Can the environment survive Israeli-Palestinian politics?

US ambassador Dan Shapiro says it’s not too late for both sides to work together to protect region’s natural resources

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (center) reviews projects at the Gaia Symposium, February 25, 2016 (Amir Ezer)
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (center) reviews projects at the Gaia Symposium, February 25, 2016 (Amir Ezer)

Palestinians and Israelis may not be able to negotiate peace right now, but they have to work together to solve the environmental issues that affect them both, said US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Shapiro said that when it comes to managing natural resources – solar energy, clean water, pure air – “it’s certainly possible for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work together. Resources, after all, do not observe boundaries.”

The United States aims to help in this area, Shapiro said. “We do promote projects that encourage both sides to work together, but politics does sometimes get in the way,” he said, noting that he remains optimistic.

Perhaps the way to peace is not through politics but through business. According to green entrepreneur Yossi Abramowitz, Palestinians are eager to cooperate with Israelis on solar energy projects, though they are stymied by government bureaucracy on the part of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The economic boon for both sides would go a long way to fostering trust and cooperation, he said.

A Palestinian woman carries a bucket of water next to solar panels in Al-Thala. (photo credit: AP/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian woman carries a bucket of water next to solar panels in Al-Thala. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Shapiro and Abramowitz were speaking last Thursday on the sidelines of a symposium celebrating Project Gaia (Global Awareness Investigation and Action), an environmental research project for middle and high school students. Participants in the program identify environmental issues in their community, investigate and consult with experts on it, and propose and jointly advocate solutions based on their research.

Shapiro was a guest speaker at the event, urging the 300-some students in the audience to “help develop sustainable solutions in a global manner for all those who share the world.”

“Individuals like yourselves can make a difference,” declared Shapiro.

Project Gaia was founded by Stuart Fleischer in 2008 at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda (where the event took place), with the aim of prompting Jewish, Arab and Druze students to work together on projects dealing with climate change issues.

Each school takes on a specific problem and develops a proposed solution, and attempts to get it implemented in their community or elsewhere. Currently, with 10 schools in Israel and two in the Czech Republic, the groups focus on projects such as developing an ecological park to preserve endangered plants, cleaning up beaches and developing better ways to recycle.

The symposium was preceded by a “green” fashion show, where all the clothes were recycled.

One of the projects at the Gaia event (Cour
One of the projects at the Gaia event (Courtesy)

In his remarks to students, Shapiro said that the United States and “my boss, President Barack Obama” have attempted to actualize the global vision of promoting an environmentally sound world. The president’s idea, he said, has been to empower individual citizens, students, parents and teachers to find solutions to a problem and take responsibility for their implementation, especially when it comes to protecting the environment, which Shapiro said has been a central agenda item of the Obama administration.

Just as the US tries to be a good “global citizen,” promoting environmentally-friendly projects around the world, “we try to be a good citizen here in Israel,” Shapiro said. “We’re partners with Friends of Earth of the Middle East and local Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian groups working to restore the Jordan River – after all, we share the same water.” Besides this, added Shapiro, the US is actively working with Israeli high-tech companies, exchanging information on environmental technology that could improve Israel, the US and the entire world.

Of course, when it comes to the Middle East, there’s no ignoring politics, and despite its best efforts, environmental cooperation is not at the top of the list for either Israel or the Palestinian Authority – and as a result, “politics does sometimes get in the way of cooperation,” said Shapiro. Projects have been started and dropped – with both sides blaming each other for the failure of the projects to get off the ground – but meanwhile, effluent continues to flow both from settlements and villages in several areas, with both populations endangered.

 Yosef Abramowitz (right) pictured with Rwanda's President Kagame and Saul Singer and when Energiya signed agreement with Rwanda (Courtesy Energiya Global)
Yosef Abramowitz (right) pictured with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (left) and Saul Singer when Energiya signed a solar panel project agreement with Rwanda (Courtesy Energiya Global)


If governments can’t foster cooperation on environmental change, perhaps private, for-profit groups can, such as the for-profit solar energy technology that Israel’s long-time “sun king,” Yossi Abramowitz, has been promoting for well over a decade.

Abramowitz’s, the head of Energiya Global Capital and a solar entrepreneur in Africa, said private solar production can be a lever for cooperation with the Palestinians.

“I have been meeting with solar entrepreneurs in the PA, where we have scouted out appropriate sites for solar farms for electric production … and we are very anxious to take advantage of the strong Middle Eastern sun,” he said. Like in Israel, though, bureaucracy – or perhaps politics – is stymying the move to solar.

“I am appealing to [PA] President Abbas to do something to move forward on solar — the proposals are there on your desk, gathering dust.”

Like Shapiro, Abramowitz is also a big believer in the power of tech – and entrepreneurship – to build bridges and improve people’s lives.

“I’ve kept my silence for the past several years, but now I believe is the time to speak up,” Abramowitz said. “The model we developed in the Arava to supply electricity should inspire Israel, our neighbors and the rest of the world. If we are going to have any sustainable future, we have to go solar,” politics notwithstanding, Abramowitz added.

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