Israel does not consider the climate crisis an important domestic or foreign policy issue. As a result, Israel is doubly missing out on its own objectives. Firstly, the climate crisis is an issue that should serve as the foundation for understanding the world we live in and how we plan and operate within it. Secondly, serious attention to the climate crisis will help Israel achieve and fulfill its other goals and ambitions: ensure regional peace and stability, position itself as a leading and positive force in the region and the world, strengthen its energy and food security, bolster democracy and contribute to the well-being of the Middle East and its residents.
In its platform, the Yesh Atid party describes the climate crisis as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. The Yamina, Meretz, Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu and New Hope parties all refer to the climate crisis challenge as well. The draft copies of the new government coalition’s agreements also mention the climate crisis, but only towards the end of the documents, around Article 21. As such, it does not represent a contrast from the Netanyahu governments’ policies and priorities.
Israel is not a climate crisis denier and it toes the line of the international community on the issue. It participates in global conventions, its government adopts targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it occasionally discusses the matter in diplomatic meetings with regional and international actors. Israel does what is required, no more. This is not the expected behavior of a country that boasts being a pioneer, innovator, entrepreneur, and a significant global leader. Not on such a crucial matter. The climate crisis is not simply “another issue” that needs to be handled. It is one of the fundamental elements of our lives and reality. We must understand, deal with, and formulate and implement policy within this reality.
In recent years, the climate crisis has been absent from the government and the Foreign Ministry’s published policy agendas. It is also largely missing from the state budget and from State Comptroller reports on the government’s implementation of its plans. The government perceives climate change as “nice to have”, an issue that cannot be completely ignored, but that is neither central nor vital. It is little wonder, therefore, that Israel repeatedly fails to achieve the targets it sets for itself and which it is committed to on the international stage.
Several reasons come to mind in explaining the absence of the climate crisis from Israeli policy actions and discourse. First, Israel’s political structure does not encourage long-term planning and responsibility. The need to reap immediate political dividends before the next elections dictates government decisions and action plans to a large extent. Furthermore, the gradual undermining of experienced civil servants by the political echelons is also detrimental to any long-term strategizing on environmental issues, and others.
Secondly, Israel’s economic structure is geared towards providing immediate profits and overexploiting existing resources. Our economy is predicated on neo-liberal values and concepts, propped up by socialist remnants trying desperately to stem the capitalist tide. The idea of endless and perpetual growth drives the Israeli economy, but the climate crisis requires us to shift to a different kind of thinking and to adopt a circular and sustainable economy.
Thirdly, the dominant security discourse in Israel is not compatible with a climate-based foreign policy. Instead, it is a security-military discourse which treats climate-change as a mere background issue that contributes to the creation or intensification of security threats, but which is not a threat in and of itself.
Fourth, the climate crisis is the victim of the human tendency to address immediate threats before making time to deal with the more distant ones (even though they are more significant). Procrastination and repression are not necessarily an Israeli invention; evidently, they are two highly effective mechanisms worldwide.
Finally, linking the climate crisis to our daily lives in an immediately recognizable, cause and effect way is a formidable challenge. Climate change is gradual, incremental, and difficult to identify firsthand. This makes it hard to link the variety of disasters and phenomena already affecting our lives to the general threat of climate change, and to forge the emotional and intellectual connection required to mobilize political and public support to allocate resources to the issue.
New Government: Opportunity for a Change
The State of Israel needs to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of a more serious approach to the climate crisis. It must place this issue at the top of its priorities as a central threat to our existence, and seize the opportunity here and now to improve its people’s lives.
Primarily, the climate crisis contains persuasive power on its own due to its repercussions becoming more noticeable and severe. We live in a region defined as a global “hot spot” — the warming in our region is faster and harsher than elsewhere. Clearly, this fact already has implications on our lives, thus addressing the climate crisis is becoming an immediate goal. This also explains why we are seeing growing responses and strategies (albeit still too slow) devoted to dealing with the issue.
Second, the climate crisis is re-shaping global structure and discourse, which Israel cannot ignore. If Israel wants to guarantee its regional and international standing and preserve its relationship with the US, it must adopt these changes and prove its intentions are serious. Not only have President Biden and his administration placed the climate crisis at the top of their agenda, but other international actors – states, institutions, businesses – are also adopting the climate crisis as a fundamental component of policy making. If Israel wants to assume a significant global role, it must recognize that this is the entry ticket to a changing world order.
Lastly, adopting climate-based policies and a serious response to the climate crisis will provide Israel with many opportunities to achieve its other goals. For example, a climate-oriented foreign policy enables, and truly requires, regional, cross-border cooperation and political stability. These, in turn, are vital for ensuring food and energy security in an era of renewable energies. Climate-oriented foreign policy would highlight Israel’s scientific and technological capabilities and contribute to positioning the country as a positive actor in the regional and international arena. It would narrow socio-economic gaps and bolster democracy and peace in the region because these are necessary components for building greater resilience to deal with the climate crisis and its consequences.
This is hardly a theoretical or philosophical discussion. Israel faces decisions on urgent, concrete matters. For example, should it invest in linking its power grid to those of Europe and the Gulf to facilitate trade in surplus renewable energy, thereby enhancing its energy security? Should it cooperate with Cyprus and Egypt in producing protein out of seaweeds to enhance its food security? Should it support forming regional institutions to effectively address crises and emergencies? How can it resolve conflicts of identity and religion in order to mitigate violence and clashes and divert resources to building shared lives that protect our world? These are vital questions now confronting Israel’s incoming government. Turning Israeli foreign policy into a climate policy is a pivotal goal to guarantee a better life for ourselves and our children, but it is also an instrument with which to achieve additional goals through regional and international cooperation and peaceful coexistence to improve life in Israel and the region.