Palestine and Israel: a water side step?

By Peter Sly

On July 13, there was potentially positive step toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The United States hosted a press conference that included support by the head of the Palestinian Water Authority for a desalination pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

This regional project will mostly benefit Jordan and southern Israel; but in exchange for Palestinian support, Israel committed to a significant increase in water deliveries to Gaza and the southern West Bank. The discussion of such an agreement suggests that — at least on regional water issues — Palestine and Israel are moving from a negotiation posture of “nothing is resolved until everything is resolved.” A question will be whether such a small side step on a water issue can be sold to the public in Palestine, Israel, the Palestinian and Jewish Diasporas and the Arab “street.”

Since Oslo, all parties (Palestine, Israel, the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States) have focused on four big issues: borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. Water is referred to as difficult issue No. 4.5. The posture of the Israelis and especially the Palestinians has been to require linkage of all of these subjects into a comprehensive two-state agreement. Some far-reaching proposals were discussed in detail at the end of the Clinton and Bush II administrations. But those proposals were tentative and a plan to seek support for them was never sought from the public in Palestine, Israel, the Arab world or the United States. During Obama’s tenure, the combination of the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda, the emergence of ISIS and the accelerating Israeli settler movement made progress difficult.

Recently there have been suggestions about restarting peace negotiations by de-linking major issues. One was to separate two big “sovereign” issues that government treaties often address (borders, security) from the more intractable existential ones (Jerusalem, refugees). Another has been a transboundary agreement on economic issues that could be addressed with money — or water. Because Israel has dedicated money and technology for desalination, recycling and irrigation technology, it now controls excess water supply. Combined with its extensive plumbing network, Israel could address some wicked water problems on its periphery.

The July 13 statements augur at least a side step. Urban Palestine would get access to some additional water for its existing distribution pipelines. Israel would get support for the pipeline project, which mainly benefits Palestine’s ally, Jordan, with which Israel has a 1994 treaty. In the West Bank, the Palestinians could buy about 20 percent more water at the approximate desalination cost. Some additional water could be delivered through Israel’s extensive plumbing system to the southern West Bank in the area around the tense city of Hebron. The tougher water issues are in the Palestinian villages and in the Jordan Valley. With its excess supply from desalination, recycling and irrigation tech improvements, Israel could also use water exchanges through its existing plumbing to reduce pumping from aquifers that supply most water outside Palestinian cities. As of Aug. 4, important details of this agreement have not been released. If and when details emerge, funding from the U.S. and European Union will be needed to support Palestinian costs and infrastructure in Jordan.

As in all water matters, long-term management and control of the spigots will be troublesome. Water can be a tool for peace if reasonably shared within a watershed and associated “plumbing.” It can also be a tool for hegemony, occupation and even war. The devils are in the detail of administering a water agreement that is simultaneously (1) clear; but also (2) flexible enough to adapt to changing hydrology, technology, economics and politics. Accounting for water deliveries and modeling for groundwater aquifers are needed continuously and often contentious. How can complex water institutions work between “asymmetric sovereigns,” where one party controls the water supply through technology, capital and raw power while the other party has ancient cultural ties to the land? (There are similar institutional challenges in water agreements involving Indian tribes in the western United States.)

As he took office, Trump put put everyone on banana peels, both Israeli and Palestinian. Given 50 years of incomplete discussions and skirmishes, this negotiating tactic could be helpful at least initially. But in the long run, we cannot stand aside and “let them work it out” because the United States presence is so massive, involving direct and indirect subsidies of security, infrastructure and regional stability not only in Israel and Palestine, but throughout the Middle East. It is significant that bipartisan State Department alumni and a leading transboundary environmental group endorsed the July 13 statements.

All three Abrahamic religions have strong roots in the West Bank. It is a tinderbox that could spark a war more devastating than any since World War II. We need to pay attention.

Brooklin natural resources attorney Peter Sly has four decades of experience with complex water supply agreements in the arid western United States. His blog is WATER PATHWAYS: Exploring Palestinian-Israeli Water Issues on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

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