The Halfway Point: An Exercise in Environmental Leadership with SIPA iTrek
At only the halfway point, SIPA’s Israel Delegation has already dove deep into the sheer complexity of Middle Eastern environmental policy by hearing from thought leaders and innovators in the field. This delegation aims to give future policy professionals a view of a wide range of political ideologies and to demonstrate how internal affairs affect local efforts to promote discourse and resources toward environmental protection. It’s through face-to-face interactions with multifaceted leaders in the field that offer SIPA students a one-of-a-kind opportunity to explore both the problems and innovative solutions to resource scarcity, wastewater management, and managing transboundary environmental policy amidst geopolitical conflict.
During our first morning in Israel, delegates were introduced to Dr. Alon Tal, the founding father of institutionalized environmental law advocacy in Israel. He spoke passionately to students against the background of Neot Kdumim, a biblical conservation reserve that has received international recognition as a model of restoration ecology. He fed off this energy.
“We are redefining what it means to be an indigenous people,” he explained. “If this is our land, we must take care of it.”
He explained that with the help of the Israeli Defense Force and the Jewish National Fund, Israelis planted thousands of trees within the 620 acres of protected land. Between 2004 – 2016, Tal was a member of the international board of directors of the Jewish National Fund where he served as chairman of the committee for land development that oversees forestry and land reclamation as well as the Committee for Sustainable Development.
His remarks branched from the land itself to broader policy. He discussed Israel’s transition to stratified solar tax cuts, the electric grid’s vulnerability, and the hidden externalities to desalination. But what hit home to SIPA delegates was his warning about the United States’ power in determining global sustainability.
“When the U.S. EPA sneezes, the world catches a cold,” he concluded.
Such wholesome, pragmatic discussions continued at the Peres Center for Peace, Netafim Headquarters, and Arava Institute. The Peres Center and Arava Institute offered non-governmental voices to environmental action, whereas Netafim represents Israeli innovation at its finest, as the company that established global drip-irrigation technology. Despite their differences in implementation, Netafim, Arava Institute and the Peres Center recognize the same need and inefficiencies, although offering different solutions.
Founded in 1996 by the 9th President of Israel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres, the Peres Center for Peace is Israel’s leading organization promoting peacebuilding between Israel and its neighbors, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians. Lara Portnoy, the institute’s program director, elaborated upon the plurality of environmental programs developed to address specific needs in a way that fosters communication and collaboration amongst transboundary local partners. This includes the installation of 75 biogas systems and 30 graywater recycling units for Palestinian families.
Then, at Netafim, students learned how to address resource scarcity and bypass political bureaucracy by way of private-sector ingenuity. The company was founded in 1965 and is rooted in the kibbutz’s principles for shared economies and an efficient use of resources. In so doing, Netafim now operates in 150 countries through 37 subsidiaries, with 13 factories throughout the world. Their global operations allow for minimized shipping costs and a reduced carbon footprint.
Our delegation’s guide and 30+ -year Netafim employee Ron Keren explained that the Israeli “start-up persona” is explained by the country’s major waves of immigrants arriving with nothing.
“The new settlers to this land didn’t arrive with many traditions or even a sense of risk. They had nothing - and because of this blank slate, they were open-minded to new technologies and new ideas. What’s there to lose?”
The company products are designed to provide solutions in the areas of efficient irrigation, control and agronomy for a range of field crops, orchards and vineyards grown under varied topographic and climatic conditions throughout the world. More so, Netafim represents only one of numerous ventures cultivated in the Holy Land.
Just yesterday, students ventured to the Arava Institute, a leading environmental and academic institution in the Middle East dedicated to preparing future leaders from Israel, Palestine and Jordan. SIPA delegates got the chance to direct questions to fellow Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian graduate students conducting research at Arava. They explained that “safe places” like Arava foster political discussion without fear of conflict or isolation. Yeah, sometimes feelings get hurt. Yeah, it’s complicated. But Program Director Cathie Granit explains it like this: “In the Middle East, it’s assumed the scarcest resource is water. But I say it’s trust.”
In such safe spaces, intricate and honest alumni networks are developed to encourage future transboundary collaboration and development. Later at lunch, SIPA and Arava students realized when mentioning their own homes in Mexico City, New York City, and Beijing, that sustainability problems don’t fit into a box or a region. We are all struggling to solve time-sensitive concerns, all requiring global partnership now more than ever. Trust is critical.
Over the next three days, we will build upon this narrative by driving through the Israeli-Palestinian border to witness geopolitical complexity firsthand. We will visit the NGO Eco Peace located within the Palestinian territory of Auja to hear more about transboundary initiatives to promote cooperative efforts to protect the region’s shared environmental heritage. Delegates recognize there isn’t a simple answer to Middle Eastern environmental policy.
Nonetheless, we see hope. We see creativity. And we see persistence. All of this and more, we intend to bring home.