On July 13, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, flanked by the Israeli Minster for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, and Hazen Gheim, head of the Palestinian Water Authority helped negotiate a water sharing agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel has agreed to sell 32 million cubic metres of water annually to the Palestinians (22 million cubic metres to the West Bank, and ten million cubic metres to Gaza) as part of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project. While the US and the Israelis described the agreement as a service to reconciliation efforts, the Palestinians are not confident that the agreement will contribute to further peace talks.
The agreement was made in light of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project. First announced in December 2013, the project involves the extensive transportation of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. In the Gulf of Aqaba, the Kingdom of Jordan’s first desalination plant opened in March and began production in April. The plant is set to work at a capacity of 500 cubic metres per hour and is to treat water extracted from the Red Sea and supply it to the Israeli city of Elat and the Jordanian city of Aqaba. In addition to this, a 220 kilometre pipeline will transport 80-100 million cubic metres of water/brine from the Red Sea via Jordan to replenish the Dead Sea. Though the desalination plant is located in Jordan, the project entitles Israel to half of the water that the desalination plant produces; however, Israel has pledged to release 50 million cubic metres of water from the Sea of Galilee to Jordan. Israel and Jordan also pledged to extend the Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline to the Jordanian capital of Amman so that drinking water can be supplied to the north of the Kingdom.The Dead Sea project, agreed upon by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2013, did not include Gaza in any water sharing initiatives. The recently brokered Israel-Palestine water sharing agreement has rectified this, but the implications of the agreement vary between the vested parties.
The US-brokered water agreement reflects the direction Greenblatt is likely to take until conditions are right for a larger, more symbolic bid for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. At the time of Trump’s visit to Israel in May, faith in Greenblatt, a long-time colleague and loyalist of Trump, was far from concrete. Even though many analysts believed Greenblatt trivialised the complexity of an Israeli-Palestine peace process, the envoy surprised many with his open-mindedness by visiting a Palestinian refugee camp, attending the Arab League Summit in Jordan and even having breakfast with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority. Even though Greenblatt thinks he has a ‘once-in-a-life-time opportunity’ to provide a peace deal, it seems he is willing to listen to advice and take a more incremental approach to the peace process. This explains why Israel is pledging only 32 million cubic metres of water to Palestinians, a small amount to ask of the Jewish state. The US is committed to an incremental approach to peace talks, using water as a confidence building measure for talks on bigger issues like Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Palestinians were determined to earmark the agreement as a humanitarian initiative totally unrelated to the greater peace process between Israel and Palestine. Palestine does not want Israel, or the world, to think that water issues have been resolved. While the US has been happy to label the agreement a notable diplomatic success, the Palestinians are more inclined to see it as a humanitarian gesture. Gaza is currently facing a sewage crisis, mainly because electricity has been cut to the region and Israel has refused to sell power, citing terror funding concerns. Sewage is thus leaking into aquifer, river and ocean water sources, causing a subsequent water crisis.
Palestine is therefore inclined to see this agreement in a humanitarian light since no agreement was reached to restore Israeli power supplies which would have the capacity to fix, rather than stave off, the crisis. This probably explains why Palestine and China, supposed allies, are warming to one another, with China pledging economic and capacity building agreements, including an industrial zone in Tarqumiya and electrical infrastructure. The next step in the agreement that the US must focus on is implementation. The water agreement will not nurture regional confidence in the US if the US is unable to make the agreement work. If the supply of water to Palestine falters, and Chinese investment efforts eventuate, the US will find it increasingly difficult to foster a peace process.