On September 13th-14th, the second annual Track II Environmental Conference was held at the Arava Institute. The conference, entitled “Promoting environmental agreements between Jordan, Israel and Palestine, to improve lives, protect the environment, and support sustainable resolution of conflict”, aimed to highlight the progress of the Track II working groups launched at last year’s conference, encourage productive dialogue between Track I and Track II* Environmental Forum participants, and outline a pathway and work plan for the year ahead. It was attended by 85 participants from Israel, Jordan, Palestine and the United States, including some members of the Knesset and Palestinian politicians, as well as high ranking environmental stakeholders.
The conference was opened with welcoming addresses from Tahani Abu Dagga and Dr. Ziad Darwish from the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, who praised the Arava Institute for discussing regional problems with “love and conviction”, and expressed hope for a common sustainable future in the region despite the current political situation. MK Amir Peretz also gave stirring welcoming remarks. Following opening remarks and summaries of the working process throughout the past year, participants had the opportunity to hear Palestinian and Israeli officials and stakeholders in plenary sessions focusing on different topics.
During a panel on “Recent Track I Cross-Border Environmental Agreements – Can they be an impetus for real environmental change in the region?”, Adv. Shiri Milo-Loker, a Senior Audit Manager at the State Comptroller’s Office, MK Yael Cohen Paran, a physicist with the Green Movement who is currently serving in the Knesset with the Zionist Union, Dr. Shaddad Attilli, a policy advisor for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department and former PA Minister of Water and Head of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), Alon Etkin, representing the Ministry of Regional Cooperation, and economist Ahmad Hindi, a member of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, discussed recent research and reports, as well as conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.
The following session, facilitated by Al-Monitor columnist Akiva Eldar, focused on “advancing Cross-border environmental agreements between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan in preparation for a two-State solution”. The topic was discussed by Dr. Shaddad Attilli, former Minister of the Palestinian Water Authority, MK Ksenia Svetlova and MK Yehiel “Hilik” Bar, Members of the Knesset for the Zionist Union, and United States Ambassador Dennis Ross, who was the point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. A lively discussion developed between Palestinians speakers and Israeli members of Knesset, but all could agree on the necessity to share information and technology immediately, regardless of the current governments’ inability to engage in dialogue, to end the suffering of ordinary citizens.
On the morning of the second day, keynote Speaker Ambassador Dennis Ross addressed the audience on the role of Track II in facilitating cross-border agreements, based on the history of negotiations in the Middle East. He explained the difficulty of reconciling “two rights” from two national identities, and reviewed the history of negotiations during his time with the Clinton administration. Amb. Ross expressed his belief that Track II discussions and projects are important in creating a sense of possibility for greater Track I discussions.
Amb. Ross’ address was followed by a discussion on Gaza’s environmental and humanitarian crisis. This session included MK Issawi Freij (Meretz party), Eng. Ahmad Yaqubi, Gazan water resources expert, and Salah Mohsen, Director of the Research Department at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. It was emphasized that the water crisis in Gaza can be easily solved technically, and that the only barrier is political.
After a working group session that gave participants an opportunity to discuss further steps with partners in their field of expertise, the conference was concluded by David Lehrer, the Executive Director of the Arava Institute, with a closing summation, focusing on the principle that each side has its own narrative, that needs to be acknowledged. He then encouraged NGOs to work together on the issues, adding “you would be surprised what a small organization can do.”