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President Obama: When in the Middle East, walk on water

If President Obama plans on trying to kickstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during his visit this week, he should reframe the process. Tackling the toughest issues first, such as Jerusalem, has proven to only prolong the stalemate. Why not start with water?

By Oded Eran and Gidon Bromberg

The Israeli-Palestinian political process has been stalled for too long. It could soon be replaced by a third Intifada or a Palestinian version of the Arab Spring. If the renewed Obama Administration wants to try and avoid this possible turn of events, it has to change the paradigm that has guided all previous efforts to reach a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 1993 Oslo Accords. All of these efforts were predicated on the premise that a simultaneous solution to the three core issues — Jerusalem, borders and refugees — is attainable. It is time to change the paradigm.

Israelis remain divided between those who wish for a two state solution and those who want just one state all under Israeli control. Palestinians remain divided geographically and politically, between Gaza/Hamas and West Bank/Fatah. The longer it takes to resume the negotiations, the more difficult it will be to attain the two-state solution. Tackling the toughest issues first, such as Jerusalem, have proven to only prolong the stalemate.

We suggest renewing negotiations between the two sides on key issues that present immediate benefits for both sides, if a solution is found. Water is an excellent case in point. Given the dire Palestinian need for more water; Israel’s increased water supplies due to large scale desalination; and a joint need to deal with untreated sewage; advancing water as a first priority makes economic, ecological, and not least importantly, political sense. An agreement on water would concretely improve the current living conditions of both peoples. For Palestinians increasing fresh water availability will improve living conditions in every home and for Israelis water cooperation would remove pollutants that originate in the West Bank from rivers and streams that flow through our main cities.

Politically, the two sides can proceed with minimal political cost. The Palestinian President, Abu Mazen could present an achievement in the form of additional much needed water for the Palestinian people. The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could show progress in dealing with the conflict. We well understand however that increasing water availability to Palestinian cities and villages and removing sewage from Israeli streams will not suffice. The agreement struck would need to be not only a ‘Final Accord on Water’ and not another interim process, building much needed trust, but it must be time linked to negotiations on the tougher issues. This is where the U.S. will be most needed: creating the roadmap and the timeline linking agreements such as the one on water to the end result — two states, Israel and Palestine. We call on President Obama when next month here in the Middle East to ‘walk on water’ and create a real chance for serious peace negotiations beyond just the photo-op.

Oded Eran is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv. Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli Director at EcoPeace/ Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) and Chair of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP). The views expressed are those of the authors; this post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. aristeides

      What’s with the mass delusion on this site about Obama? He’s not coming to make peace, he’s coming to placate AIPAC.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Why does he need to placate AIPAC? If that were the case, he would have made the trip before the election.

        My belief is that Obama is coming to Israel in order to learn about the conflict – from both sides. He will spend time with ordinary Israelis and Palestinians and hear their grievances. He will ask questions, take notes and head home.

        One clue to his intentions is the fact that he will skip the customary knesset speech, and instead make a speech directly to young people (minus young settlers from the Ariel “university” who neither require nor are able to be convinced to the contrary of their skewed beliefs).

        I think Obama is coming here in order to gain knowledge and perspective. AIPAC has absolutely nothing to do with it.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          Oh, to be so naive.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Yaron

      I recall an article in Times of Israel (not so independent, I have to admit), that the subject of ‘Israel robbing water from the WB-aquifer.’ has been dealt with by creating alternatives like the mentioned desalination plants.
      I agree with the authors that it is much better to divide the peace process into separate bits that do not depend on eachother or as little as possible. The process becomes less lineair, but more like a growing inkblot. Creating victories, even in small fields, encourages people and creates hope.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Eliza

      Agree with Maggie Wells.

      Just why should Obama waste precious domestic political capital in forcing or cajoling Israel to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians? Obama has every reason to be wary of AIPAC and their capacity to extract a price on future Democratic candidates.

      Every Israeli administration (except prehaps Rabin)has quietly worked to create facts on the ground via settlements etc and no Israeli political party supports the creation of viable and secure Palestinian state. At the very best, the more generous think that the Palestinians should be grateful for a few bantustans and for a franchise limited to electing who is going to take out the garbage.

      If you think the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is unfair, then work towards a change in the Israeli governance. If you think that all is just tickety boo, then continue with the settlements, rip out a few more olive trees and I’m sure there is still a Palestinian or two in the W/B who haven’t spent some time in an Israeli jail. Gaza might be in need of a bit of deterence shortly. Plenty for you to do.

      If you think that Israel is incapable of resolving the problem, well, that is your problem. Just why do Israelis always expect someone else to fix their problems? Certainly there is no shortage of advice coming out of Israel as to what Obama should nor should not do, but precious little actual Israeli ‘doing’.

      If the political will is not there within Israel to resolve the I/P conflict, then why expect an American President to flap around with various Roadmaps or great plans and beg Israel to do things differently? Is Israel really so incapable?

      As for the Palestinians, their aspirations for justice and statehood have not be advanced by USA engagement in the so called peace process in the past, so why should they really fear the USA just quietly walking away. It would not be first mess the USA has created (or substantially helped create)and then walked away. Think Iraq. Who in the US administration cares about the daily bombings and lack of civilian security?

      If Israel has a problem, then let Israel fix it – just leave the USA alone.

      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        “If Israel has a problem, then let Israel fix it – just leave the USA alone.”

        Nice try, Elizabeth, to pretend that the USA always comes in to be on Israel’s side and to only help Israel.

        To be sure, it would be unfair and ungrateful to pretend that at times the USA hasn’t helped. But I would say that overall, the USA involved itself in the Middle East for it’s own interests and benefits, as one would expect.

        Now here is a brief list when the USA certainly did not help Israel.

        - In 1948, the USA imposed an arms embargo. Israel got saved by arms supplies from Soviet satellite countries, mainly Cheslovakia.

        - In 1956, the USA forced Israel to withdraw unconditionally from Sinai without insisting that Egypt should sign a peace deal in exchange.

        - Prior to 1967, most of Israel’s arms were supplied by France, not the USA. And Israel scored it’s victory in 1967 largely NOT using American weapons.

        - The Egyptian peace initiative with Sadat was not kicked off by the USA. Sadat initiated it because his economy was collapsing and Begin responded positively. Carter then piggy backed on the initiative and if anything, he pressured Begin more than he pressured Sadat.

        - During the Gulf war, Bush senior heavily leaned on Israel not to retaliate to Saddam’s Scuds which he indiscriminately unleashed on Tel Aviv’s civilians.

        I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say that your pretense, Elizabeth, that the USA has been Israel’s puppet is a lie, plain and simple a lie. Not only that but it demeans the USA unjustifiably. The USA has always involved itself in the Middle East driven by one overall objective. To insure it’s own interests in the cold war and oil supplies.

        Reply to Comment
        • Eliza

          Shmuel – Basically, I agree with your last paragraph – the USA has always involved itself in the ME to protects its interests re oil and cold war. I also agree that the USA has used its influence or power to force Israel to back down as you have described but it is always within the context of the broader Arab world.

          My gut feeling is that Israel is really the USA’s ME aircraft carrier – it is the USA that is the more powerful and I don’t buy the agrument that somehow Zionists such as AIPAC have managed to determine the ME policy of the USA. However, I do believe that Israel, aided by AIPAC have realised the highest rental possible by allowing Israel to act as the USA aircraft carrier. Part of this rental is allowing Israel to have its way re the I/P conflict; the USA pays its rental by way of diplomatic support, aid etc. My point is that the USA will survive. If the rental demanded by Israel gets too high, the USA will simply eventually refuse to pay it, or get another aircraft carrier. I think we are now at the beginning of this process.

          Israeli policies re Palestinians are a long-term disaster for Israel but only a mid-term little problem for the USA. So why do Israelis expect that the USA will save them, that is the USA that should come with up plans and solutions etc and Israelis passively give up all responsibility for the longterm welbeing of their State?

          Why tug on Obama’s sleeve with suggestions of what he should do or tell Netanyahu to do? I just happen to believe that Zionism is a disaster and Israel is heading for hard days unless it can change its ways. Do you really think that any American administration is going to waste its domestic political capital on Israel? I simply think that it is up to the Israelis to fix their problems, if they don’t, so be it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            The point of what I posted, Elizabeth, was to show you:

            1. That Israel managed in the past, even without USA’s involvement.

            2. That if anything, there were times when the USA actually got itself involved, it acted against Israel’s interests. Like in 1956.

            Now, I did not say that because I am ungrateful or because I want Israel to be ungrateful. I said it because I wanted to demonstrate to you what I think you do agree with (based on your last post), that both parties got something out of the relationship. Not all the time but most of the time.

            Sure, as you say, the USA can now walk away from Israel, now that the cold war ended. And yes it will cause problems for Israel, so I hope it won’t happen. But I tell you what. Israel will get by.

            And I tell you something else, if America walks away, it will lose influence in the Middle East which is not a good thing for America.

            One thing is for sure, those of you who hate Zionism and Zionists so much that you hope that it would disappear, better pray that it does not. Because if ever the Arabs look like getting the upper hand militarily, they are highly likely to try and destroy Israel. And I tell you, if it comes to that, the entire Middle East will face destruction. And that too will have an impact not only on America but on the rest of the world too. That is another reason, why IMHO, America should not rush into relinquishing it’s influence on the Middle East. Only my opinion.

            Reply to Comment
          • Eliza

            Schmuel – My original point was that Eran and Bromberg expect Obama to somehow put into place a more equitable water sharing arrangement as an alternative to attempting to solve everything at once – a process that has clearly failed (for whatever reason) for decades. If this is a good idea, and presumably it is, then why don’t they address their comments to the Israeli Govt. It would certainly be within the power of the Israelis to do this, but I suspect that it would not be within the power of the Netanyahu govt because it would not be politically acceptable internally. One can already hear the cries of ‘another concession to the Pals – those fake people’. But Obama has domestic political constraints as well. In his case, it would be AIPAC and opportunistic Republicans yelling out that Obama is ‘throwing another ally under a bus’ etc. In addition, it would be a waste of his political capital for nothing as I don’t think Obama can actually force Israel to do this. So basically, IMO, Eran and Blomber can go hike it.

            I would have Obama use his softpower and the military might of the USA wisely and it ways that can be effective in other parts of the world. Let Israel be – as you say it will survive without the USA – and its not as if the Palestinians will be worse off than they are right now.

            I don’t buy the agrument that the USA will lose influence in the ME if it walks away from Israel. I think its relations with the Arabic street will improve. In any event, the main game for the USA is how to deal with rise of China, not how to bring out a just resolution of a decades old conflict in the ME.

            BTW, I simply cannot conjure up feelings of hatred for any ‘ism’ and certainly do not hate Zionists. I do think Zionism is, and always has been, a tomfool notion for no other reason than it was premised on the transfer of an indigenous people; the Palestinians already living there, the overwhelming majority of whom followed Islam and a minority of Jewish Palestinians.

            Cheers

            Reply to Comment
    4. A neutral funding mechanism for sewage treatement and water (re)direction to Bank cities would be needed. On present evidence, there is no reason to believe Israeli controlled funding would be at all equitable.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Dude, maybe you should learn at least something about the subject?

        About 50% of water supplied to PA is lost due to inadequate infrastructure.

        However, instead of increasing the supply twofold by repairing the bloody pipes, Palestinian Arabs prefer to do nothing and complain about “occupation”

        Situation with sewage is somewhat similar, I was elaborated elsewhere in recent comments.

        Reply to Comment
    5. kate

      why focus on Jerusalem, could it be that Jerusalem or more correctly East Jerusalem, is emotional attention grabber that keeps folks from looking at the bigger picture? We hear oh so much about the Western borders of a Palestinian State but little to nothing about the Eastern borders, why is that? Israel needs the West Banks water, has in fact grown dependent on it, desalination, nice impressive project, a source of yet another see how advanced we are propaganda scheme, but these plants are expensive to run, will barely keep up with Israel’s growing water demands and in the worst case scenario make really big targets, for there to be a viable Palestinian State the Jordan River aquifer must be contro0lled by the Palestinians, Gaza taught us that and Israel’s needs maybe they can negotiate to purchase water from Palestine and maybe Palestine will treat them more fairly than Israel treated Gaza.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >Israel needs the West Banks water

        No.

        >has in fact grown dependent on it

        To a certain extent.

        >desalination, nice impressive project, a source of yet another see how advanced we are propaganda scheme, but these plants are expensive to run, will barely keep up with Israel’s growing water demands and in the worst case scenario make really big targets

        Nonsense.

        >for there to be a viable Palestinian State the Jordan River aquifer must be controlled by the Palestinians

        Not quite necessarily

        >Gaza taught us that

        Gaza have no access to WB aquifer, only to Negev underground basins.

        >and Israel’s needs maybe they can negotiate to purchase water from Palestine

        “Palestine” is not capable of producing/selling water.

        >and maybe Palestine will treat them more fairly than Israel treated Gaza.

        Maybe. Unlikely.

        Reply to Comment
        • kate

          what Gaza taught us is that Israel would charge Palestinians premium+ prices for water, in fact prices so high they could not be afforded hence that part of my comment

          also explain in detail how the Palestinians in the West Bank do not need to control their own water supply?

          Israel’s desalination plants will provide additional water but enough to in a affordable manner supply Israel’s needs household, agricultural, and industrial? hmmm

          in the event of war they do make nice fat targets for both Iran and Hezbollah

          moreover if Israel holds on to it’s expanding ring of settlements surrounding EJ and it’s Jordan River valley holdings, any Palestinian state would be nothing more than an Arab only island in Greater Israel one that also lacked both the space or economy to support the millions of Palestinian refugees trapped in camps abroad

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >what Gaza taught us is that Israel would charge Palestinians premium+ prices for water, in fact prices so high they could not be afforded hence that part of my comment

            You are operating with some false and made up data.

            >also explain in detail how the Palestinians in the West Bank do not need to control their own water supply?

            1 – It is not necessary.
            2 – It requires a certain degree of technological and cultural advancement.

            >Israel’s desalination plants will provide additional water but enough to in a affordable manner supply Israel’s needs household, agricultural, and industrial? hmmm

            Yes, enough. Israel can’t rely on underground water or on Kinneret.

            >In the event of war they do make nice fat targets for both Iran and Hezbollah

            Had you ever been to Israel?
            Territory from Hertzelia to Rishon LeTzion and to Petah Tiqwa is a nice, phat target.

            >moreover if Israel holds on to it’s expanding ring of settlements surrounding EJ and it’s Jordan River valley holdings, any Palestinian state would be nothing more than an Arab only island in Greater Israel

            Yeah, that’s the plan. But why would you mind?

            Arabs denied to live with Jews peacefully in 1919, denied to have more than half of the land in 1947, denied offers in 2000 and 2002.

            Obviously, if one of parties denies to live peacefully and cooperate, that does not mean that all parties shall sit and wait until they change their mind.

            >one that also lacked both the space or economy to support the millions of Palestinian refugees trapped in camps abroad.

            That’s a bit of a nonsense.

            Lacked space for what?
            As of economy – what exactly Palestinians could do to make enough?

            Agriculture? Laughable compared to those of Spain, Portugal, Greece or even Ukraine.

            Heavy industries? And who is gonna build factories and run them?

            Textile? They’ll have to compete with Egypt, Syria, China, Thailand and Malaysia.

            Hi-tech? ROFL.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Ofer

      BS, When Israel authorities offered Arabs villages in the west bank to connect to the Israeli Sewage system, the Hamas and other terrorists threaten and refused, they say that the Arab dirt flowing to Israel is part of the war against Jewish people. So you leave in a dream.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Leen

      I’m guessing Kate is talking about the three acquifers in general. One acquifer runs downstream to WB (the Jordan river acquifer) and the Mountain acquifer where WB is upstream and it runs downstream to Israel (80% of this war is redirected to settlements, which I guess is where the ‘dependent argument comes from, though I would say the settlements are the ones that are dependent on it, so Israel needs it for its settlements).

      the Coastal Aquifer provides water for Gaza, though it is located in Israel and runs downstream to Gaza, I believe.

      Israel controls all three acquifers.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        http://www.kkl.org . il/eng/water-for-israel/israel-fourth-aquifer/

        http://zalul.wordpress . com/2009/12/13/whats-going-on-with-israels-aquifers/

        Reply to Comment
      • Ofer

        Leen
        The water belongs to Israel. Israel does not control the water of other people. The water, the land belongs to Israel.
        There are also some Arabs that are on Israeli land, temporarily. The Arabs want to destroy the Jewish Entity on the land of the Jewish people. One day they will realize that the only solution is for them to move away from Israel to Arab land, there is a lot of Arab land around Israel. Remember, Israel, is the only Jewish state in the world, it is on Israeli land from the sea tot he river. That’s it. If you don’t like the idea, I suggest you mind your own business or try to fight a little for 400,000,000 depressed women in the Islamic corrupt world.

        Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          I guess you have no idea about water politics.

          for the record, I would suggest you look up the academic research on water in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They have a joint committee for that sole reason (the fact that all three acquifers are located transborderly). It was set up after Oslo.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >There are also some Arabs that are on Israeli land, temporarily.

          And how exactly are you gonna get rid of them?

          Burn them in furnaces?
          Fuel would cost a fortune.

          Drawn them?
          Oh please no. Dead Arabs littering Tel Aviv beaches would be horrible.

          Maybe you want to make dog food out of them?
          Might be a good idea. Creative and profitable.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >One day they will realize that the only solution is for them to move away from Israel to Arab land

          Zionists thought the same 65 years ago, and it did not work.
          You think it’s gonna work now or in future?

          Reply to Comment
    8. Tzutzik

      Yes, water politics Arab style:

      “In 1955 President Eisenhower assigned Mr. Eric Johnston to the task of getting agreement between the several Arab States and Israel on the development of the use of the Jordan waters. Mr. Johnston made several visits to the Middle East in the course of these negotiations, which in my judgment he conducted with great skill. He came very close to success at one point. The engineers and lawyers of both sides agreed that the division of the waters he worked out after many consultations with both parties was a fair and reasonable one. There was no doubt that the project, if put into execution, would greatly benefit the countries concerned. Probably Jordan stood to gain the most, as a considerable area of the lower reaches of the river in Jordan territory could have been irrigated and hence opened to settlement by the Palestine refugees idle in their camps. Two hundred thousand refugees, it was said, could be so settled.”

      “The Johnston negotiation, seemingly close to success, was stalled by the obduracy of the Syrian politicians. They simply would not agree to anything that would benefit Israel, even if the Arab States would thereby achieve greater benefits…”

      Nothing new under the sun …

      Reply to Comment
    9. Craig Vale

      For me the very premise of the article shows a lack of understanding … to wit : ” If president Obama plans on….” He is powerless to bring change unless and until it is welcomed or wanted by both Palestinians and Israelis. This idea the the US can broker some sort of agreement absent the consent of both parties input is farcical. Obama nor any other US president can do much of anything but take a photo and say cheese !

      Reply to Comment
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