Wed, Feb 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

To make peace in the Middle East, focus first on water

Israeli and Palestinian politicians should put aside their disagreements over borders and refugees and work to build a water-sharing mechanism to avoid further destabilizing the region

By Gidon Bromberg, Nada Majdalani and Munqeth Mehyar  /  Reuters

Illustration: Mountain people

For the past 20 years, Israelis and Palestinians alike have approached peace negotiations with the flawed assumption that to reach an agreement, all core issues must be solved simultaneously. As the conflict continues to claim victims on both sides, it is important to point out that when US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, was looking for an early success in the new administration’s peace efforts, he found it — in water.

For Palestinian communities that suffer water shortages and require Israeli approval to increase pumping of shared natural water resources, an agreement to increase water sales from Israel to the Palestinian Authority by 50 percent annually will dramatically improve lives and livelihoods without creating water shortages on the Israeli side.

This work to mediate peace through Israeli-Palestinian water sharing should be commended and continued. To ensure that the US does not undercut its own efforts, the Trump administration must re-evaluate some of its Middle East policies from a water security perspective.

For example, the draft Taylor Force Act, which prohibits US aid to the West Bank and Gaza, does not exempt water programs.

How might cuts to UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) funding affect a water crisis in Gaza that is already severe? Any further reduction in Palestinian access to water could destabilize the region.

The US clearly recognizes the importance of international water security, having recently released its Global Water Strategy, which coordinates the work of 16 US government agencies and private partners.

The Israeli government recognizes water as a security issue as well, and that is a potential game-changer in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For the Palestinian government, the priority is to increase water provision to meet basic needs, supporting economic growth as well as its aspirations for a state with the right to access and develop its own resources.

Israel is proud of its leading role in advancing technologies that can economically produce large quantities of drinking water from the salty Mediterranean Sea. Seventy percent of Israel’s drinking water is produced through desalinization and 85 percent of its wastewater is treated and reused to meet agricultural needs. Once-arid Israel no longer need suffer water shortages.

A logical next step, beyond water sales, would be to negotiate a fair allocation of the natural water resources that Israelis and Palestinians share, thus solving one of the core issues plaguing the peace process.

However, both sides have shortsightedly refused to negotiate over natural water reallocation, wanting any water deal to remain part of a negotiation on other final-status issues, like borders and refugees.

Israeli politicians insist that a better water deal for the Palestinians must be matched by Palestinian compromises on refugees.

Palestinian politicians argue that a fair water agreement would make the Israeli side look good, and say that they cannot afford to allow the need for a water deal to relieve pressure to resolve other issues.

Both sides contend that, without also agreeing on borders and settlements, they will not know which natural water resources belong to whom.

These arguments ring hollow and, for both sides, the costs of continuing to hold water hostage are simply too high. Water, like money, is fungible.

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