Israel Tries to Push Joint Projects, While Palestinians Focus on Politics

Israel is hoping its practical experience in dealing with environmental issues will prove attractive to other nations at the U.N. World Summit for Sustainable Development, according to Israel’s environment minister.

While Israel is “only a tiny speck on the planet” and its contribution to solving environmental problems is limited by its size and resources, it can offer valuable knowledge and expertise to many of the 170 countries a the summit, Tzachi Hanegbi said in an interview with JTA on Thursday.

“We can contribute our successful experience in many areas, relating to solar heating, making run-off water fit for agriculture and irrigation and our technology that enables us to get it up to the standard of drinking water and the struggle against desertification and many more,” areas, he said. “Our work on desertification is not theoretical, but was done in the most empirical laboratory of all in the Negev and the Arava.”

Hanegbi is one of the two Israeli Cabinet ministers who will attend the summit. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is due to arrive this weekend.

Several meetings are scheduled with South African officials, Hanegbi said, and Israel will use them to propose a number of cooperative projects.

An “infinite number” of joint projects could be carried out with the Palestinian Authority that would benefit both sides, Hanegbi said.

“Our prime minister is aware of our attempts to promote a professional dialogue with the Palestinians,” he said.

Hanegbi said he had asked a senior U.N. official at the summit to try to arrange a meeting in Johannesburg with Hanegbi’s Palestinian Authority counterpart to renew a dialogue on environmental issues. So far, he said, he had had no success.

“It’s very sad,” Hanegbi said. “Up to the year 2000,” when the intifada began, “we had ongoing contacts with the Palestinians, even though there were hardly any practical results.”

In the last two years, professional dialogue has “gone underground” because the Palestinians refuse to meet with their Israeli counterparts, Hanegbi said.

Several issues affecting both sides could be tackled jointly, such as pollution caused by run-off water and joint purification plants to treat it, or the mosquito-borne West Nile disease.

“We have a lot to offer them on how to combat,” West Nile disease, Hanegbi said. “Of course, if they don’t do so in their areas, the mosquitoes don’t stop at the army checkpoints.”

By contrast, joint projects still are being carried out with Jordan, he said.

On Sunday, Jordan and Israel will present a plan at the summit for a canal between the Red Sea and Dead Sea to keep the Dead Sea from drying up. Jordan’s Water Ministry and Israel’s Environment Ministry are cooperating on the project.

According to Jordanian experts, the level of the Dead Sea has fallen by some 60 feet in the last 40 years. If not addressed, the size of the sea will shrink by a third in the next decade, they say.

Under the plan, a canal would channel water from the Gulf of Eilat toward the Dead Sea and would be desalinized. The desalinized water would be used by population centers in Jordan, while the leftover salty water would be channeled into the Dead Sea, raising its water level.

However, such plans have been proposed in the past and have never gotten off the ground.

According to Hanegbi, Israel must emphasize the importance of regional cooperation with its neighbors “in a common struggle against the many problems that affect Jews and Arabs equally.”

“The air we breathe does not distinguish between Palestinians and Jews, nor does the water we drink,” he said.

Regarding Palestinian efforts to exploit the conference to attack Israel, Hanegbi said Israel had not yet been forced to make a serious effort to defend itself this year, as it did at last year’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

“All in all, I think there is sympathy for Israel here. The Israeli teams are received enthusiastically and they have spoken in the plenum without interruption,” he said. “We feel the latest Palestinian attempts to create a confrontational profile against a Middle East background has actually failed.”

But this could still change, Hanegbi cautioned.

In fact, Palestinians and their supporters have scheduled a major march and rally for Saturday, when the Israeli delegation can not respond because of the Sabbath.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa, which has been coordinating anti-Israel activities at the conference, said it had received a commitment from several South African government ministers to attend the rally, which it said is intended to “inspire new victories in the fight against USA-Israeli terrorism.”

The committee claimed that South African President Thabo Mbeki would speak at Saturday’s March. Posters at the conference advertised Mbeki as the keynote speaker on the topic of “The International Intifada for Human Rights and Development,” The Jerusalem Post reported.

South Africa’s presidential spokesperson, Bheki Khumalo, told the Post that Mbeki would not attend.

“It’s a lie, whoever is putting these posters up is lying,” Khumalo said. “The president will not be speaking to any function on Saturday, not least this one. We have very strong diplomatic relations with Israel and our relations will continue.”

Hanegbi met Thursday with South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, and told him that if South African ministers march against Israel it would “explode the conference and shift its focus to Middle Eastern politics,” according to the Post.

Palestinian activists have tried to provoke Israelis every day since the summit began on Monday. Until Thursday, most of the disturbances had taken place at the forum of nongovernmental organizations or in street protests, not at the summit’s official proceedings.

On Thursday, however, the director-general of Israel’s Regional Cooperation Ministry was interrupted as he spoke to the main plenum about regional development.

The Palestinian Authority representative stood up and asked Majallie Wahabee, who is Druse, how Israel could speak about development when the Israeli army is killing Palestinians.

The Palestinian invited Wahabee to come to the Gaza Strip to “see the destruction.”

Mordechai Yedid, deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, responded from the plenum by calling for renewed Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“Israel cooperates with its Arab neighbors in several regional development programs and we look forward to deepening the regional cooperation process, but unfortunately the situation with the P.A. has been less encouraging because terrorism causes serious obstacles to the promotion of sustainable development,” Yedid said.

He also called on the Palestinians to return to the “path of dialogue.”

The Palestinian responded by saying that Israel’s dialogue is the “dialogue of destruction.”

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