Water sinks below political positions

Israel has the upper hand over the scare resource, but Palestinian insistence on making water rights paramount may not be the best policy.

Palestinians in the West Bank are sometimes forced to buy water from Jewish settlers.
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Does the demand by Palestinians for their water rights in the West Bank hinder practical steps that can be taken to meet their water needs and protect the aquifers that both the Palestinians and Israel share? Is it not counter-productive - even self-destructive - to forsake short-term co-operation, given the endemic over-drilling and creeping contamination of the underground reservoirs? Are Palestinian officials, in short, engaging in water follies?

Israel certainly thinks so. Its scientists and water experts, who meet regularly with their counterparts from across the Middle East, including Iran, point to Israel's pace-setting advances in water technology and management. They say this knowledge can be shared more extensively when collaboration replaces confrontation. This know-how is indeed impressive. Israel leads the world in the recycling of wastewater. Some 70 per cent of the water currently consumed by Israel's shrinking agriculture sector is recycled sewage; in five years, nearly all of it will be.

The Israeli company that pioneered modern drip irrigation, Netafim, is a US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) a year hi-tech giant with 2,600 employees in 110 countries. In the southern Negev desert, man-made ponds grow fish with 40-degree water drawn from deep beneath the desert. After it is cycled through the fish ponds, it is funneled to fields of olive trees and grape vines. The most mouth-watering carrot that Israel dangles in front of pining Palestinian eyes is, of course, desalination and the unlimited source of water that is within sight even of some Palestinian towns in the West Bank: the Mediterranean.

As prime minister, Ariel Sharon, with the support of some US aid officials, approved a proposal for a desalination plant to pipe water solely to West Bank Palestinians. The plant would have been built near the coastal town of Qesariya and enjoyed the sovereign diplomatic status of an embassy in a foreign capital. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current premier, brandished the carrot again in June when he urged Arab states together with Israel and the Palestinians to promote "economic peace". He specifically mentioned the construction of desalination plants as one joint project to "overcome the disadvantages of our region".

Despite the apparent advantages of co-operation, Palestinians have learned through hard experience that anything short of establishing and delineating rights - whether it is to land or water - is doomed to result in half-way measures that invite Israeli complacency, stalling and double-dealing, and encourage dependency. They cite the chastening lessons of the 1995 Oslo II Accords, when Yasser Arafat, eager for an agreement with Israel that would put in place the building blocks of a rudimentary Palestinian state, sent Nabil Sharif, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's ambassador to Colombia, to water talks with the Israelis.

The problem was that Mr Sharif knew next to nothing about water or the West Bank, according to Palestinian officials familiar with the negotiations. He brushed aside the work of Palestinian water experts and, doing Arafat's bidding, agreed to a draft deal proposed by Israel. The arrangement, which Israel has shown no inclination to revise until an overall peace agreement is reached, allows Israel to draw 483 million cubic metres of water a year from shared Israeli-Palestinian reservoirs, while the Palestinians are permitted to draw 118 million cubic metres annually.

Mere mention of the deal causes even the most pacific West Banker to demand that the hands of any Palestinian associated with it be broken. The reason? Its results slice to the very core of the resentment Palestinians feel over their dependence on Israeli largesse. One outcome, for instance, has been the demeaning spectacle of West Bank Palestinians buying water from Jewish settlers that was provided to them by the Israeli water company, which has drawn it from West Bank aquifers.

Another notable consequence is the unseemly sight of Israel claiming virtue for supplying water to Gaza from its desalination plant in Ashkelon, even as its military forces this year laid waste to large swaths of the coastal enclave. Against this backdrop, Palestinians say nothing short of establishing their rights to the water underneath their feet will suffice. Any criticism of their supposed excessive focus on water rights at the expense of joint, practical actions, they say, is just one example of how Israelis use the language of rights to discredit Palestinian claims in general and to preserve a status quo that favours them.

"'The Palestinian focus on rights is rhetorical,' Israel always says. Of course, it is easy for the more powerful to say that," notes Jan Selby, author of Water, Power and Politics in the Middle East. In fact, if water tends to flow towards power and wealth, Israel has every reason to defer debate about water rights. Every Israeli knows that a peace agreement will entail a more equitable distribution of water. They also know that an accord will require them to give up their nearly total control of this vital resource, with possible repercussions for their quality of life, which they have come to regard as a prerogative, if not a God-given right.

Doubtless, too, many Israelis fear the proverbial slippery slope: spell out rights on water and the same will surely follow for land. The Palestinians' strategy of insisting on water rights is not without risks. It is not at all clear that international law is entirely on their side. Even a favourable ruling in an international court may be unenforceable. The strategy also may be short-sighted. For one thing, given the state of their infrastructure, Palestinians may not be able to absorb all the water they are demanding. For another, the traditional form of land tenure, whereby land is subdivided as it is passed down through the generations, may be at least as important a factor in explaining lagging agricultural production as lack of water.

Finally, Israel and any future Palestinian state are probably fated by geography to be semi-arid and at the mercy of a precarious water supply. Israel long ago made the move towards a high-tech economy and away from farming. To ensure prosperity, Palestine probably will be forced to do the same. cnelson@thenational.ae