Terra incognita: Getting less out of the Red-Dead Sea deal

Straining the Kinneret’s already over-taxed water table, to rehabilitate the Dead Sea is like robbing Peter to pay Paul

Dead Sea 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dead Sea 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 peace.
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 believed).
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.
What kind 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.
But perhaps 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.
The “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.
Who is paying for the desalination plants and pipelines? Not the Jordanians, apparently. Maybe the Israelis, or the “international community,” of course.
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.