Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority took a step toward improving the lives of their people by reaching an agreement last week to increase the supply of fresh water in the region. U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt announced the agreement on July 13 during a visit to the area, and then said that he would take no questions about the peace process. That was actually a smart move, since the significance and promise of the water agreement can and should be recognized and celebrated on its own, notwithstanding the failure of various peace efforts.
The underlying terms of the water agreement were reached in principle in 2013. The agreement contemplates transferring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and beyond through a to-be-built $900 million pipeline. The water would begin its journey in a Jordanian desalination plant in the Gulf of Aqaba, near Eilat, from which removed brine would be used to replenish the falling water levels of the Dead Sea. Purified water would then be distributed for the benefit of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
With the prospect of a greater water supply, Israel has agreed to increase water sales to the Palestinian Authority. The additional water will be used for agricultural purposes and to help sustain growing populations. That is clearly a good thing, since providing a better quality of life for residents of the region will also serve as a confidence building measure that might bring the parties closer together in ways that failed peace pushes have not. We therefore celebrate the role water is playing in the politically challenged and famously dry Middle East.
But, there is always a “but.” Even if the water does eventually flow — the project may take five years to complete — the flow will likely be subject to the inevitable ups and downs of the region’s ongoing political conflicts. And those calculations are messy.
Going forward, Israel will continue to control the faucet for the Palestinians’ water supply. And future decisions regarding water could follow the uneven course of the electricity that is now supplied by Israel to Palestinian villages and towns, including those in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Thus, if the Palestinian Authority decides to stop paying for water the way it recently decided to stop paying for electricity, that would likely stop the flow of a vital resource to those in need. In the case of electricity, though the failure to pay was an effort by the Palestinian Authority to put pressure on its rival Hamas, the move caused suffering to Palestinian residents, and Israel was blamed for that result. Call it the trickle-down effect of Palestinian infighting.
Even with these challenges, we welcome the good news of the water agreement. Water is known as the “source of life.” Maybe it can help bring new life to peace efforts.