Red Carpet, Red Lines and Red Flags: Israel’s Race to the Climate Change Agenda
JNS.org – This week, Israel sent a 140-person delegation to the 26th UN Climate Change Convention (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The conference is being hailed as the most important event on climate since the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.
Though population-wise Israel is one of the smallest nations to attend, its delegation is smaller only than that of the United States, which recently re-entered the Paris Climate Accords after former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2017.
Leading the delegation, in addition to Bennett, are Israel’s Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar. Dozens of Israeli businessmen and leading media outlets are joining the mission, looking to put Israeli technologies on page one of the climate change catalogue and to make sure Israel’s presence is widely publicized both at home and abroad.
By comparison, Israel sent a 90-strong delegation to the Olympics, including athletes, coaches and trainers.
Red carpet: Israeli technology
Israel’s large presence at the conference makes financial sense. Israeli entrepreneurs are innovating solutions to some of the environment’s most pressing problems. Israel is a world leader in water desalination and solar energy. Many of the solutions Israeli technologies offer are nimble and can be applied both in small villages in developing nations, as well as in large urban centers.
With climate change taking center stage on the global agenda, Israel continues to prove that the start-up nation is as relevant as ever.
With 195 countries signed onto the Paris Accords, nations around the world are soon to be searching en masse for solutions to improve the environment and reduce carbon emissions. It is increasingly likely that there will be both international incentives for environmentally-friendly initiatives as well as financial penalties down the road for non-compliance with climate commitments.
As such, the amount of money set to be invested in combating climate change in the coming decades is immense. Israel’s government wants to roll out the red carpet for the startup nation’s most promising technologies and put its entrepreneurs first in line for commercial contracts.
Ahead of leaving for Scotland with the delegation, Bennett visited Israeli startup Phinergy, which develops metal-air batteries aimed at storing large quantities of renewable energy.
During the visit, Bennett stated, ”The issue of green energy is an additional part of the effort to protect the planet and deal with the climate crisis. This crisis is at our doorstep because it concerns our future generations.” He added: “My basic assumption is that very soon there will be competition for patents in the field; therefore, we need to be global pioneers. … I wish you great success. The State of Israel is greatly interested in your success and that of other companies in your field.”
Red herring: Climate what?
Climate change was not much discussed during the multiple election cycles leading to the formation of the current “change” government that booted Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from office. As such, Israel’s sudden focus on the issue has caught many off guard.
Climate change is an issue Israelis seemingly care little about. Litter and illegal dumping is a cultural norm in Israel. Recycling is nearly non-existent. Air quality is poor. Almost all of Israel’s water sources, rivers and coasts are heavily polluted. Natural wonders like the Dead Sea continue to suffer immense ecological damage at the hands of industry.
This past week, State Comptroller Matanya Engleman released a scathing report detailing Israel’s lack of progress towards previous climate commitments.
In calling climate change a national security issue, Bennett and others have referenced the growing incidence of wildfires and floods. Yet many of the wildfires Israel has suffered over the last several years are the result of arson. Fires have been set by Arabs as a form of ecological terrorism, including many by incendiary balloons sent from Gaza. Other fires are the result of negligence.
Coastal floods during normal and much-desired winter rainstorms are the result of poor drainage infrastructure.
Red flag: ‘National security’ issue?
In the last several weeks, Israel has placed climate at the top of the government agenda. For most Israelis, it was the first they had heard about the environment in years.
In the days leading up to the summit, Bennett has referred to climate change as a “crisis” as well as a matter of “national security.” At a recent cabinet meeting, a 100-point plan of action was announced and quickly approved.
Israel has numerous immediate national security concerns. Climate change is not in the top five, and likely not in the top 10.
On Friday, Israel announced its intention to become “carbon neutral” by 2050, and must now begin to grapple with how to get there. Along those lines, Israel has announced its intention to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. The announcement comes just a few years after the discovery of significant natural gas reserves suddenly made Israel energy-independent—a true national security imperative.
It is widely believed that there are significant quantities of natural gas offshore that have yet to be exploited, which could serve Israel’s energy needs for decades to come. Yet just as natural gas—the cleanest of all fossil fuels—has come online, Israel is suddenly committing to reduce reliance on its newfound precious resource.
As to the 100-point plan, Israel has yet to present 100-point plans for dealing with any of the Jewish state’s numerous national security or domestic issues.
Red Army: Global ‘agenda’
Last week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog announced the formation of a Climate Commission, headed by former Knesset member Dov Khenin. Kicking off the commission, Herzog invited the 140-member COP26 delegation to the President’s Residence. In addition to speeches about the importance of dealing with the climate, participants were offered vegan eggs and lab-grown chicken, meant to be a near-term alternative to the naturally-raised yet “environmentally inefficient” chicken Israelis are accustomed to consuming.
“Anyone who thought that the climate crisis is an issue that will only affect future generations, or that we have many years to start generating meaningful change—was making a grave mistake. Anyone who thinks that time is on our side—is reading the situation incorrectly. The climate issue is an urgent problem, which requires immediate action,” said Herzog.
“We must create as broad a coalition as possible, comprising all branches of industry, trade, academia and of course the public sector and local government, joining forces with a single goal: to urgently and immediately address the climate crisis. Not next year, not in two months’ time. Here and now,” he added.
Khenin, a longtime environmentalist, was also a longtime central committee member of Maki, the Israeli Communist Party. The party’s Wikipedia page notes that Maki ideologies include Marxism-Leninism, Alter-globalization and Non-Zionism.
Khenin was the lone Jewish Knesset member of the anti-Zionist Joint Arab List.
Herzog himself is a former chairman of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party. Energy Minister Elharrar is also a Labor member. Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg is a former chairwoman of the far-left Meretz Party.
The establishment of the climate committee under the office of the president means it does not require Knesset oversight. Ultimately, Bennett’s classification of climate change as a national security matter may also mean less transparency and oversight.
In his report, Engelman recommended that “the government should assign the treatment of this matter and its day-to-day management to a permanent, designated body with executive and decision-making powers,” such as a special climate cabinet, “with the ability to set policy and implement it, and coordinate the government’s work, and whose policies and decisions will be mandatory for government ministries.”
The climate change agenda, and the global economics that accompany the issue, find much greater sympathy on the political left—a decreasing minority within the country, yet a majority within the Bennett-led government.
Red card: UN double standard
At the United Nations, the sponsors of COP26, Israel is routinely and falsely denigrated as a human-rights violator. More resolutions are passed against Israel than against all other nations combined.
In just the past week, the United Nations and Western powers sternly criticized Israel over plans to add homes in its biblical provinces of Judea and Samaria, commonly referred to by the international community as the West Bank. Bennett is likely to get an earful on “settlement-building,” as well as on the need for Israel to race back into the defunct peace process.
Israel must always think twice about taking a lead role in any UN initiative. Racing into the climate change agenda may be a futile attempt at currying favor with international institutions and western powers, particularly in Europe and the United States.
Red line: Iran’s nuclear ambitions
For Bennett, COP26 is not just an opportunity to make bold statements about climate or to pitch Israeli technologies. For the freshman premier, it is an opportunity to meet with world leaders and buff his diplomatic credentials.
In a 48-hour period, Bennett is slated to hold meetings with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, among others.
Most of those meetings are likely to have less to do with global climate and more to do with the regional climate. With Western nations struggling to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, time may be running out before Iran reaches nuclear breakout—an Israeli red line.
Bennett will be pressing nations to ratchet up pressure on Iran, including sanctions, and to lay the groundwork for fighting the diplomatic onslaught that may ensue should Israel launch a military strike to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities—an increasingly likely scenario.
In the red
For Bennett, the trip abroad may be ill-timed. The “change coalition” is racing towards a hard Nov. 14 deadline to pass a state budget. Failure to pass the budget will automatically trigger elections.
Over the past weeks, several fractures within the fragile coalition have surfaced, with both Bennett and his close ally Ayelet Shaked expressing their doubts as to whether the coalition’s rotation agreement, which would bring the country’s left-wing foreign minister to power in place of Bennett, will ultimately be honored.
There have been additional points of bickering between the coalition’s right- and left-wing flanks, as well as questions of loyalty surrounding key members, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Gantz recently held a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and last week designated six Palestinian NGOs as terror organizations. In both instances, colleagues charged that the sensitive diplomatic initiatives had not been properly coordinated.
With a bare 61-59 government majority, Bennett can ill-afford to turn his back on coalition infighting. As he departed for the climate change summit, Bennett’s tarmac press conference related primarily to the budget.
“While we will work there in Scotland to raise the profile and status of Israel in the world, here in the country we are expected to have a crazy week, which will get wilder day by day as the budget vote approaches,” said Bennett. “Once the budget passes, this week, it buys many years of stability for the government, which means the further disintegration of the opposition. … They are desperate to drop the budget and lead to a fifth election, that is their goal.”
Should the government fail to pass the budget, it would likely mean an abrupt end to Bennett’s brief tenure as prime minister—and possibly a quick end to the government’s newfound climate-change excitement.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of JNS.