On December 9, an agreement was signed in Washington between Israel, Jordan and
the Palestinian Authority for a monumental water-sharing project that has been
lauded as an example of peacemaking and cooperation. On the face of it, this is
a positive step forward. Jordan, whose relations with Israel have been frosty of
late, has signed onto building pipelines and infrastructure, and long-term water
commitments with the Israelis. The Palestinians are being brought in as junior
partners as well. A big step forward for constructive dialogue, and economic
But let’s put aside the symbolic, fuzzy, cuddly aspect of this and
look at the deal itself.
The deal involves several inter-related
water-sharing initiatives the exact details of which appear to have not been
ironed out completely. The broad strokes are that Jordan will build a
desalination plant near Akaba, and some of the potable water it produces there
will go to Israel. In return, Israel is to provide the Jordanians and PA with
water from the Kinneret. In addition, a pipeline is to be built, in Jordan, that
will transport water from the Red Sea’s Gulf of Akaba to the Dead Sea to combat
the Dead Sea’s declining water level.
The details of exactly how much
water is going where are not clear but according to the various reports around
200 million cubic meters will be piped out of the Red Sea, some 80 million of
which are to be desalinated and divided between Israel and Jordan. Time magazine
says “most of this water” will be going to Israel, but actually it seems like
only up to 60 percent of it will.
Meanwhile Israel will increase the
supply of water it provides Jordan from the Kinneret from 50 million cubic
meters to upwards of 80 million (or 100 million if Time’s report is to be
The Palestinians, whose sole contribution to the deal is to
sign it, receive an addition 20 million cubic meters of water from the Kinneret
(currently they receive 52 million).
Basically the story in a nutshell is
that the Kinneret, which already suffers from low water levels, will be drained
further to increase the PA and Jordan’s haul of Israeli water by 60%, so that
the Jordanians can get a desalination plant in Akaba and Israel can then share
some water from that plant and some water will be dumped into the Dead Sea,
which benefits both Jordan and Israel.
IF WE were to read a best-selling
book on business negotiation, like Roger Fisher’s Getting to Yes, Jim Thomas’s
Negotiate to Win or Stuart Diamond’s Getting More we could characterize this
deal as “negotiating to lose” or “getting less.” Yes, the Israeli negotiator
Energy Minister Silvan Shalom did “get to yes” in what he called a “historic
agreement,” but it isn’t clear what “yes” brings Israel.
To see how
ridiculous this deal is, let’s take Jordan and the PA out of the agreement for a
second. Could Israel build a pipeline to deliver 100 million cubic meters of
water to the Dead Sea by itself? Yes. Could Israel build a desalination plant –
of which it already has four, producing 450 million cubic meters of water a
year? Yes. So basically, Israel is giving away huge amounts of its precious
fresh water in exchange for something it could just do itself.
of deal is it when you go in with the premise: We want something we already
have, and in exchange for you providing it, we will give you something you need?
Not exactly the model of deal-making one thinks of normally.
there is something that Israel is really receiving with this deal: the
all-important Palestinian signature. That signature is apparently worth millions
of cubic meters of water to Israel. And trust, that ultimate intangible, is
worth draining part of the Sea of Galilee.
However, straining the
Kinneret’s already over-taxed water table, to rehabilitate the Dead Sea is like
robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Jordan River, which flows through the Kinneret,
is the very river whose depletion caused the Dea Sea’s level to decrease
dramatically, at almost a meter a year, in the first place.
“solution” of taking more Kinneret water in “exchange” for water pumped 120
miles from Akaba to the Dead Sea seems quite odd. Wouldn’t a more logical
solution be to simply decrease the amount of water currently being taken from
the Kinneret, rehabilitate the Jordan and let water flow downhill, naturally,
into the Dead Sea? The truth is that behind this deal is the typical
paternalistic international view (increasingly adopted by Israelis as well) that
Israel must always give away things to save others, and that getting people to
sign something is worth whatever it takes. Behind this is the view that the
“negotiating partner” must never be asked to give up anything, because they
might walk away, and therefore their every need must be catered to.
is paying for the desalination plants and pipelines? Not the Jordanians,
apparently. Maybe the Israelis, or the “international community,” of
In a 2009 online video about a previous “Valley of Peace”
initiative to build a canal to link the Dead and Red seas, with a fantastical
Dubai-like promenade along it, the narrator claims “it will not require funding
by any of the participating countries.” People that don’t put anything into a
deal don’t take responsibility for it. Would you trust a business partner that
refused to invest their own money in the business? There is much that could be
accomplished in working to save the Dead Sea and working together with Jordan,
but the strange nature of this deal, while it may build confidence, means it
isn’t clear the price is worth it.