The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israeli climate-tech firms team up with former foes to face threat of rapid warming

A field of jojoba plants thrives at Kibbutz Hatzerim in Israel’s Negev desert. The plants are grown using Netafim’s drip-irrigation technology. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KIBBUTZ HATZERIM, Israel — Dozens of Israeli climate-tech companies are teaming up with once-hostile neighbors in the Arab world, working together to stem the threat that climate change will render much of their region uninhabitable.

After a series of landmark agreements last year normalizing Israel’s relations with four Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — a flurry of new business deals has offered Israel entry into markets that for decades were officially off-limits.

With the Middle East warming at nearly double the global rate, Israelis are taking the opportunity to apply their homegrown innovations in the fields of solar, energy and food tech in some of the countries that may need them most.

Alanoud Alhashmi, chief executive of the Futurist Company in the UAE, said the region can no longer afford to expend resources on wars. “We need to put the same money, the same commitment that we used for war toward an ecosystem for peace and prosperity in the region,” said Alhashmi, whose government-supported project-management firm has been working with Israeli companies and organizations since the normalization deals were signed. “It’s a matter of human existence.”

She said Israelis have been teaching Emiratis about implementing solutions fast — “Israelis have that survival instinct” — while the Emiratis have been showing Israelis how to translate ambitious concepts into long-term strategy.

Elad Levi, the vice president for the Middle East and Africa for the Israeli company Netafim, agreed that “there’s an opportunity to work together.” Netafim invented the world’s first drip-irrigation systems, developed at tiny Kibbutz Hatzerim in Israel’s Negev desert.

Levi said that Netafim’s drip-irrigation systems have been boosting yields at greenhouses across Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, which like the rest of the UAE import up to 90 percent of their food. The company’s high-tech systems are connected to sensors that measure conditions and microscopic changes in the trunks and roots of crops and in the surrounding atmosphere and then calibrate ideal amounts and schedules for providing water and fertilizer.

The expanding role of Israeli climate technology in the region will prompt further development of digitized farming, with projects like Netafim’s initiative to design citrus hedges for robotic pickers, according to Naty Barak, the company’s former chief sustainability officer.

Over the years, Israel has used technology to transform the Negev, covering more than half the country, into an agricultural region where high-tech, drip-irrigated farms grow crops like cherry tomatoes, melons and dates.

But only recently has climate tech become a boom sector in Israel. During the past year, 10 percent of newly founded Israeli start-ups have been devoted to climate solutions, up from around 4 percent in 2013, according to the Israel Innovation Authority, a governmental branch supporting Israel’s tech innovation ecosystem.

Since the normalization deals, Israeli business with the Arab world has spiked. Trade between Israel and Arab countries has grown 234 percent, according to Israel’s Bureau of Statistics.

The accords “have opened the floodgates,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council. She estimated that trade just between Israel and the UAE has reached $1 billion.

“This collaboration was written in the stars,” said Omar Al Busaidy, the U.S. chief executive of the Emirati-Israeli nongovernmental organization Sharaka, which is preparing for a regional “hackathon” next month in which tech competitors will focus on issues of sustainability. “It’s just the beginning.”

Long sidelined, Arab Israeli entrepreneurs looking to join tech boom with Emirati backing

The agreements have also given a boost to Israel’s economic ties with Jordan and Egypt, which signed peace treaties with Israel decades ago but whose relations with the Jewish state long remained chilly. Israeli-Jordanian trade has spiked from $136.2 million to $224.2 million, and Israeli-Egyptian trade from $92 million to $122.4 million, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Last month, Israel announced plans to sell 50 million cubic meters of water a year to Jordan, the largest known water sale in the history of the two countries. The arrangement is possible because of Israel’s development of desalination plants, which now supply 80 percent its drinking water.

“It’s not out of generosity,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of the regional environmental organization Ecopeace. “It’s out of an understanding that Jordan is particularly vulnerable and it is in Israel’s own security needs to help Jordan meet its water needs.”

And in February, Israeli officials are scheduled to join representatives from Egypt, Jordan and Iraq at the first Mideast Climate Summit, in Cyprus. Bromberg, who was part of the Israeli delegation at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this month, said his government views the regional climate crisis as an “issue of national security.”

Across the world, and especially in many parched areas of the Middle East, desertification is on the rise. The World Bank predicts that the region’s capital cities will eventually see four months of scorching heat every year.

Despite Israel’s advances in climate technology, its state controller’s office warned in an almost 700-page report last month that decades of governmental neglect have left the country unprepared for the coming climate crisis.

In Glasgow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pledged net-zero emissions by 2050. In a meeting with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, Bennett announced plans for a climate-change working group focused on water solutions and other regional climate issues. He said Israel was committed to exporting its “brainpower” and experience as a “start-up nation” as its main contribution to the global fight against climate change.