Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel and the global climate crisis (October 25, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: The approach of the November 1 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow has generated dire environmental warnings from the US security establishment. Where does Israel stand on preparations for climate change?

A: Israel appears to be playing catch-up in order to present an acceptable climate profile in Glasgow, where Prime Minister Bennet will attend. In recent days, Bennet’s government has budgeted NIS 15 billion (just under $5 billion) to prepare Israel for the climate crisis. A brand new national 100-step plan includes features like augmented mass transportation and recycling, green construction regulations and ecology-oriented education.

On October 19, President Herzog announced the establishment of the Israeli Climate Forum to “advance ideas and solutions” and promote “national action and plans”. It will be headed by former Knesset member Dov Khenin, a veteran environmental activist. A Mitvim opinion survey this month found that a majority of Israelis want to see the government cooperate with international measures against global warming. The government’s official goal is now 85 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.

Israeli businesses are reaping the benefit of the public’s greater awareness of ecological realities, offering new products like non-fish salmon made from tapioca and omega 3. A deal with the UAE to transport its oil to Europe via Israel’s Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline is under threat of cancellation due to popular fears over dangerous oil leaks in the Negev.

Yet all this bustling environmental activity and awareness might sound a bit more impressive if it were not coming so late in the day. The reality is that, by most advanced global standards, Israel is behind. For example, despite being blessed with more than ample sunlight, renewable energy constitutes only seven percent of Israel’s total energy output (the European Union by comparison produces 20 percent).

In terms of daily life in Israel, alongside widespread but still insufficient recycling programs and impressive decades-old regulations mandating solar heating for home water supplies, Israel is depressingly noisy and polluted. Its urban roads are in near constant gridlock. As yet, no Israeli city has a proper underground metro.

Israel’s population, nearing ten million, renders it one of the more crowded countries in the world. Yet national immigration policy (the law of return, which invites any Jew to become an instant citizen) and government coddling of sectors like the Haredim that encourage large families, together ensure unbridled population growth in the decades ahead. And both the law of return and large Haredi families are, under current ideological and political conditions in Israel, sacred cows.


Q: If this is the reality, where can Israel’s growing population expand to?

A: The Negev, constituting half the country’s territory, is still relatively empty, and efforts are being made to transfer security and other infrastructure there and to accommodate the attendant workers and families. But the Negev is also needed by the military for training. It is also the obvious location for the solar energy installations noted above, which require a lot of real estate per unit of electricity generated. And, lest we forget, the Negev is so hot it is not a comfortable place to live for many people.

That leaves the Mediterranean, meaning either constructing artificial islands or expanding the coastline westward. This option is talked about a lot, thus far primarily either as an outlet for Gaza Strip overcrowding if Israel and Hamas ever conceivably agree, or as the venue for a future international airport. But so far this is all futuristic talk. Looking ahead a few decades, it would appear that both mandatory population reduction and expansion into the Mediterranean are the only viable possibilities for sustaining Israel’s ecological quality of life.

Q: At the broadest strategic level, what are the likely effects of climate change on Israel and the region?

A: In the not too distant future, the rising sea level of the Mediterranean will pose a serious threat where cities and agricultural land meet the sea. Rapidly rising mean temperatures, a gradual reduction in annual rainfall and extreme weather phenomena, coupled with Israel’s ever-growing population, translate into a reduction in usable land, extreme heat events, and increasing winter flooding.

Drought and heat waves threaten the population, particularly in agricultural areas, not only in Israel but in neighboring countries as well. Note that the ‘Arab Spring’ that broke out in 2011 was preceded by famine in southwest Syria near the border with Israel and by water deficits in more distant Yemen. Both phenomena constituted direct catalysts for revolt and revolution. In other words, at least in Israel’s corner of the world, global climate disruption can mean destructive political disruption.

Q: In recent years, Israel has moved to heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity production. Does this reflect climate consciousness?

A: Yes and no. Israel is exploiting its Mediterranean gas bonanza to convert the entire country to gas and wean it from reliance on less efficient and dirtier electricity-producing fuels like coal and oil. Gas is definitely less polluting than coal, and since it is produced locally, it is cheaper too. Israeli gas is being exported to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and potentially, via Cyprus and Greece, to Europe.

That, for all concerned, appears to make the natural gas industry irresistible. Accordingly, when confronted with the solar option, which is both doable and far more efficient, Israeli planning authorities describe natural gas as a ‘transition fuel’ that will indeed eventually be phased out as a means of generating electricity and powering industry. This is ostensibly the primary way Israel intends to meet the kind of emission-reduction standards that were agreed at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 and will be tightened in Glasgow.

Yet so far, Israel is consuming more natural gas, not less. Still, by way of consoling ourselves, this is not quite as cynical as the Saudis bragging about how they are reducing their own emissions, even as they increase crude oil production to fuel the rest of the world’s emissions.

Q: Bottom line: leaving aside populistic declarative policies like the 100-step plan, what can Israel do to prepare for the ravages of climate change?

A: Far more solar power and desalination. Radical acceleration of urban programs to replace cars with underground metros. Far-reaching steps toward control of population growth. A national plan to expand Israel’s coastline westward.

In other words, turn the declarative into reality. Looked at through the prism of real-life conditions in Israel, this means that the decades ahead must feature financial, political and security stability. Israel’s ecological future and its strategic future must enter into lockstep. It’s hard to devote resources to the environment when you are preoccupied with the country’s current prolonged failure of governance, with the spectacular Arab crime rate inside Israel, and with Palestinian-Israeli clashes that lately range from Gaza to Ramle to Ramallah.

This also means continuing to cultivate Israel’s promising hi-tech economy, which is relatively ‘clean’, and very profitable. It means guaranteeing stability by ensuring that Iranian and Iranian-proxy threats from the north are repelled or at least contained. But it also means safety, stability and tranquility through genuine progress toward peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. And that in turn almost certainly means the evolution of an independent Palestinian political entity alongside Israel.

This last task has to begin by reversing Israel’s current descent down a slippery slope toward a violent, conflicted binational reality. And that is a very tall order. Israel’s population might be increasingly ecological-minded. But it is also increasingly ultra-nationalist and messianic, its politics dictated by the settler agenda.