Shifting political tectonic plates in the Middle East

Shifting political tectonic plates in the Middle East

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From outer space, astronauts can easily see the Great Rift Valley stretching from East Africa in the south to Syria in the north. It is the reason for many of the geological formations of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Arava Valley, the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and the Beqaa Valley. The rift is caused by two massive tectonic plates that push against each other — the Arabian plate to the east and the African plate to the west. While the rift was formed some 20 million years ago, ongoing pressures continue to cause shifts.  

The two tectonic plates are both moving north, but at different speeds. This has led to an interesting phenomenon at Timna Park in the southern Arava Valley of Israel, on the border with Jordan. It is the home of the first copper mines in the world and was a major source of copper for the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Israel. Because the Arabian plate in Jordan is moving a bit faster than the African plate in Israel, the other half of Timna on the Jordanian side, including that copper, is found 150 km to the north and a bit to the east in Faynan. To add to this, Ruth Schuster of Haaretz points out: “Though both Africa and Arabia are moving vaguely northward by a few millimeters a year, they are essentially parting ways. The farther Africa and Arabia pull apart, the wider the Red Sea grows: geologists call the Red Sea a baby ocean.” 

All of this reminds us that stasis is not the way of the world; including for individuals, nations and politics. Many of the countries in the Middle East, including a number that sit along the Great Rift Valley, among them Saudi Arabia and Israel, are going through such shifts. A number of factors, political tectonic plates if you will, are in play: the Abraham Accords and the growing rapprochement between Israel and her Arab neighbors, the US and China vying for alliances and influence in the region, the ongoing worry over Iranian intentions, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the internal Israeli struggle as it wrestles with what kind of a nation it wishes itself to be. With all this movement, the US has decided to explore an initiative involving itself, the Saudis, the Israelis and the Palestinians. 

The US has decided to explore an initiative involving itself, the Saudis, the Israelis and the Palestinians

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

While shifting geopolitics and related interests play an important role in these developments, there is a shared concern that transcends regional politics — our shared environment, which does not know or care about the political borders and boundaries we create. The motto of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located on Kibbutz Ketura, is “nature knows no borders.” That approach has allowed the institute to bring together Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans and international college-age students for more than a quarter of a century to live and study together. In the wake of the Abraham Accords, the institute looks forward to more diverse participants from across the Middle East. 

In addition, the institute is home to several transboundary research centers, including its Center for Climate Change Policy and Research, as well as its Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy, which includes work in Gaza and the West Bank. That environmental framework does not erase political realities, but it allows for different relationships to emerge. The proof is in the pudding, as seen in the long-term personal and professional ties that develop out of the time spent together at the Arava Institute. 

Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, executive director of the Arava Institute, points out: “The environment can be a catalyst for war or a catalyst for cooperation. In our region, it’s clear to everyone that cooperation is essential, because our sources of water and energy won’t be sufficient for everyone. There is no other way. The answer to the dangers of climate change lies in our behavior. We have to change how we live; industry, food, water, transportation — everything has to change. We are a laboratory for solutions. I want to see the whole region become like the Arava Institute — for everyone to behave like us — and we want to prove that it’s possible.”  

Our shared environment does not know or care about the political borders and boundaries we create

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

As mentioned, the Biden administration is examining a new paradigm for the region. Interestingly, there has already been, since 2019, some cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel through the Transnational Red Sea Center, a research center housed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The institute’s Anders Meiborn said: “Pollution knows no boundaries and effective environmental protection requires international collaboration, coordination and planning. It is for this reason that we, together with the support of scientific colleagues from the Red Sea region, decided to create the Transnational Red Sea Center.” 

In one of their first projects, which included researchers from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and the US, a significant discovery was made. Meiborn explained: “Our teams of researchers have now discovered (and confirmed through numerous controlled experiments) the presence of at least one region on the planet capable of harboring large and highly biodiverse coral reefs that are much more resistant to the effects of global warming, notably the Red Sea — in particular the Northern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.” 

In the Qur’an (Al-Ma’idah 5:32), we read: “If anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of humanity.” That same sentiment is found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a): “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.” These core Muslim and Jewish concepts and values remind us that we all have shared responsibilities that transcend our religious and national identities. These lines from the Qur’an and the Talmud contain an even deeper level of truth as humanity faces the consequences of an ever-intensifying climate crisis, particularly in the Middle East. Increasing regional environmental cooperation is essential to address that crisis. At the same time, such collaboration creates opportunities for — models for — overcoming political obstacles in the region. 

  • Rabbi Michael M. Cohen teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College. 
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