Climate change: Regional collapse or paradigm shift?

Despite the United States administration’s denial of climate change as an existential threat to humanity, citizens around the world, especially young people, are not in denial. The Climate Change Strikes, led by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old environmental activist from Sweden, are raising the alarm that climate change is real and its impact may even be more immediate and more devastating than expected. The recent UN report on species extinction has sparked a series of global reactions and has spawned a new wave of environmental activism in Israel.

The Israeli establishment, however, still sees existential threats in terms of conventional and non-conventional weapons in the hands of regional players, including terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Israeli government does not deny that climate change is coming, but believes that it is prepared to meet the challenges of climate change through its own high-tech leadership in water, energy, agriculture, and smart systems.

What Israel’s leadership is missing is the fact that, while spaceship Israel may be immune to some of the direst consequences of a warming planet, its neighbors are not. Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and even Lebanon, never mind the countries in the wider MENA region, are ill equipped to face continued drought, crop failure, biodiversity loss, the spread of disease, failed economies and political instability resulting from climate change. The political, social, and economic collapse of Israel’s neighbors, due to the impact of climate change, combined with already weak and corrupt governance, is imminent and is not, as some might believe, a good thing for Israel.

It is enough to look at the Syrian civil war. Among its root causes was a drought in the east which sparked a mass migration west towards urban centers and created a toxic mix of poverty, desperation, tribal clashes, and resource competition. The Syrian civil war may have removed Syria as a serious geopolitical threat to Israel, but it brought with it Russian and Iranian military presence, creating a political conflict which has brought Israel closer to war on its northern border with Syria than it has been since the end of the ’73 War. A harbinger of the future, however, was the rush of Syrian refugees to Israel’s border in order to seek food, medical care, and protection. Thousands came to Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights, and Israel was able to offer a humanitarian response by providing food, water, medical care, and some immediate protection from the violence of war before sending them back to Syria. What would have happened had the numbers not been thousands, but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions?

Every week for more than a year, thousands of desperate young Palestinians from Gaza risk their lives in order to protest at the fence separating Gaza from Israel. The protesters at the fence represent a small fraction of the 2 million residents of Gaza who suffer from a lack of drinking water, electricity, sewage treatment, adequate nutrition, and medical services. A recent study by Ben-Gurion University in cooperation with Eco-Peace said that if the current lack of infrastructure and social services is not addressed, disease will spread throughout Gaza and threaten Israel. What will be Israel’s response to the collapse of Gaza when not thousands of desperate Palestinians appear at the fence separating Gaza from Israel but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions?

Regional collapse due to the impact of climate change and regional governments not equipped to meet these challenges is an existential threat to Israel. Jordan, having the longest border with Israel, is one of the most water stressed countries in the world. Due to the ongoing reduction of precipitation in the region, Jordan’s water resources are drying up, while simultaneously, Jordan has absorbed millions of refugees from Syria and Iraq in the past decades. Jordan’s economy is weak and therefore its stability is under threat. If Jordanian society collapses into civil war due to competition from an influx of refugees over Jordan’s limited resources, will Israel’s interests be served or threatened?

Israel must look at itself and the region in which it resides with fresh eyes. The paradigm of fortress Israel, building walls, building barriers, worrying about its own needs because we cannot count on others, is not a sustainable solution in a collapsing world. Even the 2013 science fiction movie World War Z recognized that Israel’s citadel strategy could only hold for so long. The only way for Israel to meet the existential threat of regional collapse is to make a paradigm shift. Israel must move from regional isolation to regional leadership.

Israel’s scientific prowess in the food, water and energy nexus positions it to take on a leadership role among its immediate neighbors and in the MENA region as a whole. Through its technological innovations, Israel is making itself resilient to water scarcity, crop failure, energy deficits, and health risks. Israel can share its knowledge and experience with its neighbors helping to stabilize the region and prevent a regional collapse. The road to an Israeli led technological, social and economic revolution in the region, however, leads through the Palestinians. The Palestinians hold the key to enabling Israel to take a leadership role in the region but the Palestinians will not do so without a political horizon. The Palestinians may also see the looming threat of regional collapse but they are willing to go down and drag everyone else with them if they do not achieve their national aspirations. They have proven time and time again that their national aspirations take precedence over all other practical considerations and it is naïve on the part of the US or Israeli governments to think otherwise.

While Israel may be able to survive the immediate impact of climate change through technological advances, long-term survival will depend on cooperatively managing shared resources with our neighbors. The only way for Israel to meet the existential threat of a regional collapse which climate change poses to Israel, is a paradigm shift from the fortress mentality to the regional leadership approach and the Palestinians are the only ones who can give Israel permission to take on this leadership role.

Submitted by David Lehrer, Executive Director, and Dr. Deborah Sandler, Track II Chair

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