Originally Published in Jerusalem Post, Weekend Magazine Edition, 1/12/2011
A voracious appetite for change in Israel and the wider Middle East seems to be all around us these days. From the comparatively sedate tree-lined boulevards of Rothchild to the unforgiving desert warfare of strife-torn Libya, the region is clearly undergoing a state of almost never-ending flux.
Into this wider drama, steps Gidon Bromberg of the non-governmental organization, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). An organization long treated by the mainstream Israeli media as just another “greenie” NGO, has much grander ambitions than simply improving the environment. Where the received wisdom sees water as a source of conflict, Bromberg sees it as source of cooperation, and his organization has the record to prove it. Through the implementation of joint initiatives centred specifically on the issue of water, FoEME has successfully brought together neighbouring Israeli and Jordanian communities and neighbouring Israelis and Palestinians to work together on a number of cooperative enterprises. These have included everything from rainwater collection projects, to water conservation for public buildings such as schools, to joint hikes along each other’s shared water resources. But FoEME’s efforts have not been limited to the grassroots level. One of the sites Bromberg took us to was a sewage treatment plant in mid-construction next to the River Jordan. In this case approval for the plant came through the more traditional “top-down” approach of lobbying top decision makers at the local and national levels. Bromberg insists that a combination of “bottom-up” and “top-down” methods is critical in order to achieve meaningful change.
The “Peace Park”
Perhaps the most compelling place we visited with Bromberg as our guide was the somewhat dubiously named “Jordan Peace Park”. Its principal purpose at the moment is to provide a common space for Israelis and Jordanians to meet without undergoing the onerous restrictions and paperwork common to other border zones. The park is also earmarked to be a major tourist attraction for bird watching due its unique ecology. Today the site is essentially comprised of the eclectic mix of an abandoned hydroelectric power station from the 1920s, and a border station zealously guarded by Jordanian soldiers. Although it is officially under Jordanian sovereignty, as part of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, Israelis can visit the park without the need for a visa or even a passport. Nevertheless, the form that we did need to fill out at the neighbouring kibbutz was checked vigorously as we waited at the imposing entranceway proudly adorned with giant portraits of the current King Abdullah and his father, the late King Hussein.
Once we finally entered the park, the place seemed to be a huge and cruel metaphor for the state of the peace process itself. A vast empty space, seemingly filled with unrealised promise awaited us, punctuated by a series of dilapidated buildings from a different era entirely. As we surveyed the valley below from our position on a raised hilltop, Bromberg suddenly pointed to a tiny and solitary rubbish bin, located incongruously in the middle of the enormous open space. “Isn’t that cute!” he quipped. There it was, not a relic from a forgotten time, but a modern solitary object, standing there all by itself, defiantly unaware of the present reality all around it. Perhaps in that impossibly tiny rubbish bin was the seed of something – at once highly practical and highly symbolic at the same time. Here was a humble but nevertheless important part of the infrastructure necessary to absorb visitors, but also a symbol, defiantly striving against all the odds and holding out hope for a better future. The contrast between the minute rubbish bin and the gargantuan border edifice displaying King Abdullah’s portrait couldn’t have been greater. But, in the face of the might and power that the official structure represented, once we looked closer, we could make out the appearance of tiny cracks slowly emerging from behind the thin veneer of white paint coated throughout the construct. Change is clearly afoot in our region, the question is, after years of neglect, can we have any say or influence in managing the impending collapse and build something meaningful and positive in its wake?
Peacebuilding and Regional Diplomacy
Detractors of FoEME and projects such as the Jordan Peace Park argue that such grassroots efforts are pointless since it seems that dramatic changes to all the established regimes of the Arab World are just around the corner. Take a look at the peace with Egypt for example they say: for years under Mubarak we had a cold peace with very little benefit to Israel. Now that the Mubarak regime is gone, the whole peace treaty is in jeopardy and we are not any more secure than we were when we started. In response, Bromberg contends that it is precisely because greater efforts were not made at the grassroots level to build ties between Egyptians and Israelis (in large part due to opposition from Mubarak), that the peace was not allowed to develop. Instead of relying purely on the high diplomacy of an abstract treaty, more focus should have been on encouraging the warmth and inherent tangibility of person-to-person contact and cooperation. Bromberg sees in water a unique opportunity to develop these kinds of ties through joint projects and mutual understanding of the other’s “water reality”.
Somewhat prophetically, a few days before we were due to meet Gidon Bromberg, a young Israeli approached me outside a video store. After sharing our mutual frustration that the store was closed, he soon found out that I was an oleh hadash (new immigrant). When I expressed the sentiment that in certain situations, things were just “the way they are”, he sharply corrected me. You shouldn’t have this attitude coming from outside Israel he told me, “when you see things that need to be changed, try to change them, and do it whenever you can!” In Bromberg, we see an individual that lives by this mantra on a day-to-day basis. Back in 1994, he latched onto the seemingly divergent issues of water and peace, and perhaps said to himself: these things need to be changed, and I believe it is possible to change them!