The new US-backed water-for-energy agreement between Israel and Jordan is a significant contribution to the political stability of the region, to Jordan’s acute water shortage, and to pushing forward the regional climate change.
The agreement is evidence of a renewed dialogue between the political leadership in Jordan and Israel, a result most likely made possible by the political changes that have occurred in the region since the normalization of ties with two Gulf states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and the emergence of the new Israeli government.
The deal is premised on the creation of a balanced dependence – Israel’s dependence on Jordan in importing solar energy and Jordan’s dependence on Israel in importing desalinated seawater. Purchasing solar power from Jordan, where the availability of renewable energy is greater and land and labor costs are lower, may indeed be the most cost-effective way for Israel to meet its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), at least as far as renewable energy is concerned. In fact, Israel has set its share of renewable energy generation at 30% by 2030, a goal that still seems very ambitious, considering that in 2020 alone it accounted for only 6.1%.
Israel has a limited area available for large-scale energy installation. The Negev, which looks like a vast desert area, is actually unavailable for this purpose, due to the fact that half of it is a military training ground while the other half is declared a natural reserve and covering the roofs of houses with solar panels does not seem to be enough to achieve this goal. For Jordan, the cost of desalinated water conveyed from the Mediterranean to the most populated region of Amman will be relatively less expensive than the alternative of desalinating water on the Jordanian coast of the Red Sea, because of the shorter distance.
The deal is also expected to have some political gains. The construction of a water desalination plant in Israel to supply water to Jordan will mitigate the kingdom’s water crisis, made even worse than elsewhere by climate change, population growth, intensified water use and increased competition for water across borders. At the same time, addressing water scarcity in Jordan is a strategic objective for Israel since Jordanian water shortages pose an increasing threat to national security and stability in its immediate vicinity.
These are noble goals and meeting them will increase political and economic stability in this subregion of the Middle East.
Regrettable, however, is the absence of the minor partner, the Palestinians. The short distances between the possible routes of the solar power grid from Jordan to Israel and the water conveyor from the Mediterranean to Jordan and to the West Bank make the connection relatively simple and inexpensive. Doing so will remove the water file from what is otherwise a very complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict waiting to be resolved.
The Jordan-Israel-United Arab Emirates Masdar company agreement, signed this week, will likely take a decade to become operational. The addition of the Palestinian component would therefore still be possible and is unlikely to pose significant technical and administrative complexities to the regional project. Yet it could pave the way for greater EU involvement in revamping the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for EU support for regional integration on climate and water issues in the Middle East, the latter in line with the ambitious goal of externalizing the EU’s Green Deal beyond its borders.
Conducting a feasibility study to connect the Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli solar electric grid to Europe would signal Europe’s interest in supporting a concrete project and certainly could positively influence the construction of the grid.
The new Israeli government has indicated that it wants to open a new page in its relations with the EU. While the ideas for a Palestinian economic renaissance raised by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid do not amount to a political horizon for the Palestinians, these ideas and initiatives like the new agreement signed this week can provide the economic platform, fortified with sufficient political ingredients, to reopen a high-level political dialogue between Jerusalem and Brussels.
Tiziana della Ragione is a visiting research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center (MDC) for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. Oded Eran was Israel’s ambassador to Jordan and the European Union and currently is a senior researcher at the INSS.