The Big Missing Piece of the Kushner Plan: Water

One reason the Palestinians swiftly rejected the flawed U.S. peace plan was that it does nothing to address their claims for water rights.

A Palestinian farmer
A Palestinian farmer tends to his land in the village of Nassariyah in the occupied West Bank on March 5, 2016. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

Among many other problematic aspects of the Trump administration’s peace plan for the Middle East, one glaring fault is its lack of any serious attention to the contentious question of how to divide up precious water resources between the Israelis and Palestinians.

One of the many reasons that the Palestinian leadership dismissed the proposal out of hand was that it included a demand for Palestinians to cede the water-rich West Bank and the entire Jordan Valley to Israel.

“What struck me when I looked at the plan is how devoid it was of a historical context. There was no recognition of the past agreements that dealt with water, or recognition of the steps that had been put into place to allow for water sharing, or recognition of water rights,” said Erika Weinthal, an expert on water politics and conflict at Duke University.

Access to water has for decades been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and many regional tensions more broadly. The arid region has limited supplies of water that are increasingly in demand for agriculture, and what water exists is largely shared across national boundaries, including the Jordan River and the critical underground aquifers in the West Bank and near the Gaza Strip.

That geology and geography helps explain why water conflicts have been behind a lot of the region’s sharpest clashes for centuries and even millennia, going back to when the biblical Isaac and the Philistines fought over access to water wells. More recently, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed water for ultimately sparking the Six-Day War in 1967.

Since 1967, water has remained a big irritant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in part because Israel made control of access to water a cornerstone of its approach to the Palestinians. Water access for Palestinians in the West Bank is limited enough, with catastrophic impacts on farmers, whose rain-watered fields yield smaller and less valuable harvests than the lush fields of their water-rich neighbors. In the Gaza Strip, the situation is genuinely dire: More than 90 percent of the water is unfit for human consumption, and the sole aquifer is being invaded by seawater.

“Water is always mentioned as one of the core issues in the conflict—not as high as Jerusalem or the question of refugees, but it’s always been one of the core issues,” said Clive Lipchin, the director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel.

Hence it is odd that there is no real discussion about how to share water resources between Israel and the Palestinians in the plan proposed last month by U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (Although, since Kushner deliberately refused to discuss any of the region’s history while working on the plan, it may not be that surprising.) Water was the third of seven major pillars in the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, and water was a central part of the 1995 Oslo Accords, the closest the two sides have come to finalizing a deal that would eventually see the creation of a Palestinian state.

In contrast, water was allotted a single paragraph in Kushner’s blueprint, just after plans for building a tourist resort on the Dead Sea. Decades of bitter fights over who should get access to how much water, and years of Israel’s use of water as a tool to bolster the viability of its West Bank settlements while strangling Palestinian farmers, was dismissed thus in the White House plan: “The parties will work together in good faith to manage the details with respect to water and wastewater treatment issues.”

The remnants of deals related to water rights and water allocation in the Oslo Accords remain in effect to this day. But water is still a hot-button issue between the Israelis and Palestinians for two big reasons.

First, the Oslo commitments on paper regarding Palestinians’ access to water were never ultimately consummated in the hoped-for final agreement. That has left Israel in ultimate control of Palestinians’ access to water, whether from the Jordan Valley or the plentiful Mountain Aquifer. New Palestinian wells, for example, or irrigation systems or wastewater plants all require Israeli signoff, which almost never comes, leaving Palestinians’ water infrastructure woefully underdeveloped compared to that of their settler neighbors. By some estimates, Israelis use more than 80 percent of the water in the West Bank, leaving only a fraction for Palestinians.

Second, the water crunch has only grown more acute in the 25 years since the Oslo accords were signed. The Palestinian population has grown and with it demand for water, while Israeli allocations of water rights agreed to in the 1990s have hardly changed, Lipchin noted.

That’s why the Trump administration’s proposal, which talks a lot about supercharging the Palestinian economy through international investment and the creation of high-tech manufacturing zones, is jarring to many experts. It doesn’t take into account the fundamental requirements that Palestinians in Gaza need simply to find clean water to drink and bathe, or that West Bank farmers need to irrigate crops that could provide a livelihood.

If some version of the Trump proposal were implemented, including Israel’s now-greenlighted annexation of the entire Jordan River Valley, those water inequities would only grow. Weinthal has written previously of the securitization of water, where Israel controls access to the vital resource to bolster its own security and weaken Palestinian communities.

“This is a plan that continues to ignore any form of effective diplomacy, holding water and infrastructure hostage to the conflict, rather than prioritizing the basic human needs of the Palestinian population,” she said. “At the end of the day, water is a basic human need and a basic human right that should not be held hostage to the conflict or that makes one party acquiesce.”

Could technology come to the rescue and end the ages-old fight over wells and water? In recent years, Israel has made huge strides in bolstering its own water security thanks to big investments in desalination plants, which turn Mediterranean seawater into another source of freshwater. The Trump plan, too, speaks of new big investments by both parties in desalination plants that could provide ample supplies of water, with an eye, perhaps, to sidestepping the fight over precious groundwater resources and removing one of the roadblocks to a final agreement.

The Arava Institute’s Lipchin doesn’t buy it.

“Desalination will never take away water as a source of conflict,” he said. “While it’s a fact that Israel is much more water secure because of technologies including desalination, Israel will never relinquish its rights to the natural resources—those are always going to be the preferred source of water, and always going to be looked at and managed as a buffer in any crisis that may arise.”

The plan’s vision of a booming, peaceful, prosperous Palestine—even one under Israeli security tutelage and with little access to the outside world—is hard to square with a future state that will be still be wholly dependent on its neighbor for access to water to which it has a legitimate claim, Lipchin said. Water, as much as control over borders and airspace that are also lacking in the Trump plan, is the stuff sovereignty is made of.

“If you’re talking about a viable and independent state, obviously you need to have control over your natural resources,” he said. “What kind of state is this going to be?”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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