Encountering Peace: Who owns the water?

The water negotiations with the Palestinians are controlled by Israelis stuck in a mind-set of continued occupation.

gershon baskin 88 USE THIS  (photo credit: )
gershon baskin 88 USE THIS
(photo credit: )
The current water crisis is extremely serious. Years of mismanagement and irresponsible water policies are now being investigated by the state comptroller. This is not the first time that the water sector is under the scrutiny of a public investigatory committee. In June 2001 the Knesset conducted a similar investigation and reported on serious dysfunctionality, but it seems that very little has changed since then. For at least 10 years water experts have been calling for increased investment in developing new supplies of water, mainly through desalination. But as usual here, the real policy makers are the "Treasury boys" who opposed spending millions of shekels on infrastructure and held up the developments for a decade. They finally had to give in both because of the increase in the water deficit (we pump more than we have and we continue to pollute fresh water sources all over the country) and as a result of the very powerful desalination lobby that has greased the wheels of bureaucracy with a lot of money. Now, desalination is the answer that most of the experts give, at least the experts with the power - the water decision makers and the Treasury. THE WATER crisis on the other side of the separation barrier is even more severe than in Israel proper. The Israeli-Palestinian water agreement that was signed in 1995 provided the Palestinians with increased quantities of water. The agreement was supposed to be "interim" to be followed by a permanent status agreement several years later. In the meantime, 13 years have passed, the population has grown, yet no additional allocations have been permitted. The annex on water in the interim agreement also created a joint water committee (JWC), one of 26 joint committees that were created in the Oslo agreements. When those committees were created, there was a great deal of hope and perhaps naïveté on both sides. It was hoped that the joint committees would provide the mechanism for building and strengthening cooperation and interdependence. When the violence erupted in the end of September 2000, all of the joint committees ceased to function, with the exception of the JWC. In reality, the JWC was taken over by the Americans through the talented diplomatic skills of Alvin Newman, the water expert in the USAID office in Tel Aviv. The JWC became a trilateral committee with the Americans issuing the invitations, setting the agenda, keeping the minutes and funding any continued joint projects. Newman even managed to get the two sides to sign two agreements to keep water out of the intifada. Once the idea of building cooperation and interdependence seemed outside the realm of reality, with the violence of the second intifada, the JWC was transformed into a tool of continued Israeli control. Instead of cooperation, every new project needs Israeli approval. Even when the experts from the Israeli Water Authority approve projects for water development or sewage treatment, they are then vetoed by the Civil Administration representatives on the JWC. Every project concerning water in the West Bank and Gaza requires the approval of the JWC. This is not the case for any water project in Israel, even though the same water resources are in question inside of the Green Line. Israel relates to all of the water resources, which are all essentially shared, as under its exclusive ownership. The water negotiations between the sides are still controlled by Israelis who are stuck in a mind-set of continued occupation. Uri Shani, the head of the Water Authority, is a professional, non-politician who was appointed by Tzipi Livni to head the water negotiations with the Palestinians. In reality, the talks are controlled by Noah Kinarti and Baruch Nagar. Kinarti is an old-time kibbutznik, a friend of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who holds fast to the old Zionist ideology of control and occupation. He is stuck in the Zionist ethos of making the desert bloom (which everyone now knows is no magic - all you need is to waste huge quantities of water) and for him every drop of water in Israel is Jewish water, Zionist water and if we compromise, we are compromising on our very existence. Nagar is essentially the water commissioner of the West Bank - he is in charge of protecting the interests of the settlers in the West Bank who enjoy about seven times per capita more water than the Palestinian majority who live there. Kinarti and Nagar are the commissars who make sure that the liberal minded Shani does not give in to the logical and reasonable approach taken by the Palestinian water negotiators. THE HEAD of the Palestinian Water Authority, Dr. Shaddad Attili, presents an approach to water that diverts from the traditional Palestinian approach of demanding that Israel recognizes Palestinian water rights, which usually translates into the entire mountain aquifer - or all of the water underneath the West Bank. Attili speaks about the need to develop joint water management that takes responsibility for supply, demand, conservation, planning and development. He makes the logical claim that in this small piece of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, all of the water resources are shared. The water flows underground in the aquifers without any regard for political borders. There is no Green Line on the aquifers. How can anyone justify that Israelis and Palestinians should have such extremely different amounts of water available to them. It is true that in this joint water pool that we share, there is a zero-sum game. Whatever one side gets is at the expense of the other. Today when the water deficit is more than one full year of rainfall, division of the water resources or it reallocation is a reallocation of the deficit. If we fight over water, everyone loses. Instead, if we cooperate, everyone can benefit. Cooperation means changing the "hard disk" in our minds regarding the Palestinians. The occupation mind-set that guides the talks on water led by Kinarti and Nagar can only lead to bad agreements or to conflicts. It simple terms - "it's the occupation - stupid!" There can be no agreement with the Palestinians with that attitude, not on water, and not on any other issue on the negotiating table. The key to resolving the water dispute is cooperation that will bring additional quantities of water to the area and better management and conservation of the water that we have. The international community has many times expressed its willingness to assist in any process that builds real cooperation, especially in the water sector. A senior delegation of the World Bank has been visiting the region this past week and will be issuing a report indicating the sad reality on the ground and the need for real cooperation in the field of water. There are many ways to add water to the "shared pool," including desalination and water importation, including the patented "Spragg Bags" that will move water from Turkey to Israel and Gaza. The writer is the Israeli co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.