in their "Water and Diplomacy in the Jordan River Basin" Eliahu Rosenthal and Robbie Sabel present a commendably conscise and informative survey of the historical development of the major hydrological and hydro-strategic issues in the area, and of the current relevance of these issue for both regional and international actors.
However, in terms of the significance of such questions for practical decision
making and water policy formulation, they seem to ignore—or at least to skirt—
what is arguably the most decisive factor of all: the impact of multiple sovereignties
over a single water resource—particularly the matter of upstream and downstream
states who share a given water source.
In principle, the outcome over every water conflict is determined by two factors:
(a) which county is upstream and which downstream; and (b) which is the stronger
and which the weaker.
Stronger upstream riparians can deprive weaker downstream users of water
with relative impunity (as Turkey can do—and on occasion has done—to Syria
and Iraq with regard to the Euphrates Tigris Basin), while stronger downstream
riparians can deter weaker upstream states from doing so (as Egypt does with the
nine upstream riparians that share the Nile Basin).
This upstream/downstream syndrome has crucial significance for Israel. Until
the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel was very much a downstream user, both vis-à-vis
the surface water of the Jordan Basin (particularly the Sea of Galilee) and the
subterranean flows in the Mountain Aquifer (particularly the Western or the
Yarkon-Taninim portion). With the acquisition of the Golan Heights and Judea
and Samaria, Israel, in fact, became the dominant upstream sovereign with regard
to these water sources.
The withdrawals called for in all the usually envisaged “land-for-peace” formats
for an Arab–Israeli peace settlement will reverse this situation and Israel will
once again revert to being a downstream user whose water supply will depend
to a significant degree—both in terms of available quantities and standards of
quality—on the goodwill of the water-hungry upstream parties—principally the
Syrians and the Palestinians.
It requires a giant leap of faith in Arab altruism to believe that they would curtail
pursuit of their own hydro-strategic interests merely to safeguard those of the
“Zionist entity.” Moreover, unless the Syrians and the Palestinians exercise
extraordinary restraint in extracting water and begin to institute dramatic
improvements in their environmental management, Israel’s water supply will be
It is thus rather disconcerting to read Rosenthal and Sabel’s prescription for
resolving the predicament. For, according to the authors, “[t]he only possibility
of solving long-term water deficiencies in the basin is to create and foster regional
projects combining energy production with seawater desalination.”
Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs III : 3 (2009)
“Regional projects?” What we have here are shades of the so-called “New Middle
East”—a concept that is so wildly detached from the geopolitical realities in the
region that it is difficult to prevent words like “totally unfeasible” and “hopelessly
ephemeral” from springing to mind. As numerous seasoned experts—too
numerous to list here—have pointed out, such endeavors are likely to aggravate
tensions rather than alleviate them, especially in regions where, as Patrick
Clawson euphemistically puts it, the potential “partners start out being suspicious
of each other” (“Mideast Economies after the Israel–PLO Handshake,” Journal of
International Affairs, Summer, 1994).
Indeed, it is no coincidence that in the region stretching from Casablanca to Kuwait,
major trans-frontier infrastructure projects of any kind are rare to nonexistent. As
Nurit Kliot points out in her book, Water Resources and Conflict in the Middle East, the
dependency upon the goodwill of foreign countries that such projects inevitably
must create for at least one of the participants constitutes a contravention of an
independent state’s “sovereignty imperative.”
Thus, given the prevailing geopolitical realities in the Middle East, cooperative
regional projects such as the once-vaunted, now abandoned idea of a transregional
Turkish “Peace Pipeline” are likely to remain a pipe dream (no pun intended).
They certainly cannot—and should not—be posited as the linchpin of a realistic
approach to addressing the dearth of water in the region—neither for Israel nor
for its neighbors.
To do so would be both impractical and imprudent—especially for Israel.
Dr. Martin Sherman
Vistitng Schusterman Scholar at
University of Southern California/Hebrew Union College