As US Secretary of State John Kerry’s deadline for a framework peace agreement quickly approaches, environmental and security strategists are pressuring negotiators to prioritize shared infrastructural issues in their discussions, arguing that the water sector in particular simply cannot wait.
Regional environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), in collaboration with the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), is asking that Kerry integrate within the framework agreement emergency measures related to water resources and environments shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Solutions regarding these shared resources cannot wait until the formulation of a final peace agreement, and require urgent attention as “a ticking ecological time bomb,” the organizations argue.
“Regional water policies have gained a place in recent years of increasing importance for the State of Israel, in the background of a growing shortage of freshwater in the Middle East,” said Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israel director. “Israel’s water policies today influence not only the price of water in Israel, but also our security and political situation. Surpluses of water that are sold or transferred to our neighbors can help strengthen relationships, serve as a gesture to prevent escalation, and serve as a basis for creating mutual interests among Israel and its neighbors.”
The water shortage in Gaza and the West Bank is critical, and a solution to these issues could strengthen Israel’s ties with its neighbors, Bromberg explained.
To this effect, FoEME and INSS recently unveiled an outline plan to solve cross-border environmental and water issues in the region. Even if the peace talks were to fail, the outline could be a key basis for tightening mutual trust, the organizations argue. FoEME and INSS therefore recently presented their outline to Kerry, American peace envoy Martin Indyk, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The outline, which FoEME and the INSS hope could be integrated into the framework agreement, calls for a “final water agreement” to be achieved within three months after the adoption of the framework agreement. Such a water agreement would replace article 40 of the 1994 Oslo Accords, establishing a new joint management structure with a third party presence, which would replace a largely defunct Joint Water Committee. The jurisdiction of the new management team would “be based on all sources of shared natural water and be governed by principles of equity, efficiency, environmental sustainability, and participatory structures,” according to the outline.
In addition, the outline calls for the creation of an action plan to address Palestinian water and environmental projects in order to solve urgent issues like water supply and sanitation in Gaza and the West Bank. Such action, the outline explains, would result “in immediate improvement in quality of life for the Palestinian population with direct cross border benefits to the Israeli population.”
A final stipulation of the outline involves the creation of a trilateral committee, including representation from Israel, the PA, and Jordan, with the goal of rehabilitating the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
While not included in the outline, the organizations is also calling for the immediate release of 70 infrastructure projects currently awaiting Joint Water Committee approval. In addition, they called for the accelerated promotion of the forthcoming desalination plant in Gaza, and also suggested that Israel release 30 million cubic meters of additional freshwater to Gaza.
Such quantities could replace one commitment Israel made in a Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian trilateral water agreement in December 2013, to make an additional 20 million cubic meters of water available to the PA, the organization said.
“The treatment of water issues and the shared environment serve as hostage to a complex political reality,” Bromberg said. “Both sides depend on outdated mechanisms designed for a short-term interim period, and today, 20 years later, still remain in force and unchanged during a time that the population of the region and the consumption of natural resources has doubled.”
Dr. Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the INSS, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that water “is one of the major issues that was always on the agenda of the negotiations.”
“We look at this issue from a strategic point of view in context of Israeli-Palestinian relations and on a regional level,” said Eran, who headed Israel’s negotiation team with the Palestinians from 1999-2000. “We see that water, energy, infrastructure can be a confidence building measure, but also something that can precede the political peace.”
While the current negotiations are based upon the paradigm that all of the core issues need to be solved at once, Eran and his colleagues at the INSS argue that water problems can, in fact, be solved before a comprehensive agreement occurs.
“This is something that can really enhance the process of the negotiations and the process of normalization among Israel and its neighbors,” he said.