Maoz Fine’s phone buzzed urgently. “People were calling and texting. Everyone was asking, ‘Are you packing up yet?'” the Israeli marine scientist told me, his boyish grin animating the Zoom screen as he recalled the euphoric summer day in 2020. It was mid-August, but the inquiries were not about Fine’s holiday plans. U.S. President Donald Trump had just announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to a “full normalization of relations.”
Informal but not-so-secret contacts between Israel and other states in the region suggested that, unlike previous peace pacts, the Israel-UAE agreement was the start of a gathering tide, not a one-off splash. Fine, who studies coral reefs, was especially agog about the prospects of peace and better ties between his country and states along the Red Sea shores. Finally, he told me, the possibility was nearing that he could conduct experiments “along the entire gradient of the Red Sea.” No longer would he have to enlist intermediaries from outside the region to bypass “political sensitivities.”
When the first fruits of peace arrived, however, Fine and an ad hoc coalition of sundry Israelis found it unpalatable. A deal to bring oil from the UAE to Israel and then to Asia and Europe left many up in arms. The agreement united disparate factions into an opposition front, including politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, environmentalists, local residents and concerned citizens. It occasioned a testy hearing at the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, in which public officials accused one another of undue flexibility with the truth. Even the country’s Supreme Court was embroiled as three environmental groups sought to force the Israeli side of the deal, state-owned energy company Europe-Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC), to lift the secrecy on its terms.
The various quarters of opposition resisted the oil-transfer agreement on diverse grounds — environmental risks, the potential drain on tourism, the lack of transparency, its likely negligible economic utility for Israel and the company’s own environmental record, which is tarred. But there was one thing which all asserted in choral indignation. Increased oil-tanker traffic at the port of Eilat, in southern Israel, threatened the northern Red Sea coral reefs, which, recent studies revealed, possess an uncanny ability to tolerate heat. Israel’s environmental protection minister, too, vowed that “the coral reef in Eilat, the northernmost reef and the most resilient in the world,” will not be exposed to “any added risk” on her watch.
Fine was the lead investigator in most of these studies. He is 53, a professor at the department of ecology, evolution and behavior at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research faculty at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science (IUI) in Eilat.
The Israeli public’s broad embrace of the discoveries gratified the Eilat-based scientist. Fine was quick to note, though, that Israelis in surprising numbers want to protect the corals because here was “a rare opportunity for good news” and hope from Israel and the region.
Fine and his colleagues discovered that coral reefs in the northern Red Sea could withstand heat hikes to levels unheard of elsewhere.
Over the past four decades, marine scientists reported that a rise in seawater temperature by 0.5 to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the summertime highs drove most coral reefs to “bleaching.” This occurs when environmental stressors, including heat and pollution, disrupt the symbiosis between the coral and the microscopic plants it hosts. Not getting the nutrients it expects, the coral ejects the algae, and its vivid colors subsequently dissipate. Though reversible, bleaching is often the beginning of irrevocable coral decay.
Fine’s initial puzzle was why bleaching seemed to happen everywhere, even in the southern and middle sections of the Red Sea, but not in the Gulf of Aqaba to the north (known in Israel as the Gulf of Eilat). That the northern Red Sea section, which is colder, was warming at a faster pace than the others only added to the coral-resilience puzzle.
In experiments Fine and his colleagues subjected five coral species from the Eilat region to rising temperature to determine their bleaching threshold. The results were mind-blowing. At the going bleaching threshold — heat increases between 0.5 and 1.5 degrees — the corals did not break a sweat. They held their own, and their vibrant colors, amid heating of up to 7 degrees above the region’s highest summer temperatures.
“We were thinking, this is nonsense — they’re supposed to be dead,” an astonished researcher, Anders Meibom, who collaborates with Fine, told The Guardian. Meibom is a marine scientist with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
And even when the corals were surrounded by bleaching conditions — that is, with warming of 7 degrees above the summer maximum — Fine and his colleagues reported in a 2013 paper that the loss in algae density was under 50%. In one coral species the loss barely exceeded 10%.
Fine and his colleagues’ theory for the origins of these “super-corals,” as some news outlets called them, unfolds in geologic time. The Red Sea is connected to the open water of the Indian Ocean via the shallow, narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait. During the last ice age, about 30,000 years ago, seawater levels plummeted to about 395 feet below current levels. The Red Sea turned into a stale, hyper-salty pool, closed off by the bottleneck of the strait. Most of its organisms perished, including corals.
As seawater climbed to about 65 feet below current levels, nearly 8,000 years ago, the Red Sea was resuscitated. Fine contends that coral larvae could only have originated in the Gulf of Aden on the other end of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. The larvae had to journey through the very warm waters of the strait. Only the hardy ones could reach sexual maturity and reproduce. The survivors would then continue their migration northward, in a steppingstone manner, over thousands of years.
That is, natural selection occurred. Corals with the genetic makeup to endure the hot water of the strait (above 32 degrees) could equally cope with the cooler waters of the northern Red Sea, where the average summer high is 26 degrees. The authors estimate that if the current trends in incremental annual warming continue, the northern Red Sea corals will evade bleaching and retain their visual splendor until 2100 at least.
This is excellent news on several counts. Coral reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on earth, furnishing sustenance to some 25% of all marine species. Since the 1990s, coral bleaching has become a prevalent phenomenon — from Kerala to California has no coral reefs. It is a global lament for marine systems under unyielding warming. As of mid-March 2022, yet another massive bleaching event is underway at the Great Barrier Reef in northeast Australia, the world’s largest coral reef system.
There is no mincing of words in the sixth edition of the “Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2020,” which is not recommended for bedtime reading: “The greatest threat to date is warming waters brought about by human activities. Over the last decade, bleaching events have increased in frequency and intensity,” making coral recovery harder and their death likelier.
When corals die, the consequences don’t stop at seashores. The livelihoods of hundreds of millions around the world depend on fishing and tourism supported by healthy corals. All of those are increasingly vulnerable.
Fine proposes that the northern Red Sea be considered a refuge for coral reefs. Over the past two decades, scientists have been seeking to identify and study climate change “refugia.” These are environments that allow species to endure under conditions of a changing climate, which is key to protect biodiversity. So far, the damage from climate change is outpacing the discovery and utilization of refugia. And to the extent there is progress, it is not steady. For instance, what qualifies as a refuge, and whether refugia are the most efficacious way to combat climate change, are not entirely settled matters in the research community.
“Fine was the pioneer in realizing that the corals in the Gulf of Aqaba are unique in their capability to withstand stress from rising water temperature, caused by global warming,” Meibom told me by email. “This discovery has handed humanity a fantastic chance and hope to preserve at least one major and highly biodiverse reef ecosystem beyond this century for future generations to benefit from.”
For a change, what the region’s past bequeathed it has been a seed of hope. And it’s only fitting that the vehicle for hope is the Gulf of Aqaba, the eastern ear of the leporine Red Sea, where Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel meet.
“The situation is grim everywhere,” Fine told me. When hopeful knowledge like his discovery comes to light, he added, it carries tremendous responsibility: “The resilience of the northern Red Sea corals is a huge gift and opportunity. Are we going to protect it for all the people of the Red Sea in the present and the future, or squander it like the Australians did?”
Fine, who is a dual Israeli-Australian citizen, acknowledges that global climate change factors have contributed to the woes of the Great Barrier Reef. But that does not absolve Australians of responsibility. “Look at how the Australian economy continues to rely on coal, and for that matter the U.S. economy too,” he said, “and all of us suffer the consequences.”
“New coal mines are being developed as we speak,” Fine added.
In fact, Eilat itself, where Fine has lived since 2006, offers a cautionary tale of degradation and fragile recovery. Throughout the 1970s, major spills from oil tankers at the port of Eilat occurred at a ruinous clip, two to three times per month. Those and unprecedented low-tide episodes early in the decade inflicted marked damage on Eilat’s corals. Recovery started in the 1980s. The 1979 revolution in Iran and the ensuing severing of relations with Israel reduced oil tanker traffic in Eilat to a trickle. It was also during the 1980s and 1990s that pollution regulations were tightened and fines on rogue shipping companies stiffened.
What followed was a remarkable coral revival, a “rare exception” to the global trend of coral deterioration, Yossi Loya, a Tel Aviv University marine scientist (and a former mentor of Fine) told the Associated Press. Tourism boomed. Eilatis were elated again. Corals are “the diamonds in [Eilat’s] crown, and therefore it’s very important to protect them,” Loya said.
Then came peace.
It is true that money cannot solve all your problems, but the Trump administration thought money could at least solve the Middle East’s. Exhibit A: It hinged its “deal of the century,” the U.S. government’s plan to forge peace in the holy land, on the Palestinians receiving billions of dollars in investments for the West Bank and Gaza if they dropped longstanding territorial claims. Echoing Trump’s affinity for superlatives, Haaretz columnist David Rosenberg described the plan, in 2019, as “the biggest bribe in history.” The Palestinians rejected it.
Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords track gained momentum. Days before Israel and the UAE were to sign their peace pact in mid-September 2020, Bahrain announced it would join. As relations between Israel and more of its neighbors — but not the Palestinians — officially thawed under the U.S.-brokered agreement, the Trump administration, true to form, marked the diplomatic advance with a business deal. Persian Gulf oil would return to Eilat, this time from the UAE, not Iran.
The UAE party to the oil-transfer agreement was Med-Red Land Bridge (or MRL), a consortium of Emirati, Israeli and international investors. EAPC represented the Israeli side. Abu Dhabi hosted the festive signing of the memorandum of understanding, which took place a month after the first installation of the Abraham Accords. Among those celebrating were then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, UAE Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid Al Tayer and oil executives from the UAE and Israel.
The new partnership would revive and modernize an underused two-way passage for oil between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, bypassing the Suez Canal. Oil from tankers would be unloaded at the Eilat terminal, transferred by EAPC’s pipeline across Israel to the port of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean, and from there, by ship again, to customers in Asia and Europe.
In a press release, EAPC’s CEO Itzik Levy heralded the agreement as a “historic milestone which will strengthen the Israeli economy, ensure energy security for the countries in the region, and propel EAPC and the Israeli economy forward.” Revenue from the joint venture was projected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars over several years.
The first of my interviews with Fine took place Oct. 20, 2020, the day the oil-transfer deal was announced (three days later, Sudan joined the Abraham Accords, followed by Morocco in December). Details about the deal were sparse, but the marine scientist’s alarm was palpable. “This has nothing to do with peace,” Fine said. “I am as in favor of peace as it gets, but this is a war declaration on the Red Sea.” More peace in the region should come with “peace for the Red Sea,” he added.
Indeed, the deal’s details remain murky; its terms are still largely a secret. Energy, finance and environment ministers in the Israeli cabinet at the time were not consulted. They learned of the agreement from the morning newspapers.
The public outcry over the partnership was swift and vociferous, often visceral. And EAPC’s executives were uncharacteristically conciliatory. But each attempt they made to allay concerns over increased oil tanker traffic in Eilat only made the critics more cantankerous. By the time a tanker from the UAE concluded its maiden journey at the Eilat terminal in April 2021, the land-bridge affair had burst into a full-blown political controversy.
The environmental protection minister at the time, Gila Gamliel, publicly opposed the oil-transfer deal. Exasperated at the former prime minister’s lack of concern, she resorted to unconventional channels of influence. Gamliel, who like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is from the right-wing Likud Party, wrote several times to Israel’s National Security Council, demanding the scrapping of the oil deal for its likely environmental hazards, and because higher oil tanker traffic and increased storage facilities made Eilat a target of attacks.
The last of those letters was Gamliel’s final hurrah in office. She sent it days before the Knesset was to vote on and approve a new coalition government, in June 2021. The prime minister’s office responded to the letter harshly. A statement read: “As early as last March, the National Security Council sent Gamliel a letter in which she was informed that the NSC does not deal with this matter. This publication, as well as the additional letter on the same topic, are puzzling.” (By law, the National Security Council is not an independent government agency. It assists the office of the prime minister and its head reports directly to the premier.)
The next environment minister, Tamar Zandberg, from the left-wing Meretz Party, disavowed niceties altogether in her effort to undo the oil deal. In a Knesset hearing last November, Zandberg declared that her ministry “will not allow” damage to Eilat’s prized marine life: “We will protect the coral reef in Eilat, the northernmost reef and the most resilient in the world, [from] any added risk,” she said.
Among the hearing’s participants were EAPC’s chief executive and its chair, a Tel Aviv University scientist, Eilat’s mayor, representatives from the finance and energy ministries and Knesset members. One by one, the bureaucrats questioned EAPCs claims about the deal’s benefits. The energy ministry representative noted that “it’s true that Eilat is important for the continuity of operations of the fuel economy, but this agreement is not necessary for Israel’s energy security.” The finance ministry accountant called, implicitly, for doing away with EAPC’s special status. “We in the Ministry of Finance are in favor of having all the government companies meet all the conditions [placed on firms by government agencies],” he said.
At one point, the environment minister (as well as another Meretz member) charged the EAPC executives with obscuring the truth. Zandberg said, “The deal you signed doesn’t have one barrel for the Israeli economy.” In response, Levy simply replied, “That’s not true.”
The exchanges ranged farther beyond the agreement’s economic yields. Yorai Lahav Hertzanu, a member of the liberal, center-left Yesh Atid Party and the acting chair of the committee who convened the hearing, reflected aloud on how the deal could tar the country’s global image. “In an era of global warming, in which we must fight with full force against the climate crisis,” Hertzanu said, “an agreement on transporting fuels makes Israel part of the problem and not part of the solution.”
Eilat’s mayor, Eli Lankri, expressed a similar sentiment: “Many years ago, the situation was different. Today the world is in a different place. We are advancing towards making Eilat a green city,” he said. “Today it’s clear that the residents of Eilat and Ashkelon cannot be endangered anymore.”
Scores of citizens staged weekly protests throughout Israel. “Green organizations unfurled banners on highway bridges and at intersections throughout the country over the weekend to protest the EAPC deal,” The Times of Israel reported. One banner read: “We are protectors, not protesters.” Schmuel Taggar, a community leader who led Eilat’s tourism department for years, put it plainly. Tourists come to Eilat “to see the corals and nature — they won’t come to see oil tankers,” he told Mongabay, a U.S.-based nonprofit science news website.
EAPC was conciliatory but not cowed. On the deal’s secrecy, the firm’s executives asserted at the Knesset hearing that they disclosed as much to other government agencies as required by law, but not more. “In no deal made by the EAPC with foreign companies,” the firm’s chairperson Erez Halfon said, “does the agreement itself come before the government ministries.
“It is approved by the company’s board of directors. A commercial agreement doesn’t have to reach the government ministries,” he added.
Some details that were made public include EAPC’s plans to deliver from 50 to 70 oil tankers annually to the Eilat terminal, or about 14 million tons of crude oil. The contract would run for a decade and would be renewable. The Environment Ministry insisted on a maximum of six tankers and rejected environmental risk assessments provided by EAPC as “not worth the paper they’re printed on.” The firm accused the Environment Ministry of stalling. It then leapt further and filed a complaint to the country’s attorney general charging Zandberg with abusing her ministerial authority.
EAPC did not tire of reminding its detractors that the nearby port of Aqaba in Jordan, with its older terminals, handily processed 220 tankers annually.
To the detractors, a significant part of what was wrong about the deal was EAPC itself. Until last February, the company held the record for causing the worst environmental disaster in Israel’s history. In December 2014, an EAPC pipeline ruptured, leaking about 5 million liters of oil into the Evrona nature reserve in southern Israel. (State prosecutors announced last October that five executives would face trial over the incident.)
Then there is the special status of EAPC, which the Financial Times dubbed “the most secretive company in Israel.” Stealth is in the company’s genes. Founded in 1968, EAPC, which at the time stood for Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company, was an Israeli Iranian joint venture created to bring Iranian oil from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. And so it did, until the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the cessation of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The two former partners are still locked in arbitration over the value of Iran’s stake in the company. In 2017 a Knesset committee renewed the company’s privilege to operate secretly. Review by the military censor remains a requirement before the publication of news about the company in Israel.
Israeli environmental groups were furious that EAPC unnecessarily extended its secrecy privileges to the land-bridge agreement. Everyone outside EAPC (and the former prime minister’s inner circle) was kept in the dark — cabinet ministers, bureaucrats, the public. In May 2021, three of those groups took the matter to Israel’s Supreme Court, requesting that the deal be canceled on grounds of EAPC’s less-than-stellar environmental record and because it did not follow proper procedures in obtaining approvals from other government agencies.
EAPC “operates as if it is a completely private corporation, but it isn’t,” Asaf Ben Levy, a lawyer for one of the three environmental groups who was among those presenting the case to the Supreme Court, told the Jewish News Syndicate. “It is, or it should be by the law, regulated by the government. … It isn’t like any other company, and it’s not doing business like other companies do.”
The rebellion against EAPC from bureaucrats and politicians appears to be an attempt to reassert control over an overweening state body. The broader backlash from the public — 26 environmental groups, the mayors of Eilat and Ashkelon, scores of local residents, dozens of journalists and academics — was an attempt by society to muscle in and have a say in what the Abraham Accords mean and how they are to be implemented.
Peace should not require justification, but in the Middle East it must. Even when peace halts bloodshed and hostilities — a perfectly good outcome — in this region it must still furnish a story, a larger analogy, to make peace’s necessary compromises more palatable to long-wary publics. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt spoke to his struggling people of untold billions of economic “peace dividend,” which among other things meant sustained financial assistance from the U.S. government. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the peace agreement with King Hussein of Jordan in 1994, accentuated the end to the country’s isolation and touted the diplomatic “fruits of peace,” the dramatic increase in the number of countries that recognized Israel and welcomed it into international organizations.
So far the salient story of the Abraham Accords is one of venture capital. The “startup nation” meets the Persian Gulf riches looking to invest and try to create an Israeli Uber or SpaceX. Abu Dhabi’s petrodollar abundance rendezvouses with Tel Aviv’s teeming yet hungry hi-tech scene. Synergy talk abounds.
The venture capital analogy is not stated explicitly, but the clues are obvious.
In March 2021, Israel, having endured three indeterminate (and rancorous) legislative elections in two years, was steeling itself for a fourth. Less than two weeks before the poll, Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with UAE crown prince and de facto ruler Mohamed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. Disagreements with Jordan over Netanyahu’s travel through its airspace ended in the trip’s cancellation. The apparent purpose of the visit was subsequently accomplished over the phone.
“Following a constructive phone call” from Netanyahu to bin Zayed, reported WAM, the UAE official news service, the Gulf state “has announced the establishment of a $10 billion fund aimed at strategic sectors in Israel.” The designated sectors were energy, manufacturing, water, space, health care and agri-tech. The fund would “unlock investments and partnership opportunities to drive socio-economic progress” in the two countries.
At other times, displays of the venture capital ethos were subtler. SpaceIL, an Israeli technology nonprofit organization that wants to send a spacecraft to the moon, announced in late 2020 that it was soon to start developing the second iteration of the device, Beresheet 2. The first Beresheet (Hebrew for “Genesis”) launched successfully in 2019 but crashed during landing. SpaceIL was seeking financial backers to cover the spacecraft’s development bill, estimated at around $100 million. Then an unidentified source chipped in with $70 million.
The secret admirer was likely the UAE. According to reporting by Middle East news site Al Monitor, in July 2021, the Israel Space Agency hinted at the identities of the donors in a press release: “Right now, there are talks with sources of funding in different countries, including one very important country, which committed itself to giving tens of millions of dollars to the project.” It added that “in conversations with the United Arab Emirates, the subject has been raised several times.” Three months later the UAE space agency and SpaceIL announced that Beresheet 2 will be launched jointly, in 2024. The UAE Space Agency, whose chairperson signed the agreement with SpaceIL, did not respond to an email request for comment.
All of this cooperation is laudable, but it is not what Fine had in mind that euphoric day in August 2020 when friends and colleagues were asking whether his suitcase was in sight.
Fine’s ideas about peace in the region center on the Red Sea. This much isn’t surprising. But he is no puritanical conservationist. “I truly believe the Red Sea is a great economic asset,” he said. The marine scientist is not opposed to building new cities — like Saudi Arabia’s Neom, near the waterway — that benefit from the Red Sea bounty for tourism, water desalination and beyond. Though he is “really concerned,” he thinks that the futuristic city being built on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Aqaba “can be done in a sustainable way.”
Fine’s perspective for sustained peace in the region is one of a pragmatic conservationist. His logic is straightforward. The Red Sea is of substantial and growing significance — geopolitical, economic and scientific. If the countries of the region, and not just the eight countries with Red Sea coastlines, learn and cooperate to protect this “amazing resource for all the people of the Red Sea and beyond,” peace will be more likely and, once formalized, more resilient. On the other hand, if the Red Sea is not understood as a common resource, or if cooperation fails, temptations for opportunistic, short-sighted exploitation of the sea would predominate.
“Once one country takes more than others from the common resource,” Fine said, “disputes around the Red Sea will happen,” and peace would break down.
Science plays a crucial role in this blueprint for peace. The Red Sea is a narrow waterway surrounded by vast land on both sides; “there is no other way than science-based environmental policy” to utilize and protect its resources, Fine told me. Researchers from around the region should be able to work unhindered wherever the science needs to be done, shielded from politics to the extent possible. As things stand, this is onerous but not impossible. Fine struggled with doing experiments in other sections of the Red Sea, near Yemen or Sudan, for instance. Without research “along the entire gradient, the 2,000 kilometers [1,240 miles]” of coastlines on both sides of the Red Sea, Fine believes, “our understanding of the genetic basis for the resilience of our corals in the north and Gulf of Aqaba” is incomplete. “For me this is critical. But so far I have not been unable to do it, as an Israeli.”
To bypass “political sensitivities,” Fine resorted to international intermediaries. In 2019 he helped found the Transnational Red Sea Center (TRSC). The center is an independent, nonprofit organization hosted at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL) and largely funded by the Swiss government. It serves as a neutral umbrella to allow marine researchers from around the Red Sea to move and work more freely to “save the last coral refuge on earth,” according to the center’s website.
In Fine’s vision for peace, outside intermediaries would be unnecessary: “It will be wonderful if we can do this on our own as the people of the Red Sea, with no third party.”
Bypassing political sensitivities also happened through entities in the region with a strong international character, such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. The fact that most of its faculty are from abroad makes collaboration easier. But although “KAUST has contributed amazing science to the region,” Fine said, he prefers to “work with researchers from among the indigenous people of the Red Sea; because for these it’s not just about research and citations, it’s about protecting a common resource for our children and grandchildren.” (One of the first studies to corroborate the findings about the thermal resilience of the northern Red Sea corals has an Egyptian marine scientist, Eslam Osman, as its lead investigator.)
Another step on the road of science-based policy for the Red Sea is to embrace the emerging practices of “open science.” On this, Fine is not wasting any time; he is putting his data where his mouth is — his tools too. He makes the Red Sea Simulator (RSS), which he helped develop at the IUI, available to all researchers in the region and beyond. The RSS helps researchers assess and predict how coral reefs react to various climate change conditions.
“I’m constantly telling my colleagues to use the simulator,” Fine said. “If you can’t come to Eilat because of COVID or other reasons, no problem. The simulator can be operated fully via the web, all its data is in the cloud.”
Open science will remain aspirational as long as the region’s governments view transborder exchanges among scientists with wariness. “If the mukhabarat [security apparatuses] are part of the research, it’s always tricky,” Fine said. His Jordanian colleagues are within sight, just 4 miles away from his office. But to conduct experiments in Eilat, they must cross the Israeli border, which is rarely a relaxed experience, and Fine must go pick them up. “It’s always annoying that they even get questioned,” he said. “What would the border guard know about coral physiology?”
More scientific knowledge about the Red Sea will lead to a better and broader understanding of the sea as a lifeline that can support countless generations of people. That is, knowledge will create a larger and larger constituency for the Red Sea.
A cross-border Red Sea constituency will push local politicians to adopt prudent policies to utilize and preserve the sea’s riches. The alternative is a “race to the bottom,” in which each country is grabbing what it can before its neighbor does, Fine said. “Before long, you have a textbook case of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ which is never good for keeping the peace,” he added.
The executives of EAPC appeared to embrace this very logic when they cited the volume of oil tanker traffic in the nearby port of Aqaba in Jordan as justification for increasing the number of tankers Eilat receives. They implied that removing the risk from the deal with the UAE would not banish all danger to the northern Red Sea corals because Jordan was possibly playing by different rules. (EAPC did not respond to email messages requesting comment for this article.)
Indeed, danger still lurks for the northern Red Sea corals. “We don’t know if another oil-transfer deal is around the corner,” Fine told me in late March. “I just don’t trust those [EAPC] guys.”
As for the land-bridge agreement, its fate seems sealed, for now. In response to the petition filed by the environmental groups in May 2021, the Supreme Court requested briefs from EAPC and the government stating their positions. Two months later, the company provided risk assessments (which the environment ministry categorically dismissed) assuring that environmental danger from the deal was “negligible.” The government, under new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, said it would conduct a thorough review.
Then in a Supreme Court hearing last December, the government said that while it couldn’t intervene in EAPC’s business decisions, it affirmed the regulatory power of the environment ministry over the state-run company. It specifically noted that the environment ministry was within its prerogatives to impose a policy of “zero added risk” to Eilat. Happy with the outcome, the petitioners withdrew their filing to the court.
The environmental protection minister hailed it as a victory. “Despite all pressures and objections,” Zandberg said in a statement after the court hearing, “we have led to an environmental achievement.” She stressed again what she believed was at stake: “Coral reefs are dying out all over the world as a result of the climate crisis and other phenomena, and the reef in the Red Sea plays an important role in maintaining the health of the natural marine system.” Then, lest there should be doubt, Zandberg asserted in late December that the ministry’s official zero-added-risk policy meant that the land-bridge deal “cannot be realized.”
The minister also signaled to the state-owned company that further fights were probably in the offing. “Despite what the EAPC may have thought,” Zandberg said, “it will not be able to place facts on the ground. The state is not a rubber stamp; the State of Israel and the Gulf of Eilat won’t be used as a bridge for polluting oil in an era of climate crisis.” (The Environmental Protection Ministry declined to comment for this article.)
Where was the UAE government through all of this? Israeli Channel 13 reported in July that the country’s leadership was “seriously concerned” about the fate of the land-bridge agreement. But the controversy so soured public opinion in Israel that the UAE government determined that distancing itself from the agreement was more advantageous. Last October, an official at the UAE embassy in Tel Aviv, who refused to be identified, told The Times of Israel that “we have clarified to the Israeli government that this is not a government project,” but “rather a private commercial deal.” That contradicted statements by EAPC officials, who routinely maintained that imperiling the deal put at risk the fledgling relations with the UAE. (Requests for comment from the UAE ministries of climate change and environment, energy and foreign affairs were declined or went unanswered.)
Now that the drama appears to be in the rearview mirror, I asked Fine what he thought the core conflict was about. “I think it was about the EAPC trying to harness the peace accords to very narrow interests, and people rejected that,” he said. “A few people were going to make a lot of money, putting at risk the lives and livelihoods of millions. This is no joke. It’s a huge injustice.”
People were “rightly angry” about the deal because, among other things, the resilience of the northern coral reefs was this “rare opportunity for good news” from Israel and the region, and it was suddenly threatened, Fine said.
But isn’t he concerned that halting the deal would send the wrong signal about Israel’s openness for peace and for regional business cooperation? “Actually it’s the right signal,” he said. “We don’t want to be anyone’s bridge for fossil fuel; we absolutely don’t want to be part of the polluting economy.”
Besides, Fine said, a boyish grin again animating the Zoom screen, “peace too must learn to take heat and survive.”