Two areas farmed by Israelis for more than 50 years have recently been returned to neighbouring Jordan. The first, al Ghamr (known in Israel as Zofar), is located south of the Dead Sea in the Naqab/Negev desert. The second, al Baqura (Naharayim) is found at the fertile point where a major tributary joins the Jordan River.
The association with water bodies is no coincidence: neither land would have been occupied in the first place were it not for the water that the Israeli army and kibbutzim required to sustain the farms.
The return of the lands was made possible by remarkably far-sighted clauses inserted in a 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. Unfortunately, the parts of the same agreement concerning water could not be more myopic, and ensure that one of the most arid countries in the world – Jordan – remains parched.
Meanwhile, Palestinian farmers do not have enough water. This situation is locked in by a water agreement signed with Israel in 1995, as part of the “Oslo II” process. And as the water levels drop, tensions rise. It gets worse with every scorching summer.
As it controls the most water but needs it the least, Israel has the choice to negotiate fairer agreements. But what must be challenged first is the thinking that led to the agreements in the first place – an economic doctrine which sees water as nothing more than a commodity to be sold or traded, and a political ideology that is fixated on holding on to as much water as possible.
The effects of the commodification of water are crystal clear at al Baqura. There, the Yarmouk river flows westwards and used to meet the Jordan River mainstream which flows south between Jordan (the country) on one side and Israel and the Palestine West Bank on the other. But these days almost every drop of the Yarmouk not used by farmers in Syria and Jordan is hoovered into a reservoir by farmers in Israel.
The Jordan River itself has run dry ever since 1964, when Israel cornered sole use of Lake Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret) near the river’s source. The Dead Sea at the river’s endpoint has been (apologies) dying, ever since.
Innovators in Israel have in the meantime perfected drip irrigation techniques, implemented impressive schemes which re-use wastewater, and built so many desalination plants that some commentators suggest it now has too much water.
Meanwhile Jordan is increasingly parched, as it hosts millions of people who have fled wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria. With no surface water of its own to speak of, Jordan resorts to desalination on its tiny coastline at Aqaba. It has been encouraged to pump the expensive flows from there to the neighbouring Israeli city of Eilat, in exchange for freshwater Israel is to pump back to Jordan from (the contested) Lake Tiberias.
The Palestinian residents of the West Bank actually have less water available now than when Oslo II was signed. In Gaza, desalination is too expensive for most, and with wastewater contaminating the groundwater, “superbugs” are creating a toxic “biosphere of war”. Israel does sell a small amount of freshwater to Gaza, but most of the water it channels from Tiberias 200km to the north stops at the border – tantalisingly in view of the Gazans but out of their reach, reserved instead to grow potatoes that are exported to (a rather wetter) Europe.
There is a tendency to blame climate change or refugees for these policy choices, probably because they cannot talk back. But those who created the mess are the ones who should and can change it.
While the Israeli state doesn’t need so much water, the distribution of control over the Jordan River and associated aquifers remains a mirror reflection of the relative power between the rival states. Israel controls more water than Jordan and the Palestinians combined, and more than double its entitlement when measured against the principles of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention.
Water that Israel promised Jordan back in the 1994 peace treaty has still not materialised. In the West Bank, Israel’s choice to hoard is expressed through the Oslo-created Israeli-Palestinian joint water committee. Because the committee approves the water lines that every new settlement in the West Bank needs, but blocks projects for Palestinian villages, water becomes an effective tool of colonialism or even ethnic cleansing.
It would be straightforward to invoke guidance from the UN Watercourses Convention, if all that was required to end the Jordan River conflict was updating the agreements. The convention details how water can be shared “equitably and reasonably” and all the states involved signed up – bar Israel.
But first we must challenge the idea that water is a commodity that can be hoarded away or sold only to the highest bidder. But given the extent to which the practice is entrenched in the political and economic systems of the region, evidence and argument are not enough on their own. Researchers can highlight the damage caused by water policy, and environmentalists may question the rationale of exporting desert-grown crops to Europe. Eventually, the task is to replace the blinding ideologies with a strong sense of justice, so that unfair water sharing comes to be seen as unacceptable as slavery.
The required policy and legislation will flow naturally, once this future is seen. It happened at al Baqura and al Ghamr, and it can happen with water.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will have learned a valuable foreign policy lesson in the past day or so as it relates to the Holy Land.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap (Galatians 6:7).
When Morrison allowed a thought bubble to become a political ploy in the Liberal party’s desperation to cling on to a safe seat in the Wentworth byelection, he miscalculated the damage it would cause to his own credibility and the country’s foreign policy settings.
An inexperienced prime minister blundered into the thicket of Middle East politics by announcing Australia would both consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and would also review its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This latter is the 159-page document negotiated by the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. In it, Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program.
In any event, Morrison indicated Canberra would continue to adhere to JCPOA, thus putting itself at odds with Washington. The United States announced it would abandon the JCPOA, pending the negotiation of better terms.
In his efforts to purloin the Jewish vote in Wentworth, Morrison’s shallow marketing impulses got the better of policy prudence.
He proceeded with haste in the first instance, and now he can repent at leisure after having sought – unsuccessfully it seems – to thread the needle in his policy pronouncements at the weekend.
If we stretch the biblical allusions further, we might say that when it comes to the Middle East, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a political ingénue to shift the status quo in Australia’s position on the vexed Arab-Israel issue.
What has now happened – as it inevitably would – after Morrison announced that Australia would recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and establish a branch office there, is a negative reaction not only from the Muslim world, but from Israel itself.
So an Australian prime minister goes out on a limb for the Jewish state, only to have it sawn off by critics in Israel who did not like the distinction he made between Jerusalem’s Jewish west and Arab east.
Under Israel’s Basic Law, the constitution, an undivided Jerusalem is deemed to be the country’s capital in perpetuity. This position was bolstered in a Knesset vote as recently as this year.
Israel’s official reaction to the Morrison announcement was to describe it as a “step in the right direction”. However, as its implications sunk in, Israeli public figures began to take strong exception to Australia’s “acknowledgement” of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem in a final status peace settlement.
Typical of the reaction was this, via Twitter, from Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent Knesset member of the nationalist Likud party and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, went further.
We expected more from a friendly country like Australia […] I am hoping that our cool response will make it clear to the Australians that this is not what we were wishing for.
Pointedly, Netanyahu had not commented publicly at time of writing.
In his announcement on Saturday at a Sydney Institute event, Morrison set out his stall on the Jerusalem issue. In the process, apart from infuriating the Israeli nationalist right, he exposed himself to withering criticism at home and in the region.
This was the nub of Morrison’s statement:
Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel […] Furthermore, recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian Government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
While Morrison’s use of the word “acknowledge” falls a long way short of “recognising” Palestinian aspirations, his “acknowledgement”, in the context of final status peace negotiations, trespasses on an Israeli article of faith.
Israel’s insistence on an undivided Jerusalem in perpetuity under its control contradicts an international consensus that East Jerusalem remains occupied territory since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Australia has supported numerous United Nations resolutions to this effect, including Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973 that called on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in war.
In his efforts to find favour with Israel’s supporters, Morrison crossed that divide, thereby infuriating an Israeli government and discomforting Israel’s backers in Australia, notwithstanding their professed delight at the latest turn of events.
Australia’s position, it might be noted, contrasts with that of the United States. Washington recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this year without making a distinction between “west” and “east”.
In his Sydney Institute speech, Morrison indicated he and his public service advisers had conferred widely in their efforts to come up with a form of words that would be consistent with his pledge to review Australia’s position on Jerusalem.
This review included consultations with:
…some eminent Australian policymakers: former heads of various agencies and departments whether in Defence, Foreign Affairs or Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Advice to Morrison from what was known as a “reference group” of “eminent Australian policymakers” was overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, resistant to changing the status quo.
In other words, Australia should adhere to settled policy.
Morrison chose to ignore this advice after having committed himself to a review. In the process, and unnecessarily, he has risked negative reactions from Australia’s important neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, and from the Arab world. At home, he has exposed himself to criticism he has jeopardised Australia’s international standing for no conspicuous benefit.
This has been a mess, and one entirely of Morrison’s own making, driven by short-term political calculations.
Looking back on events 25 years ago, when the Oslo Accords were struck on the White House lawn, it is hard to avoid a painful memory.
I was watching from a sickbed in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton stood between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for that famous handshake on the White House lawn.
At that moment, I was recovering from plastic surgery carried out by a skilled Israeli surgeon and necessitated by a bullet wound inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces. (I had been caught in crossfire while covering a demonstration in the West Bank by stone-throwing Palestinian youths.)
That scar – like a tattoo – is a reminder of a time when it seemed just possible Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians could bring themselves to reach an historic compromise.
All these years later, prospects of real progress towards peace, or as American president Donald Trump puts it, the “deal of the century”, seems further away than ever.
As a correspondent in the Middle East for a decade (1984-1993) and as co-author of a biography of Arafat, I had an understandable interest in the outcome of the Oslo process.
In hours of conversations with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s historical leadership, I had tracked the PLO’s faltering progression from outright rejection of Israel’s right to exist to acceptance implicit in the Oslo Accords.
Throughout that process of interviewing and cross-referencing with Israeli sources, I had hoped an honourable divorce could be achieved between decades-long adversaries. Like many, I was disappointed.
In 1993, the so-called Oslo Accords, negotiated in secret outside the Norwegian capital, resulted in mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. This enabled the beginning of face-to-face peace negotiations.
Two years after the historic events at the White House, and by then correspondent in Beijing, I witnessed another episode of lasting and, as it turned out, tragic consequences for the Middle East.
On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated while attending a political rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish fanatic opposed to compromise with the Palestinians.
That devastating moment brought to power for the first time the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has distinguished himself by his unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the Palestinians through four US administrations: those of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump.
Some argue the Palestinians and their enfeebled leadership bear significant responsibility for peace process paralysis. That viewpoint is valid, up to a point. But it is also the case that Netanyahu’s replacement of Rabin stifled momentum.
Under Trump, Netanyahu finds himself under no pressure to concede ground in negotiations, or even negotiate at all. Indeed, the administration seems intent on further marginalising a Palestinian national movement, even as settlement construction in the occupied areas continues apace.
On the eve of the accords, there were 110,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That number has grown to 430,000 today. In 2017, those numbers grew by 20% more than the average for previous years.
The Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem without making a distinction between Jewish West or Arab East Jerusalem could hardly have been more antagonistic.
By taking this action, and not making it clear that East Jerusalem as a future capital of a putative Palestinian state would not be compromised, the administration has thumbed its nose at legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
The administration’s follow-up moves to strip funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) and assistance to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem have further soured the atmosphere.
UNWRA is responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These are the ongoing casualties of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence against the Arabs.
In this context, it is interesting to note that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, has urged that refugee status be denied Palestinians and their offspring displaced by the war of 1948.
In that year, two-thirds, or about 750,000 residents of what had been Palestine under a British mandate became refugees.
Against this background and years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, including two major wars – the Six-Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973 – the two sides had in 1993 reached what was then described as an historic compromise.
What needs to be understood about Oslo is that its two documents, signed by Rabin and Arafat, did not go further than mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO in the first, and, in the second, a declaration of principles laying down an agenda for the negotiation of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories.
What Oslo did not do was provide a detailed road-map for final status negotiations, which were to be completed within five years. This would deal with the vexed issues of refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarisation of the Palestinian areas in the event of a two-state settlement, and anything but an implied acknowledgement of territorial compromise, including land swaps, that would be needed to bring about a lasting agreement.
Writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1994, Oxford professor Avi Shlaim described the White House handshake as:
one of the most momentous events in the 20th-century history of the Middle East. In one stunning move, the two leaders redrew the geopolitical map of the entire region.
Now emeritus professor, Shlaim’s own hopes, along with those of many others, that genuine compromise was possible, have been dashed.
Referring to the recent passage through the Knesset of a “basic law” that declares Israel to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, Shlaim recently observed:
This law stands in complete contradiction to the 1948 declaration of independence, which recognizes the full equality of all the state’s citizens ‘without distinction of religion, race or sex’… Netanyahu has radically reconfigured Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than a Jewish and a democratic state. As long as the government that introduced this law stays in power, any voluntary agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will remain largely a pipe dream.
Martin Indyk, now en route to the Council on Foreign Relations from the Brookings Institution, shared Shlaim’s hopes of an “historic turning point’’ in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As Clinton’s National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, Indyk was responsible for the 1993 arrangements on the White House South Lawn. He writes:
The handshake was meant to signify the moment when Israeli and Palestinian leaders decided to begin the process of ending their bloody conflict and resolving their differences at the negotiating table.
Two decades later, in 2014, the funeral rites were pronounced on the Oslo Process after then Secretary of State John Kerry had done all he could to revive it against Netanyahu’s obduracy. Oslo had, in any case, been on life support since Rabin’s assassination.
“Then,” in Indyk’s words, “along came Trump with “the Deal of the Century”. Indyk writes:
His plan has yet to be revealed but its purpose appears clear – to legitimize the status quo and call it peace. Trump has already attempted to arbitrate every one of the final status issues in Israel’s favor: no capital in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians; no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees; no evacuation of outlying settlements; no ’67 lines; no end of occupation; and no Palestinian state…
Over 25 years, in shifting roles from witness to midwife, to arbiter, the United States has sadly failed to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace, leaving them for the time being in what has essentially been a frozen conflict.
However, as history shows, “frozen conflicts” don’t remain frozen forever. They tend to erupt when least expected.
Twenty-five years ago, I shared a bloody hospital casualty station – not unlike a scene from M.A.S.H. – with more than a dozen wounded Palestinians. Some of them would not recover from terrible wounds inflicted by live ammunition.
I asked myself then, as I do now: what’s the point of it all?