Climate crisis as change agent? For Israel and Jordan, a warmer peace.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
With the arid hills of Jordan rising in the background, Israeli fields are irrigated in the Jordan Valley south of the Sea of Galilee, July 21, 2021. As scientific warnings of dire climate change-induced drought grow, many in Israel and Jordan are focusing on the critical but limited water resources they share.

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Jordan is struggling through a drought-fed water crisis, but has one of the highest solar radiation rates in the world and a burgeoning renewable energy sector. Israel, whose water resources have improved with its desalination prowess, is doubling its exports of water to Jordan.

U.S. and Israeli leadership changes are thawing relations between Israel and Jordan. But the climate crisis is pushing them even closer together, unlocking cooperation in areas from water to food security and trade. The turnaround has been dramatic: from four years without contacts between leaders, to three major agreements within two months.

Why We Wrote This

The departure of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister helped thaw Israel-Jordan ties. But the climate crisis, and its focus on water and renewable energy, is giving the countries something to talk about.

Despite the constraints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pragmatism is making the case for day-to-day cooperation as a foundation for understanding and interdependence. Officials from both countries express hope these new bridges can help convince Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians that their future is a shared one.

“We support the Palestinian people, we reject the occupation, and we are wary whether the Israeli government honors its agreement,” says Osama, a Jordanian farmer struggling with the drought. “But if we can cooperate in good faith as equals in a way that is not at the expense of the Palestinians,” he adds, “then let’s try to be good neighbors.”

Osama’s rainwater-fed olives hang partly shriveled on their branches.

The dam he relies on for his tomato and cucumber farm has run dry, forcing him to truck in water weekly.

His house near the northern Jordanian city of Irbid receives water once or twice a month.

Why We Wrote This

The departure of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister helped thaw Israel-Jordan ties. But the climate crisis, and its focus on water and renewable energy, is giving the countries something to talk about.

And yet, even as Jordan struggles with a water and economic crisis fed by what the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is calling the worst drought in decades, Osama’s water supply will continue, thanks to the kingdom’s new agreement with Israel.

Recent leadership changes in Israel and the United States are thawing relations between Israel and Jordan. But the climate crisis is pushing them even closer together. It’s unlocking cooperation in areas from water to food security and trade between neighbors whose peace accord has so far largely failed to translate into tangible benefits for their citizens.

The turnaround has been dramatic: from four years without contacts between leaders, to three major agreements within two months.

Deal by deal, and despite the constraints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pragmatism is making the case for day-to-day cooperation as a foundation for understanding and interdependence. Officials from both countries express hope these new bridges can help convince Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians that their future is a shared one.

“We support the Palestinian people, we reject the occupation, and we are wary whether the Israeli government honors its agreement,” says Osama, who did not wish to use his full name.

“But if we can cooperate in good faith as equals in a way that is not at the expense of the Palestinians,” he adds, “then let’s try to be good neighbors.”

Making the farmer’s life better fits Israel’s approach.

“If we want to have real peace, in my opinion, the biggest challenge is public opinion in Jordan,” says Liron Zaslansky, director of the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon department at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “People there say they don’t see the fruits of peace and ask, ‘What’s in it for them?’”

Taylor Luck
A 117-megawatt wind farm in Tafilah, southern Jordan, in May 2018. Thanks to Jordan's burgeoning renewable energy sector, advocates say water-poor Jordan could export electricity to Israel in exchange for water as part of increasing cooperation.

From Netanyahu to Bennett

The new cooperative spirit began with the June arrival of Naftali Bennett as Israel’s prime minister. His desire to repair relations with and fortify stability in Israel’s eastern neighbor contrasted with that of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Bennett’s first foreign trip in July, just weeks after cobbling together his diverse coalition, was to travel to Amman for a secret meeting with King Abdullah II at his palace.

The move was greeted with relief in Jordan, which had largely frozen ties with Israel in the last four years of Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure.

“It’s an entirely new atmosphere,” says one Jordanian official. “It’s like we can breathe and dare to hope again.”

Although the Bennett-Abdullah agenda was not disclosed, Israel, whose water resources have improved with its desalination prowess, proceeded to offer to export additional water to Jordan.

As part of the deal finalized last month, Israel agreed to sell Jordan an additional 50 million cubic meters of fresh water from the Galilee – doubling the annual allotment specified in the nations’ 1994 peace treaty.

The additional water has been a lifeline. The parched kingdom relies heavily on rainfall and is facing yet another delayed rainy season. Last year’s left its reservoirs below 25% capacity.

The deal marks “the opening of a new chapter in relations,” says Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“This should be leveraged by the Israeli government,” he adds, into a larger regional cooperation whereby Israel could buy solar energy from Jordan in return for desalinated water.

Gil Cohen-Magen/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2021. In his first foreign trip as prime minister in July, Mr. Bennett visited Jordan's King Abdullah II at his palace in Amman.

Biblical windfall

Opportunity has presented itself, too, in the biblical commandment that Israeli lands lie fallow every seven years, which came into effect with the Jewish new year this September.  

Under an August agreement, Jordan could provide Israel with up to 50,000 tons of fruits and vegetables. It’s good news for Jordanian farmers, whose exports to Europe and the Gulf have collapsed due to shipping costs and competition.

In a third landmark deal, last week, the countries’ economic ministers met in the Jordan Valley and agreed to ease restrictions and customs duty on Jordanian exports to the West Bank. Officials say the move could increase annual Jordanian exports to the Palestinian territories eightfold from the current $100 million worth of items ranging from cement to granite and cleaning supplies.

“For Jordan, Palestine is different than any other country, it is a natural economic partner, and its volume and potential is immense,” says Nael Kabariti, chairman of the Jordan Chamber of Commerce. Although Jordanians wish for more unfettered access, “every eased restriction is a benefit.”

Ms. Zaslansky, the Israeli Foreign Ministry official, describes the trade agreement as a “step forward.”

“It’s part of a process that we are leading to strengthen relations with our immediate neighbors and the whole region,” she says. “The water agreement tends to Jordan’s urgent need for water. The trade agreement promotes regional trade and prosperity.”

Interdependence?

Mohammed al-Momani, a Jordanian senator and former government spokesman, says there’s room for more economic and environmental cooperation.

“There are vast amounts of joint opportunities between the Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis,” he says, if coupled with goodwill gestures by governments.

One area is renewable energy. Jordan has large stretches of empty desert, one of the highest solar radiation rates in the world, and a burgeoning renewable energy sector.

Taylor Luck
A 12.9-megawatt solar farm powering the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Zaatari, northern Jordan, in November 2017. Advocates believe Jordan, with one of the highest solar radiation rates in the world, can export solar energy to Israel and elsewhere across the region.

Environmentalists and advocates say Jordan, which is actively shopping its electricity to neighbors, could provide power to Israel in a direct swap of desalinated water for solar energy.

“Rather than a one-way deal, this interdependence offers durable solutions for Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, and the environment,” says Yana Abu Taleb, Jordanian director of Eco-Peace Middle East, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian nongovernmental organization.

In Jordan, caution

There are, however, political constraints to cooperation between Jordan and Israel.

With a large Palestinian population, Jordan sees the establishment of a Palestinian state as critical to its long-term stability, and Israeli settlements as blocking such a state.

Yet Mr. Bennett is publicly opposed to a Palestinian state or a return to any sort of peace process. Jordanian experts describe the differences as a “clash of strategic priorities,” and Amman’s reservations led it to careen between signing historic agreements with Israel one day and issuing stern warnings the next. Two weeks after the water agreement, Jordan condemned Israeli plans to build an additional 1,300 settlement homes in the West Bank. Ten days later, Jordan hosted Israel’s economy minister to sign the trade agreement.  

“This day-to-day cooperation will continue and potentially increase while the government walks a fine line, waiting to see if there is a change in the political atmosphere in Israel” more conducive to a peace process, says Hassan Barari, a Jordanian academic and author on Jordan-Israel relations. 

The new, open channels have meanwhile proved capable of de-escalating potential diplomatic crises.

In July, the recently sworn-in Mr. Bennett declared Israel would allow Jews to visit and pray on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and a perennial flashpoint. The dispute was quietly resolved within a day, when Mr. Bennett retracted his statement.

“It’s an example of a problem that could have sparked a crisis but that now is being handled well on both sides,” says Shira Efron, an Israel Policy Forum fellow.

Change from the ground up

Yet without steps toward a Palestinian state, and with this year’s war in Gaza still fresh in people’s minds, cooperation with Israel remains sensitive in Jordan.

Multiple Jordanian ministries and officials refused to comment on the recent agreements, which received limited coverage in the state-influenced Jordanian press.

That practice frustrates Israeli officials, who hope government-to-government goodwill can also trickle down.

“The normal Jordanian layman would say ‘no to Israel’” until Palestinian rights are secured, says Mr. Barari, the author. “But they eat their food, drink their water, and use electricity generated from their gas,” he points out. “Jordanians oppose this cooperation, but they begrudgingly accept it.”

Former officials and influencers on both sides hold out hope that increasing interdependence can shift perceptions and create change from the ground up.

“When more and more people see the advantages of bilateral cooperation, then you will get more reasonable voices to speak for a reasonable settlement and a genuine peace process, and radical voices will shrink,” says Senator Momani.

“That cooperative environment will be a good foundation for confidence-building measures that can lead to a genuine peace process that can settle the conflict once and for all.”

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