpersonal connections were created between the Knesset Members and Arab parliamentarians.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein has long maintained that the rebuilding trust between Israel and its neighbors should be carried out through joint projects and cooperation on various issues. He thanked the IPU for sponsoring the meeting, saying that the organization`s assistance is ”critical for the project`s success.”
”This is a clear example of the strength of `parliamentary diplomacy` and parliament`s ability to create a different kind of dialogue that should lead to real cooperation that will help build trust and mutual appreciation between the sides,” he stated.
According to the IPU, the areas targeted for action include increasing the total volume of water available to the region, ensuring fair distribution and managing increasing demand. Research by the World Resources Institute suggests that by 2040, eight of the world`s 10 most water-stressed nations will be in the Middle East.
The Israeli and Arab representatives defined a range of concrete proposals to ensure adequate supplies across the region, including the mapping of existing legislation on water governance to identify gaps and next steps; developing mandatory standards on water use; raising public awareness on responsible consumption; and enhancing levels of treating waste water.
According to the IPU, the need to develop a transitional legal framework on water governance and to prioritize access to safe drinking water – Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals – was also identified. All the proposals will be presented to IPU’s membership at its October Assembly with recommendations on practical follow up action.
”This meeting marks a major step forward in building regional co-operation to tackle the shared problem of water security. The significance of this threat, and of this joint approach to tackling it, cannot be overestimated,” said IPU Committee President Denise Pascal Allende. ”It is a sensitive and complex issue, and to have held these talks in a constructive and positive atmosphere demonstrates a willingness on all sides to find solutions that will promote peaceful co-existence.”
The lawmakers heard evidence from development organization WaterLex, which specializes in water policy and governance, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and technology specialists Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a Jordan-based laboratory which brings together scientists from across the region.
IPU Secretary General Martin Chungong said the organization “has a long-standing commitment to build trust, dialogue and peace in the Middle East. This meeting demonstrated that it is possible for people with divergent views to cooperate on an intractable issue such as water. We have managed this week to unite scientists and parliamentarians across the region. The scientific community has shown us that models for co-operation that build peace do exist and that what needs to be achieved on this issue is not a pipe dream.”