In front of countless global leaders at the COP26 conference last October, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that Israel will set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. This bold commitment was welcomed both by the international community and Israelis, who are facing the most drastic climate threats in the young state’s history, including rising temperatures, sea levels, and a diminished water supply that could exacerbate conflicts with Israel’s neighbors. Though the challenge is daunting, the reward will be worth it. In addition to the many threats posed by climate change, positive policies and commitments to combat climate change have provided, and can continue to provide, opportunities for Israel to build bridges in the region. This process will not only give Israel a chance to demonstrate its climate resilience, but also to deepen ties with its neighbors, including the Palestinians and Abraham Accords states. 

Last November, Israel, Jordan, and the UAE signed the largest water deal in the region’s history. Under this agreement, the Emirati company Masdar would construct a large solar power plant in Jordan. The power produced would be sold to Israel for $180 million dollars per year, and the profits would be split between Jordan and Masdar. In return, Israel has committed to providing water-starved Jordan with 200 cubic meters of desalinated water. Until recently, Jordan and Israel were experiencing the lowest point in their relations since the establishment of ties in 1994. Coupled with internal challenges and economic and environmental strains faced by the Jordanian regime, the situation on the ground was not sustainable and could have led to exacerbated conflict. This agreement could bolster the regional economy, improve the environmental situation in each partner country, serve as a tangible confidence-building measure to relieve tension between Israel and Jordan, and continue to build on the warm peace established between Israel and the Arab Gulf states over the past several years. These steps align with President Isaac Herzog’s vision of meaningful regional cooperation to address the threat climate change poses to all.

Much of the climate cooperation in recent months is due to the hard, behind-the-scenes work of EcoPeace Middle East, a joint Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian NGO aimed at generating common solutions to the climate crisis in the region in an effort to decrease conflict while improving the lives of the region’s inhabitants. A pioneer in the field of environmental peacebuilding, EcoPeace is currently trying to promote its new initiative, the Green Blue Deal—a plan specifically aimed at tackling the severe water crisis in the region. 

The joint Israeli-Jordanian-Emirati energy- and water-sharing deal mentioned above was one of the key pillars of this EcoPeace initiative, and its adoption was a great success for the organization. Other pillars of this plan include greater water sharing between Israelis and Palestinians, the rehabilitation of the Jordan River, and more water education. Specifically, the Green Blue Deal recommends a negotiated “water agreement to replace article 40 of the 1994 Oslo Accords,” the establishment of a “Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Commission to manage all shared waters,” the implementation of the “Jordanian/Palestinian agreement to increase electricity sales from Jordan to the West Bank through an existing linkage to Jericho with a focus on electricity sourced from renewable sources,” and the construction of desalination plants in Gaza linked to Israel’s national water carrier. These policy positions are bold, yet the dire climate situation in the region calls for dynamic solutions. 

The threat of climate change has never been more severe for Israelis and Palestinians. 2021 marked one of the hottest years on record for the Jewish state, with four months of the year experiencing higher than average temperatures. Israel also experienced fewer days of rainfall, reducing its already strained water supply. Unprecedented drought coupled with growing population and demand for water has put an immense strain on natural water resources such as the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee, leading to environmental detriment. According to a report from the Times of Israel, global warming caused some NIS 300 million ($96.5 million) of damages to Israeli agriculture in 2021.

For Palestinians, the climate situation is even worse. According to the Green Blue Deal, “years of overdrawing from the underlying coastal aquifer, coupled with groundwater pollution and seawater intrusion, has led to irreparable damage to the aquifer and rendered 96% of the water in Gaza unsafe to drink.” Additionally, the Egyptian and Israeli blockade makes it harder to access clean, sustainable resources and technologies. In the West Bank, Oslo-era water agreements and institutions are incredibly outdated and not meeting current needs and realities, leading to immense water shortages. In an interview with EcoPeace Israel Director Gidon Bromberg on Israel Policy Pod late last year, he elaborated on the current situation in the West Bank: “Ramallah will get water once a week. Hebron and the southern region will get water once every two months in the summertime. The municipality is only able to supply water in an intermittent fashion.” Clearly, this current situation is unsustainable. A deteriorating climate situation will lead to a lower quality of life for Palestinians, and thus could lead to increased tensions with Israel. 

Continuing along the current trajectory of deepening climate cooperation with its neighbors as a means to improve ties, Israel must improve its climate relations with the Palestinians. Increased climate cooperation with the Palestinians aligns with Israel’s domestic and international concerns. 

Climate change is a real threat that jeopardizes Israeli civilians, who should be the government’s top priority, and improving the climate situation vis-à-vis cooperation with the Palestinians is a meaningful and tangible way to manage or “shrink” the conflict on the ground. ‘Shrinking the conflict’, as coined by Micah Goodman, has become the Bennett-Lapid government’s unofficial  policy approach toward the Palestinians. Under this paradigm, Israel will improve relations with the Palestinians and improve conditions on the ground, while still not tackling tough political aspects of the conflict. However, as mentioned by Israel Policy Forum’s Chief Policy Officer Michael Koplow in a recent column, countervailing policies by Israel mitigate the impact of policies that shrink the conflict, leading to a gap between Israeli and Palesintian interpretations of the good being done. Without tangible benefits, many Palestinians will not feel as if their lives are being improved. By cooperting on the climate front, Israel will be able to deliver real, tangible benefits to the everyday Palestinian while still operating within their own framework. Greater access to drinking water, improved access to energy, better sanitation, increased agricultural productivity—each of these initiatives and more will lead to a higher quality of life for Palestinians as well as an increased sense of autonomy without security implications for Israel or the need to dive into some of the most intractable political issues. Moreover, since climate change knows no borders, these solutions can be implemented to benefit Israelis as well. 

Climate cooperation with the Palestinians will also improve Israel’s standing abroad. Not only will improving the lives of Palestinians help dispel the image held by many around the world of Israel as a brutal occupier, but it will also align Israel with key priorities of its allies around the globe. In the United States, President Biden has made tackling the climate crisis a key priority of the administration at home and abroad. Additionally, when zooming in on the Middle East, the Biden administration has also highlighted the restoration of relations with the Palestinians and bolstering the PA a key regional priority. These are also policy priorities of Israel’s European and Middle Eastern partners. Cooperating on climate change with the Palestinans will bolster Israel’s image abroad, demonstrating its willingness and commitment to the peace process and aligning it with its allies priorities, all while incurring little political cost. Overall, improving the livelihoods of Palestinians leads to conditions that are less conducive to conflict. The economic, security, and diplomatic benefits to Israel from cooperation on climate change are abundant.   

There is hope for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. At last week’s Israeli Climate Change Conference, Palestine Liberation Organization Minister in the Negotiation Department Dr. Shaddad Atilli called for “greater regional cooperation on climate change, including with Israel.” At the same event, Gideon Behar, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and Sustainability, noted that “that there is no other choice but to cooperate on all of these issues, including water.” This came in addition to President Herzog’s call for cooperation with all in the region, including Palestininans, at the Haaretz Climate Conference in Jerusalem last month. Beyond the government, NGOs have begun to work together as well. In October 2021, “the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Palestinian organization Damour for Community Development announced the establishment of a new Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy.” This initiative would equip leaders in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan with the tools and knowledge to combat the climate crisis, and incorporate joint research initiatives and project implementation. Both at the Climate Conference and within civil society, these developments offer a glimmer of hope for a fraught future.

Nevertheless, the challenges remain immense. On February 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), convened by the U.N. released a report stating “the dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced.” The threat of climate change is no longer looming in the background, but ever present. As climate-related problems become more apparent in Israel, conflict with its neighbors will become inevitable. Israel must continue to prioritize climate cooperation with neighboring states, and expand the umbrella to include the Palestinians. This is in its national interest and will provide many security benefits with little costs incurred. EcoPeace’s Green Blue Deal offers a great foundation for this endeavor to begin, providing pragmatic and tangible solutions.