Peace through a basin-wide Jordan River power and water agreement

By Peter Sly

In 1917, just before capturing Palestine, the British endorsed “… the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine… “Although 90 percent of Palestine’s population was Christian and Muslim, the British had no intention of consulting them. Worse, over the next 30 years the British failed to consistently control both Jewish and non-Jewish violent non-state actors. 

For more than 100 years dueling victimhood narratives blossomed in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Those communities suffered cycles of horrible violence, some of which reached the U.S. and other countries. After neglecting the unfolding Holocaust in Eastern Europe and Germany, the British mandate ended after World War II.

Israel’s 1948 Proclamation of Independence included human rights goals. Since the 1979 Camp David Accords, the U.S. has become an essential player, deploying funding and its military, political and diplomatic prowess to try to address the twin goals of “establishment in Palestine of a nation home for the Jewish people [while avoiding] prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish Communities in Palestine.” The last two decades have lacked notable success. 

Since 2000, Israel’s government has been captured by a different Zionist vision that asserts hegemony over land that is sacred to all three Abrahamic religions. Meanwhile the failures and corruption in Palestinian governance have empowered Hamas and similar groups.  

Israel’s security systems dominate the Middle East. Its arsenal includes state-of-the-art nuclear, drone, missile, submarine, cyber and intelligence defense systems, many of which have been funded by the U.S. or developed with vigorous and behind-the-scenes U.S. cooperation. At the same time, the U.S. has kept a low profile in funding Palestinian police, infrastructure and social service. 

This year holds moment of opportunity. It arises not only from the conflagration in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank but because 2021 is also a year of political transition for all four essential governments — Israel, Jordan, Palestine and the United States. All of these four governments are essential participants a more longstanding regional peace. 

The Jordan River Basin is one area of opportunity for peace. The watershed is shared by Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Extensive water infrastructure now diverts flows from Jordan Valley communities and the Dead Sea, creating thirst and drought in Jordan and Palestine. 

A transboundary NGO, Ecopeace, has proposed a power and water Jordan River Basin agreement. It would add expansions to Israel’s water infrastructure including its state-of-the-art desalination technology as well as large solar farms in the Jordanian desert. Benefits would come to all peoples of the Jordan River Basin as well as provide a template for climate change adaptation. 

River restoration from Galilee to the Dead Sea provides an obvious model for climate adaptation in one of the globe’s thirstiest regions. The hardware and resource exchange agreements are the easy part. The hard part will be a treaty in which each government must relinquish some sovereignty to a water-and-power-and-environment management authority. Some templates for post-conflict intergovernmental agreements include the iron and coal agreements between Germany and France, and the 1960 Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan. 

Our president is being challenged to do this. Maine’s citizens should also challenge our congressional public servants. Sens. Collins and King sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee and Rep. Golden sits on the House Armed Services Committee. The security risk to state-of-the-art infrastructure must be considered. Both committees are task with minimizing these risks. Maine’s public servants in Congress can help move it along. 

What can individuals do? Learn more about these issues. Travel to Palestine, Jordan and Israel is soon as it is safe. Contact your legislators. Finally, recognize that this conflict has long had domestic effects in the US that we ignore at our peril. 

Brooklin attorney Peter Sly has been an occasional “water tourist.” During a 2015 trip, he compiled a blog about transboundary water agreements as a “baby step” toward peace in the West Bank (

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