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Tap dance: Water's effect on Arab-Israeli relations

With a surplus of water, Israel is in a better position to share supplies with Palestinians or Jordanians. 

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A Palestinian girl waits to fill her containers with water from public taps in Beit Lahiya, near the border between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip, February 25, 2014.

Mohammed Salem/REUTERS

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The dramatic increase in Israel’s water supply over the past five years has opened the way for potential cooperation with its thirsty Arab neighbors. With a surplus of water – and that includes last year, the driest here on record – the country is in a better position to share with Palestinians or Jordanians.

“If Israel’s water economy was 2 billion cubic meters per year five to seven years ago, today it’s approaching 3 bcm, and that’s a game changer,” says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, a group that promotes peace through environmental initiatives. “If in the past sharing the natural water more freely with the Palestinians would have meant that Israeli farmers would have seen a cut in water allocation, that’s no longer the case.” 

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In March, Israel doubled its sales of water to Gaza from 5 million cubic meters to 10 mcm. It has the capacity to supply an additional 10.5 mcm. Also in March, Israel and Jordan agreed to a water swap, in which Israel will provide water to northern Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, which will help to alleviate the stress on Jordan’s resources caused by a massive influx of Syrian refugees. 

In exchange, Jordan will build a desalination plant in Aqaba to provide water to southern Jordan and Israel. Under the $900 million deal, the brine produced by the Aqaba plant will be pumped north to the Dead Sea, which has shrunk by about a third over the past 30 years.

But some caution that the plan may not be feasible. International donors may be wary of investing hundreds of millions in such a project, especially when the environmental consequences of pumping brine into the Dead Sea are unknown. The World Bank previously concluded that a larger-scale project to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea was impractical.

And there are political concerns as well. Originally, the deal – first announced in a memorandum of understanding in December 2013 – also included the Palestinian Authority, which would have the opportunity to purchase an additional 30 mcm from Israel. But Palestinians, who already buy 50 mcm of water from Israel per year, accuse the Israelis of taking more than their allotted amounts from shared aquifers. The 2013 agreement reinforced their dependence on Israel, rather than acknowledging that they have a right to certain water resources and opening the way for them to manage those independently.

Mr. Bromberg says that water – one of five final-status issues, together with Jerusalem, borders, security, and refugees – presents an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to rebuild trust if negotiators would drop the all-or-nothing attitude that has plagued peace talks.

“[I]t could be of high political gain to Israel if the prime minister wants to show the international community that he’s serious about confidence building,” says Bromberg, who emphasizes that the answer is not selling more water to the Palestinians but sharing the natural water resources more fairly. “So the opportunity here is tremendous. More than ever, we think that because of the technological advances, there are real political opportunities that need to be grabbed.”