20 August 2001

The Struggle for Israel's Soul

The struggle for Israel's soul
By Franklin C. Spinney, The Hindu, August 20, 2001

THE STRUGGLE for Palestinian independence has exploded into a vicious ethnic war, replete with racial stereotyping and the killing of women and children on both sides. Regardless of how it ends, a legacy of bitterness, mistrust, and alienation will linger for years. A growing number of opinion makers believe the only way to quell the violence is to separate Palestinians from Israelis. But no one seems willing to discuss openly the question of Palestinian water rights, an issue that must be resolved before a just separation can possibly happen. Its answer will bear heavily on how Israel chooses to define itself in the 21st Century.
The idea of separation is an old one in Israel, dating back at least to the theory of the Iron Wall published in 1923 by Ze'ev Jabotinski, a fervent nationalist and father of the Israeli right. But recent events have increased its popularity, and it is now moving overseas. On August 14, Mr. Graham Fuller resurrected it in the Los Angeles Times with an op-ed entitled ``Build a Berlin Wall in the Middle East''.
Mr. Fuller asserted that the rage and psychological scars on both sides made a normalisation of relations inconceivable. The only solution, he opined, was to give the Palestinians an independent state, then cut all its ties with Israel. Mr. Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post (``The Real Danger for Israel'', August 10), argued for separation and Palestinian statehood, because Israel's neocolonial occupation of Palestinian land requires onerous policies that will eventually destroy Israel's identity as a liberal western democracy.
Mr. Fuller and Mr. Zakaria, like most observers in America, said nothing about the relationship of water to the independent Palestinian state. But access to water will define the nature of that state, and in so doing, the nature of Israel as well.
Over half of Israel's water comes from territories conquered in the 1967 War. For years, Israel has been consuming more water than nature is replacing - and now it is in the third year of the worst drought in over 100 years. The Sea of Galilee is at the lowest level in recorded history. The water level in the mountain aquifer is near or below its red line - the level below which nature cannot replenish itself. Salt water is seeping into the coastal aquifer after years of over-pumping, causing irreversible damage. Israel has been driven out of Lebanon, the only state in the region with a water surplus.
Israelis consume well over three times as much water per capita as the Palestinians. The ratio between settlers and Palestinians is even more unequal, as much as five or six to one. In Gaza, per capita Palestinian consumption is at least 30 per cent below the minimum standard of 100 litres a day set by the World Health Organisation.
How would a separate Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza affect the water budget of Israel? It would sit on top of 90 per cent of the replenishment area feeding the mountain aquifer - the underground reservoir that flows from the highlands in the West Bank to the lowlands in Israel. According to Israel's Prime Minister, Mr. Ariel Sharon, this aquifer supplies one-third of Israel's water. Today, Israel consumes over 80 per cent of its annual flows. Under international law, establishing an independent Palestinian state on top of the mountain aquifer would make that aquifer an international waterway. The Palestinian state would be an upstream riparian, giving it a claim on this water. To be sure, Israel would have downstream water rights - but those rights would be like Mexico's water rights to the Colorado River. The unequal distribution of this water would give the Palestinian state a powerful moral as well as legal claim to a far larger share of this water.
A viable Palestinian state could never be surrounded by Israel. Like the isolated Bantustans inside South Africa, such a state would never truly be separate, because it would always be vulnerable to blockade, intrusion, and domination by Israel. The only possible alternative boundary would be one with Jordan along the Lower Jordan River. But if the eastern border of the Palestinian state rested on the banks of the Lower Jordan, that Palestinian state would have a downstream claim on the sources of the water flowing into the Lower Jordan - primarily the drainage basin of the Upper Jordan River that feeds the Sea of Galilee, which can be thought of as a giant holding tank with a drain into the Lower Jordan River. Israel is now pumping so much water out of this drainage basin that the Sea of Galilee is below its red line and its effluent into the lower Jordan is a non-usable saline trickle. An independent Palestinian state, as a downstream riparian, could lay a claim on Israel for some form of compensation for Israel's pre-emption of these upstream water resources.
The upshot: establishing a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank could internationalise as much as two-thirds of Israel's water budget. Such a development would place Israel on the horns of a dilemma: if Israel insisted on its downstream rights to the mountain aquifer, it would validate the same Palestinian claim on water flowing out of the Upper Jordan basin. But if Israel denied the Palestinian downstream riparian claim on the Upper Jordan basin, it would invite a reciprocal pre-emption by the Palestinians with regard to water flowing out of the mountain aquifer.
More than any other country in West Asia, Israel embodies the central ideal of liberal western democracies: namely that government exists for and is grounded on the inalienable rights of the individual - the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In a desert, those rights must include an equitable access to life-sustaining water. Since the total water supply is limited, and because Israel consumes more water than nature replaces, there is only one way to achieve this democratic ideal: Israelis must reduce their consumption to enable increased consumption by Palestinians. But a reduction in Israel's total water consumption raises a second dilemma - and this one reaches deeply into Israel's soul.
In economic terms, there is only one production sector in the Israeli economy that could absorb a meaningful reduction in its water consumption: agriculture. Israel has an advanced high-tech economy, and its agriculture sector is an extremely efficient user of water by western standards. Nevertheless, agriculture contributes only four per cent to Israel's Gross Domestic Product, while it soaks up between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of Israel's water budget. Yet the Zionist ideal rests on agriculture - the heroic struggle of the kibbutz together with the idea of making the desert bloom.
The intifada has impaled Israel on the horns of a dilemma that threatens its very soul: to preserve its sense of a democratic morality based on the rule of law and the idea that every individual has value, Israel must sacrifice the Zionist heritage lying at the core of its heroic national self-image, but to preserve its Zionist ideal Israel must sacrifice the sense of democratic morality lying at the core of post- holocaust Jewish humanism. Left un-addressed, this dilemma will grow steadily worse as the continuing depletion of water resources clashes with the growing needs of a rapidly increasing Palestinian population.
Separation cannot be based on the idea of locking the Palestinians inside parched ghettos on the West Bank or expelling them into Jordan. Israel's new Iron Wall will always leak water, and that leakage requires the kind of farsighted cooperation and sacrifice that will make it a stronger democracy and a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.
Addendum: For a more detailed analysis of the Palestinian water question see Water and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.