Into The Fray: A study in impotence

Israel’s diplomatic reaction to recent charges that its water policy is racist exposes a preference for passivity over preemption.

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January 27, 2012 16:32
The politics of water in the Middle East

Martin Sherman's book 390. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Water reveals a new apartheid in the Middle East. The 450,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank use as much or more water than some 2.3 million Palestinians... even if only a few dare to use the word, all indications are that the Middle East is the scene of a new apartheid.... And in this situation, water is a particular element of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. – Excerpt from the French parliamentary report on “The Geopolitics of Water”

My most recent columns have been devoted to analyzing Israel’s public diplomacy, the reasons for its manifest ineptitude, and the mechanisms that produce this abysmal performance.

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Last week, by coincidence, an illustrative example, underscoring precisely what I have been trying to convey, broke into the headlines.

It came in the form of a French parliamentary report on Israel’s water policy, authored by Jean Glavany, a Socialist member of the National Assembly, and accusing Israel of using water as an instrument of apartheid and oppression against the Palestinians.

Responses, recriminations, repudiations
The report sent Israeli officialdom into a tizzy.

The media were peppered with responses, repudiations and recriminations. Foreign Ministry officials claimed to have been unaware of the document until several days after its posting on the National Assembly website.

One diplomatic source characterized the report as “a serious mishap that... has seriously damaged Israel’s image in France.” The embassy in Paris was accused of falling asleep on the job for not alerting the Israeli authorities of the impending publication and the malevolent nature of its contents.

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Israel robustly repudiated the report. The Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned it – correctly – as “unacceptable,” “loaded with the language of vicious propaganda, far removed from any professional criticism” and tainted with “blatant tendentiousness.”

Moreover, according to official Israeli sources, some members of the working group involved in compiling the report disassociated themselves from its anti-Israel tenor.

However, the damage had already been done. Israel had – once again – been linked to the dreaded “A-word.”

Cyberspace was replete with websites seizing on the report as yet another affirmation of the odious nature of the Jewish state and its dastardly discrimination against the “other.”

Delusional derogatory drivel
Israel’s firm rebuttal of the report was factually correct and morally justified. This was a document that comes as close to unadulterated, uninformed drivel as the written word can get, with accusations as malicious as they were mendacious.

Its allegations range from the highly implausible to the totally impossible. For example, one of its more ludicrous allegations is that Israel’s security barrier – “the wall”– “prevents Palestinian access to the Jordan River.”

However – as the most cursory glance at any map will show – the “wall” is located along, or close to, the 1967 Green Line, so it cannot constitute an impediment of any kind to Palestinian access to the Jordan River.

The river has anyway been reduced to a highly polluted trickle south of the Kinneret.

As such, it has been insignificant as a water source for decades, and access to it – or lack thereof – is irrelevant to Palestinians’ hydrological situation. So contrary to the impression the report creates, it has no bearing on the quantity of water available to them.

Only marginally less absurd is the document’s supposition that avaricious hydrological calculations lay behind the construction of “the wall,” to ensure Israeli supplies and to prevent Palestinians from extracting water from sites in the adjacent “buffer” zone.

In fact, construction of the security barrier was undertaken solely in response to the horrific Palestinian terrorism that took place between 2000 and 2003. It seems that a few “minor” details eluded Monsieur Glavany’s memory when forming his opinion of the function of the security barrier and the events that lead to its construction – such as the Passover massacre at Park Hotel in Netanya, and the carnage at the Sbarro restaurant and the Moment Café (both in Jerusalem), the Dizengoff Center and the Dolphinarium (both in Tel Aviv), and at the Beit Lid and Meggido junctions, to name but a few.

Had it not been for Palestinian terrorism there would have been no barrier. To suggest otherwise is either ignominious or ignorant.

Passivity over preemption
Despite all this, the French hydro-report episode was indeed a diplomatic debacle for Israel, not because of what was done after its publication, but because of what was not done before it.

Once again, Israeli diplomacy was seen to be slamming the stable doors long after the horses had bolted, reacting to events rather than anticipating them. It was a classic illustration of what I described in last week’s column, of “Israeli [diplomatic] endeavors [being] reduced to defensive tactical responses, chasing events rather than preempting them, and doomed to failure.”

There is little room for excuses, particularly when it comes to the water issue.

For while it may not have been possible to predict publication of this particular report at this particular time, the appearance of some similar document from some source or other was a near certainty, which should have been foreseen and preempted.

Sense of déjà vu
The situation that has arisen in the wake of the Glavany report has an eerie sense of déjà vu about it. It was barely two years ago that a similar document was produced by Amnesty International, brandishing similarly baseless accusations berating Israel’s water policy as an instrument of apartheid.

The report immediately became a centerpiece of a US lecture tour by Omar Barghouti, arguably the most prominent leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. Flyers billing his talks splashed the title: “Thirsting for Justice: Israel’s control of water as a tool of apartheid and means of ethnic cleansing.”

The Israel diplomatic establishment had ample warning of Barghouti’s appearances.

Despite this, no action was taken on suggestions – including from this writer – to preempt his appearances with the massive distribution of factual material, refuting the cavalcade of distortions, falsehood, exaggerations, omissions and half-truths that comprised his talk.

Lessons unlearned
The lessons of the Amnesty/Barghouti episode remained unlearned.

Rather than adopt an offense strategic initiative to remove Israel’s water policy for the list of topics that can be used to denigrate the country, those charged with the conduct of its public diplomacy have opted for defensive tactical responses to hostile initiatives. Rather than launch an ongoing enterprise to set, a priori, the context in which later events are interpreted/perceived, they have opted to fend off individual accusations and condemnations, made in the inimical context prevailing today.

This is particularly exasperating in the case of water, which is one of the topics most amenable to mounting such an preemptive enterprise.

For while it is always possible to find heartrending anecdotal evidence involving highly localized incidents in which an elderly Palestinian may have been inappropriately treated, or in which the IDF damaged a cistern, these in no way reflect the intent or consequences of Israeli policy. This can only be fairly assessed by the overall impact that policy has had on the Palestinians’ water situation.

Here the facts are unequivocal. They should be used to quash any allegation of discriminatory deprivation, as part on an ongoing proactive initiative to inform opinion-makers, hydro-professionals and the general public, and to create a context in which any accusatory documents are likely to be dismissed with the contempt they richly deserve.

Facts, figures, fabrications
The Palestinians’ hydrological situation improved beyond all recognition under Israeli administration, not only in absolute terms compared to initial pre-“occupation” conditions, but in relative terms compared to that of Israelis.

Whether one focuses on overall consumption of fresh water; per capita consumption of fresh water; consumption of fresh water relative to Israelis; accessibility of running water to households; the area under agricultural cultivation; or the size of the agricultural product, the conditions for the Palestinians have been dramatically enhanced by Israeli rule.

Between 1967 and 2006, the overall annual consumption of fresh water by “West Bank” Palestinians grew by 300 percent, from 60 million cubic meters to 180 m.cu.m. The annual per capita consumption in the same period rose by almost 15%, from 86 cubic meters to 100 cu.m.

Overall consumption by Israel dropped by 15% (from 1,411 m.cu.m. to 1,211 m.cu.m.), while the per capita consumption plummeted by 70% (from 508 cu.m to 170 cu.m.), a remarkable decrease made possible not only by more efficient usage but also by massive replacement of fresh water by recycled sewage for irrigation, and of naturally occurring fresh water by desalinated water for domestic use.

By contrast, the Palestinians have steadfastly refused to undertake agreed-upon sewage purification projects, allowing untreated effluents to endanger “downstream” Israeli supplies.

Palestinian claims that it is Israel which has prevented the construction of recycling plants are preposterous. For what twisted logic could conceivably induce the fiendishly cunning Zionists to oppose the construction of installations that would protect their own water resources from Palestinian pollutants?

The wimpiness of ‘Zionist oppression’?
Moreover, from 1967 to the years just before Oslo, Palestinian household consumption rose dramatically – by almost 600%, significantly higher than the 230% in Israel.

Similarly, water-conveyance to households also increased impressively.

Whereas in 1967 only 10% of the “West Bank” Arab population was connected to a running water system, the figure today stands at 95%. So much for discriminatory deprivation.

Palestinian agricultural performance improved dramatically as well, even though water allocations were not increased. (In recent years Israeli farmers have had their freshwater allocations slashed by 50% and more.) This was facilitated by the introduction of more advanced methods of irrigation and cultivation, resulting in an increase of the area cultivated by about 160% and of the agricultural product by 1,200%.

As world-renowned soil-physicist and hydrologist Daniel Hillel observes, by the 1990s, farming “was transformed from a subsistence enterprise to a commercial industry.”

Furthermore, the inflammatory claims that luscious lawns and shimmering swimming pools in Jewish settlements unfairly and provocatively deprive Palestinians of water are belied by a single statistic: Israel conveys more water (nearly 56 m.cu.m.) from inside the pre-1967 borders into the “West Bank” than the total consumption of the entire Jewish population in the settlements across the “Green Line” (just over 48 m.cu.m.).

In other words, there is a net inflow of water from pre-1967 Israel to the Palestinians which more than compensates for the much-maligned lawns and pools.

Demand – not discrimination
While claims that per-capita consumption of water by Israelis is much higher than that of the Palestinian population are true, this is principally a result of differences in demand – not supply – because of differences in lifestyles. (Clearly, the fact that a millionaire in an opulent penthouse in Manhattan will use far less water than equally affluent owner of a sprawling estate in Bel Air is not a matter of discriminatory deprivation).

Different rates of consumption are found between the Jewish and Arab populations within pre-1967 Israel – and between different socioeconomic groups within the Jewish population – without anyone raising the claim that this is the result of purposeful deprivation.

Interestingly, per-capita consumption in the frequently vilified settlement of Kiryat Arba is 25% lower than in the Beduin city of Rahat – and 90% lower than in up-market Savyon). What perverse discrimination does that indicate?

The perils of PC-diplomacy
These facts and many others should be assertively and proactively inserted into the public discourse, not only as a response to attacks, but as part of an ongoing endeavor to mold public awareness and perception of the realities that pertain to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One of the principal reasons that this is not occurring is the PC (Palestinian-compliant) perspectives of the Israeli civil society elites, discussed in my previous columns, who exert a dominant influence on the conduct of our public diplomacy.

These entrenched elites cannot permit accurate portrayal of Palestinian society without undermining their own worldview.

(With regard to the water issue, I can attest to this personally.) After all, this would entail exposing the fundamental reasons why the Palestinians find themselves in the miserable state in which they are today: a) a chronic and cavalier disregard for the truth; b) an enduring propensity to blame others for their fate; and c) an obdurate refusal to take responsibility for their own actions – and inaction.

And that is something one does not say in polite company.

www.martinsherman.net

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