Time to Try Environmental Diplomacy in the Middle East

December 26, 2009

Environmental diplomacy and the Middle East

The folk rock musician James Taylor laments in one of his songs, “And in between what might have been and what has come to pass, a misbegotten guess alas and bits of broken glass.”

The ongoing tragic saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be summed up in this poignant line. This conflict repeats its refrain of violence and dehumanization over and over again. Like a song, its lyrics do not change.

Something needs to happen. In this conflict, where the past is a prologue that continues to define the present, adding a new dynamic is essential to realign the participants. Reduced to one of its core components, this conflict is about land, more precisely, the borders that nations draw on the land. When thinking about what divides nations in this conflict, the land is often viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation efforts between the various nations and peoples in the region. When the land is looked upon solely as a geopolitical instrument, that is true; however, when viewed from the perspective of the environment, a new framework opens up. The environment, which does not know political borders, invites us, forces us to work together.

As the nations of the world turn more of their attention to the crisis of the earth’s environment, it becomes clear that no nation can address the needs of its environment unilaterally. The Middle East is no exception. With that understanding, in 1996, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies was founded. Located on Kibbutz Ketura on the Israeli-Jordanian border, the institute teaches and prepares future Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges. Missing from that equation are Syria and Lebanon. If the region’s shared environment is to be fully addressed, both of these countries must be part of the equation; that equation cannot be completed until Israel is able to sign a peace treaty with both of them. In the dance of peace with Israel’s northern neighbors, Syria must be the first partner.

In early April 1971, the US table tennis team was in Japan attending the 31st World Table Tennis Championship. Unexpectedly, they received an invitation to visit China, and a week later they found themselves in the People’s Republic. Through the excitement and dynamic of putting a human face on the enemy, ping pong diplomacy paved the way two months later for Henry Kissinger’s famous secret visit to China, which lead directly to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China eight months afterwards.

It is now time to enlist environmental diplomacy in the Middle East. At present, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are locked in an all too familiar pattern, incapable of moving the peace process forward. While at the same time relations between Jordan and Israel have sunk so low, there will soon be a temperature inversion, where the cold peace between Egypt and Israel will become how we describe the warm peace between the Hashemite Kingdom and the Jewish state.

Syria, on the other hand, is in a position to make a bold move toward peace. Environmental diplomacy is an avenue to consider. Images of a delegation of Syrian students and/or Syrian academics visiting, for example, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel would be the positive shock this region of the world so desperately needs.

To those naysayers on both sides who would question legitimizing the other party and their actions, let us not lose sight of the fact that when the US ping pong team went to China, the Vietnam War was still raging and the Chinese were both supporting and supplying the North Vietnamese in their war against the United States.

Israel and Syria both face environmental challenges brought upon by population growth and industrialization that affect their air and water quality. In addition, both countries are made up of large land masses of deserts and climates that make reforestation in the face of desertification important to their national agendas. These environmental issues, of common interest to both parties, provide and create a mutual place of meeting and better understanding of each other.

At the end of the day, peace treaties may be signed by governments and political leaders, but without the support of their respective peoples, the success of such documents can be severely truncated. Creating peace is not only about borders, security and cooperation; it is also a state of mind.

Americans and Chinese citizens delighted in the images they saw of the ping pong players interacting with each other. The images they watched on television and stories they read in the newspapers, which showed the human face of the “enemy,” were a fresh break from the past that allowed for a new start and a new relationship to begin to be built between the two countries.

The peoples of the Arab-Israeli conflict are no different. They long for a new song and a new beginning. Environmental diplomacy is a key to composing such a tune.

*Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the director of special projects for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and is the author of “Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.”

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