25 July 2011
There’s been little cause for optimism lately with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Yet from a small patch of desert this past month may have bubbled a ray of hope.
A ray of sun that is.
On June 5, a day that ironically marked both the anniversary of Six-Day War as well as World Environment Day, Israeli company Arava Power cut the ribbon on Israel’s first commercial solar field at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev desert. Amid dozens of rows of 15 foot-high solar panels, the inauguration of the five-megawatt solar field was celebrated in front of government ministers, press and international investors. The rapper Shyne even debuted a new song, “Solar Energy” at the event.
While the Ketura facility will begin by providing energy for three nearby kibbutzim, Arava Power already has its sights on investing $2 billion for 40 additional solar projects in southern Israel, equaling roughly 400 megawatts of energy.
The solar initiative is certainly a milestone for Israel, since investing in solar energy and other renewable programs serves a great interest for the country in dire need of energy independence. However a renewable energy sector could also greatly serve the Palestinians who are in dire need of the jobs and infrastructure necessary for any future country of their own.
Despite their political differences and what they voice publicly, both Israeli and Palestinian leadership seem to understand that any progress begins on the ground.
During his two years in office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often advocated an “economic peace” with the Palestinian Authority (PA) based on improving the Palestinian economy. At the same time, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has also stressed the importance of institution building and economic development toward Palestinian statehood.
Yet regardless if either government has actually succeeded, what is clear is that investing in robust renewable energy sectors could mutually serve both environmental and strategic interests of the two sides.
So why not start with what both share in abundance – the sun?
In 1956, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said, “the largest and most impressive source of energy in our world ... yet a source so little used by mankind today is the sun.”
Today, while Israel is known for developing industry-leading clean technology, selling innovations such as solar technology abroad, it has yet to prove itself at home where it most needs it. With no oil sources and new offshore natural gas reserves years from being tapped, the country generates almost all of its energy from imported fossil fuels.
Recognizing it faces possible energy droughts, the Israeli government is finally acting. This past week the cabinet approved a long-range energy plan to encourage corporations and individuals to produce electricity from renewable, non-polluting sources. The plan sets a goal of 2,760 megawatts of electricity production from renewable sources by 2020 – roughly 10 percent of the country’s electrical output.
But who’s to say something similar couldn’t and shouldn’t occur in the Palestinian territories?
The PA in the West Bank currently receives all of its power and petroleum from Israel. And with unemployment hovering near 25 percent, investing in renewable sources, such as solar power, could be a major step toward self-reliance.
However, the hurdle may be with the Palestinian leadership. While Palestinian people would rather their leaders focus on jobs and infrastructure, the PA seem to be solely aimed at achieving statehood in the United Nation. Yet asked in a poll this month what the top priority should be for PA leadership, a poll this month showed that more than 80 percent cited creating new jobs, while only 4 percent identified current efforts in the UN.
Incentivizing and assisting the Palestinians to produce their own clean energy infrastructure could not only create thousands of new jobs and industry, but would also serve as a serious confidence-building measure for both Israel and those countries that pour billions of dollars in foreign aid to the PA each year.
Even the world’s largest oil exporters are seeing the benefits nearby. Saudi Arabia recently announced plans for a 5500-megawatt solar program the output of which would equal energy from its crude oil exports. And nearby Abu Dhabi is investing $16 billion in a solar program called “Masdar City,” that would be the world’s first carbon-neutral city.
Obviously for Israel and the Palestinians, moving away from fossil fuel dependence will ultimately come down to politics. But with mutual needs, investment and the available renewable resources, it can be done.
Just as Ben-Gurion laid out the near-impossible vision of making the barren Negev desert “bloom” to build up the young Israeli state, today, the promotion of renewable energy, including solar power, in the region could serve as the first major step for achieving the dream of both energy independence and lasting partnership.
Abram Shanedling is the Regional Director in Washington, DC, for Hasbara Fellowships, a non-profit advocacy organization specializing in Middle East affairs and educational campaigns. Abram has spent time in Israel, including at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, working at a public diplomacy agency researching the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as international terrorism. In addition, he is a staff member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. All views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of any of the above organizations.