Dr. Shmuel Brenner, long-time Arava Institute researcher and faculty member, was one of the founders and former Senior Deputy Director of Israel’s Ministry of Environment. As part of this position, he served as the head of the Israeli environmental delegation in the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations between 1995 and 2000. On the occasion of the Oslo Accords’ 30th anniversary, he recalls some of these proceedings.
The Oslo Process was helpful inasmuch as it opened up a framework for environmental cooperation. One of the biggest mistakes was to leave the negotiating table.
I joined the peace negotiations leading up to the Oslo II Accord as the Deputy Director of the Ministry of the Environment under Minister of the Environment Yossi Sarid. The negotiations were led by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on the Israeli side, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In order to reach relevant and applicable agreements, several sub-negotiation teams were formed around various topics. I was the lead Israeli negotiator in the environmental team . The environment was considered a secondary negotiation point, however the distribution and treatment of water resources was one of the core issues.
These negotiations were a complex operation: The sub-teams would meet independently with their Palestinian counterparts, and each evening all the Israeli teams would convene and compare results to avoid contradictions in advancing different topics.
Following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s guideline to treat the Palestinian negotiators as equals, it was very important to me personally to be respectful. The final outcome of the legal documents drafted from these meetings was essential, but the way the meetings leading up to them were conducted also had a very big impact on implementation and follow-up in the aftermath. How people are sitting in the room physically, the tone and language used, how consultants are brought in, the general atmosphere between those involved – all of these were significant to creating lasting and feasible agreements. In this context it is also important to understand that the Oslo Accords were only the start of the Oslo peace process; they drafted a framework and basic pillars, but detailed plans for implementation were made in continuous bilateral meetings until the year 2000.
I have been asked whether the Oslo Accords were beneficial for the environment in Israel/Palestine. As I mentioned, the idea of these agreements was to continue developing action plans after the initial meetings, and while there were additional gatherings, some of the issues were never finalized. Our cooperative work was cut short by the onset of the second Intifada in 2000.
Another ongoing challenge is that the Palestinian directive has mostly been that in order to advance environmental cooperation (or any of the secondary topics discussed during the Oslo accords), the core issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories must first be addressed. Depending on whatever current Israeli government there is, this is sometimes feasible, and often not. In the meantime, environmental challenges continue to exist and increase – is it possible to partner in finding solution detached from other political aspects?
In my opinion, the Oslo Process was helpful inasmuch as it opened up a framework for environmental cooperation. One of the biggest mistakes was to leave the negotiating table. It isn’t always possible to solve the big challenges, but working together to mitigate environmental challenges is crucial, since they concern us all, and we depend on each other.