Israel, Lebanon, Iraq leaders agree to cooperate at COP27 summit
Israel's environmental protection minister attended a regional meeting Tuesday alongside Iraqi and Lebanese leaders at the COP27 global climate conference taking place in Egypt, the minister's office said, where the group pledged to work together to tackle climate change.
Israel is still officially at war with Lebanon, and Israel and Iraq have no diplomatic relations and a history of hostilities. In 2006, Israel fought a war against the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah which killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians.
While Lebanon and Israel recently signed a landmark, US-brokered maritime agreement, any hint that the two states are open to cooperate even as part of a regional setting would be meaningful.
Lebanon bans its citizens from having any contact with Israelis and the sea deal was negotiated through American shuttle diplomacy, with no Israeli or Lebanese officials ever publicly meeting.
According to a statement from Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, the meeting took place as part of a regional forum of eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
The agreement by the member countries said the parties would work to “strengthen regional cooperation" and “act in a coordinated way” on climate change.
“The countries of the region share the warming and drying climate and just as they share the problems they can and must share the solutions. No country can stand alone in the face of the climate crisis,” Zandberg said in the statement.
In photos provided by her office, she is seen seated behind a small Israeli flag. Two seats away from her is Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid and across the room is Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, each behind their countries' flags.
Mikati's office played down the incident, saying it was being overblown in Israeli media.
It said the meeting was called for by the presidents of Egypt and Cyprus and was attended by a large number of Arab and international officials like other meetings at the climate change conference. "There was no contact whatsoever with any Israeli official,” it said.
However, Palestinian journalist Lamis Andoni told The New Arab that the meeting could be part of a US effort to push "normalisation by stealth" on Iraq and Lebanon.
"The US has been pushing normalisation, whether direct or indirect, through joint bilateral and cooperation and projects.
"John Kerry, the US President's Special Envoy, has been involved in initiating such projects and meetings, long before joining Joe Biden’s administration. He was a key player in bringing about the 2016 Jordanian-Israel gas deal and the water for energy agreement, which was ratified on Tuesday at COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh," she said.
Kerry served as US Secretary State from 2013 to 2017 under former US President Barack Obama.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh also attended the meeting at a time when peace negotiations with Israel are moribund and a far-right government is likely set to take power in the coming weeks after national elections held last week.
An official close to Zandberg said she and Shtayyeh shook hands, a claim a Palestinian official denied. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. Public contact between Israeli and Palestinian leaders is rare.
Zandberg is set to leave the post soon, after her political party Meretz, a dovish faction that supports Palestinian independence, failed to win enough votes to enter the new parliament.
Former Benjamin Netanyahu is set to take power in the coming weeks as head of what is expected to be Israel's most right-wing government ever.
Netanyahu was prime minister when the Trump administration brokered the 2020 Abraham Accords, a series of normalisation deals between four Middle Eastern countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Palestinians condemned the deals as a betrayal of their cause, saying they rewarded Israel while it continued to occupy the West Bank and besiege the Gaza Strip.
The climate meeting is not expected to lead to any similar normalisation agreements with Lebanon, Iraq, or other Arab states. But seeing the leaders of Arab countries in dialogue with an Israeli minister was rare.
Leaders from around the world are meeting this week in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, where they are hoping to come together to combat the rising threats from climate change.