The Environment “knows No Borders,” Prompting Surge in Mideast Activity

The steady move toward peace in the Middle East has fostered productive cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors on environmental issues.

Israel could not devote the time, energy and resources for the environment “when we were allocating a lot of our national budget for the security of Israel,” according to Israel Peleg, director-general of the Israeli Ministry of the Environment.

“Now that there is a better atmosphere in the Middle East it is the perfect time for the environment,” Peleg told reporters at a recent briefing at the Israeli Embassy here.

One key indication of cooperation on environmental issues is the extent of progress being made at the multilateral talks on the environment.

It is “not surprising” that the multilateral working group on the environment has made more progress than the groups on arms control, refugees and economics and welfare, according to Peleg, who was in Washington to discuss ways to increase cooperation on the environment between Israel and the United States.

“The cliche that the environment and pollution do not know borders is a reality in our region, especially when the borders are so close,” he said.

Another indication of cooperation is the venue of the next round of talks.

The talks, slated to begin Oct. 24, will be held in Bahrain, an island country in the Persian Gulf.

Although Israel has no diplomatic relations with the government of Bahrain, Israeli officials, headed by Peleg, will attend the talks with their Arab neighbors to continue the progress made on environmental issues during negotiation over the past two years.

Peleg pointed to a recent agreement signed by Israel and Jordan as another example of how cooperation on the environment is moving ahead rapidly in the Middle East.

A week before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan signed the July 25 Washington Declaration ending the 46-year state of war between their two countries, officials from the two countries, meeting in tents straddling the Israeli-Jordanian border, signed an agreement to cooperate in protecting the region’s environment.

Peleg and Jordanian negotiators initialed a four-page agreement which has already begun to be implemented, according to Peleg.

“It was very moving to see that it is not only us, but also the Jordanians, that are so eager to go ahead in this peace on the environment,” Peleg said.

The agreement, which protects the Gulf of Eilat and Aqaba, the Rift Valley, the Dead Sea and the area from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, says: “Jordan and Israel acknowledge the importance of the ecology of the region, its high environmental sensitivity and the need to protect the environment and prevent danger and risks for the health and well-being of the region’s population.”

During his trip to the United States, Peleg met with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, including Administrator Carol Browner, to discuss the Memorandum of Understanding the United States and Israel have on the environment.

Peleg said he believes that increased cooperation with the EPA will help Israel with its efforts to implement new environmental projects such as air monitoring systems, emission standards and protection of the ozone layer and rivers.

“It is about time to give the MOU higher visibility and more extensive cooperation,” he said. “We can learn much more from the American experience than we have so far.”

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