The Trump administration has yet to broker the “toughest deal of all” — that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Chances seem slim. But Jason Greenblatt, the president’s Middle East envoy, did announce some welcome news at a press conference Thursday in Jerusalem: The Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians will be cooperating on a large water infrastructure project, which will provide billions of gallons of new water supplies for each of the three parties.
That project — first announced in December 2013 — will take water from the Red Sea, near Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat, and use gravity to carrythe water 137 miles via the kingdom of Jordan to the southern part of the Dead Sea, adjacent to Israel’s Arava desert. There it will be desalinated, with the brine deposited in the shrinking Dead Sea and the fresh water transferred into Israel for still-to-be-built desert farms. In exchange, a water pipeline will be built from Israel into Jordan’s capital, Amman, and Israel will augment the already significant amount of water it provides to the Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly in the Hebron area.
The strategic genius of the plan is that it weaves vital economic interests of these sometimes-antagonists together. Even should Jordan or the West Bank someday fall to radical rejectionists, it would be nearly impossible for those leaders to entirely break the water ties established here without creating substantial hardship for their populations.
But the biggest news out of the press conference isn’t what amounts to an update on the Red Sea-Dead Sea project. It is that senior water officials from Israel and the Palestinian Authority shared a stage and warmly engaged with each other. It is, so to speak, a high-water mark in Israeli-Palestinian history regarding this precious resource.
Following its victory in the 1967 war, Israel took control of the local water infrastructure and administration of the West Bank, as it did nearly all other aspects of civilian life. That changed with the Oslo Agreement of 1995, which created both the Palestinian Authority and a Palestinian Water Authority, the latter being responsible for overseeing water projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
Another transformative feature of the 1995 agreement was to alter the balance of power by giving Israel and the Palestinians veto power over each other’s water projects in the West Bank. That encouraged cooperation and led to a steady improvement of water infrastructure for both Israeli settlements and every Palestinian city and town.
To keep this manufactured water crisis from being exposed as a sham, it was necessary to have Palestinian water projects grind to a halt. Palestinian academics, hydrologists, environmentalists and others were strongly discouraged from doing water research or working on water projects with Israelis. Funding from N.G.O.s that had to pass through the Palestinian Authority dried up for joint academic projects in water. Palestinian water engineers were told they would not get work from the Palestinian Authority unless they broke ties with their Israeli counterparts. After warm working relations from 1995 to 2008, the Palestinian Water Authority refused to meet with its Israeli counterpart in the Oslo-created and hitherto high-functioning Joint Water Commission. All of this was under the banner of “anti-normalization,” the idea that by working with Israelis to improve Palestinians’ water needs was tantamount to acceptance of maximalist Israeli claims on Palestinian territory.
Politics in service of the governed had given way to politics in service of ideology and obstruction.
The self-sabotage of the anti-normalization campaign was felt nowhere more strongly than in water. Israel’s settlements suffered from a lack of new water projects, but the Palestinians suffered more.
Quietly, the Palestinian business community made clear that the value of blackening Israel’s name in some quarters was not worth the price being paid in quality of life and lost business opportunities.
A few months ago, the Joint Water Commission began meeting again, and long-frozen projects are beginning to restart. The Palestinians’ participation in this Red Sea-Dead Sea Project, and the public appearance of senior Israeli and Palestinian water officials with Mr. Greenblatt, is a further confirmation that Israel’s delegitimization — at least over water — has failed. As the Palestinian Authority turns toward a more pragmatic approach in addressing water, but also the environmental and energy needs of their people, it will lead to an economically more secure Palestinian political entity and perhaps even to better outcomes in the larger political negotiations.
Israelis and Palestinians may wish they were not each other’s neighbors. But it may be their shared geography that leads the way toward a more profound reconciliation.
Seth M. Siegel (@sethmsiegel) is the author of “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.”