Israel and Turkey must cooperate on climate change

Op-eds / Israel and the East Mediterranean

Israel and Turkey are starting a new chapter in their long-standing bilateral relationship. The mutual visits by foreign ministers Mevlut Cavusoglu and Yair Lapid to Israel and Turkey followed up on the successful visit by President Yitzhak Herzog to Turkey; these were positive steps in the gradual process of improving relations, and toward a resumption of ties at the ambassadorial level.

The warming of relations is expected to boost existing fields of cooperation (e.g. trade and tourism) and de-freeze fields that were put on hold during years of tensions (e.g. the strategic dialogue on regional affairs). At the same time, it also creates an opportunity to launch new fields of cooperation on issues that are relevant to current realities.

Climate change is the leading field. It is an issue of growing centrality in both Turkey and Israel, in which there is untapped potential for joint endeavors. For example, Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara, Irit Lillian, recently told Turkish media that cooperation in the field of sustainability could improve economic and trade ties.

Climate change is already taking a toll in Turkey, with fires, droughts, flooding and pollution in the Marmara Sea. More extreme climate events are expected in the coming decades alongside the intensification of current trends. Until recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not convey a sense of urgency regarding climate change. However, in his 2021 speech to the UN General Assembly, Erdogan spoke much about climate change, calling for international action and emphasizing Turkey’s commitment.

In October 2021, Turkey ratified the Paris Convention, becoming the last G-20 country to do so. Turkey plans to reduce emissions by 21 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2053. With the support of the EU, a network of municipalities is operating in Turkey to deal with climate change. In late 2021, Turkey adopted a program called the “Green Development Revolution,” and in February 2022, a climate council was established in Turkey, with government support and participation of representatives from all over the country.

Climate change is likely to assume a more central role in Turkey’s political discourse, as the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections draw near. In January 2022, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu addressed a letter to young Turkish citizens, pledging that the political bloc he heads would lead to real climate change and “work to save the ecological future of Turkey and the world.”

At the same time, Erdogan is trying to rebrand himself from a leader criticized for ignoring the climate issue, into a leader of innovative national environmental programs who urges the international community to take better action. The approaching elections are likely to heighten his interest in developing climate-oriented cooperation with other countries, including Israel.

President Herzog’s vision of inclusive regional cooperation to tackle climate change raised interest in Turkey. This is partly because Turkey is not a member of the current Mediterranean frameworks in which Israel participates, e.g. the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and the Cypriot governmental initiative to coordinate climate change activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Turkey feels that these initiatives isolate it in the region and that they do not have a real interest in its inclusion. A new Cypriot proposal to establish a regional framework to deal with summer wildfires has also been recently presented to Greece and Israel, but not to Turkey.

Israel’s climate developments

IN ISRAEL, there has been a recent discussion of turning the EMGF into a forum dealing with renewable energies, or energy in general, and not only natural gas. This is a result of difficulties in profitable cooperation in the natural gas field and the increased importance of renewable energies. Each EMGF member has veto power over adding new members or observers. For example, the Palestinian Authority has torpedoed the UAE’s request to be accepted as an observer in the forum.

Turkey does not believe Greece and Cyprus would accept its membership. To a lesser extent, there is a similar Turkish perception about Egypt. Even if the Hellenic states were willing to include Turkey, Turkey would likely demand representation for Turkish Cypriots as well, a condition that Cyprus and Greece are not expected to accept.

For all the above-mentioned reasons, the idea of upgrading the EMGF into an inclusive regional framework also dedicated to environmental issues does not seem feasible at this stage. The establishment of a new forum, built from its onset as a partnership among all countries of the region, stands a better chance of success since it would not be perceived as directed against any regional actor.

This could enable Turkey, Cyprus and Greece a measure of political flexibility, as has been the case with other regional frameworks that they joined upon establishment, such as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM).

Such a move could be jump-started with an Israeli-Turkish-Egyptian meeting on environmental and climate issues. This would have been considered impossible until recently, but it now appears more feasible given the cautious attempts by Egypt and Turkey to improve their relations. Israel can play a role in promoting such a meeting, albeit initially on an informal level, with a focus on promoting regional dialogue ahead of COP27 scheduled for late 2022 in Egypt.

Another new opportunity for regional cooperation on climate change issues is the parallel warming of relations between Israel and Turkey, and Turkey and the UAE. From an economic point of view, trilateral projects are already reportedly being discussed, and an Israeli-Turkish-Emirati summit on environmental and climate issues can also be advanced. In this case, there is less sensitivity than there is with Egypt – especially in light of Erdogan’s successful visit to the Emirates – and a gathering of officials from the three countries should be possible early on in the process.

Including the Palestinians

IT IS IMPORTANT to include the Palestinian issue in any discussion of regional cooperation on climate and the environment. The Palestinian issue is important to Turkey, and as part of warming relations with Israel, Turkey has an interest in finding new ways to help the Palestinians and advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Cavusoglu clearly stated that during his press conference with Foreign Minister Lapid, and that environmental issues could be part of a positive agenda that serves the interests of all parties.

In addition to the regional aspect, Israel and Turkey should launch bilateral cooperation on climate change, which could include a regular ministerial-level annual meeting – alternating between Israel and Turkey; ongoing contact between relevant professionals in government ministries, exchange of knowledge, coordination and joint work; mutual assistance in the event of exceptional climate events (fires, flooding, etc.) and the launch of a climate hotline; support for civil society organizations from both countries that are interested in environmental projects and joint action; and encouraging academic cooperation in the fields of environment and sustainability, which will include conferences, research as well as faculty and student exchanges.

Climate change is already reshaping the international system, creating common interests and fostering cooperation between countries that used to be at odds. Israel-Turkey relations stand to benefit from this trend. Tackling climate change can become a central pillar in the new chapter in relations, bringing benefits not only to the citizens of both countries, but potentially also to the region as a whole.

The op-ed was published in JPost in June 2022.

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