David Harris
May 20, 2010 - 12:00am

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday, two days after he held talks in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

No details of the sessions have been made public other than the Israelis' desire to move as soon as possible from indirect to face- to-face meetings and the fact that the talks are initially concentrating on the issues of borders and security.

Water was a sub-category of the first topic discussed in peace talks that got underway this week. While the issue will crop up in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, Xinhua has leant that it is not likely to be as hotly a contested subject as analysts suggested just a few years ago.


During the coming four months the parties will attempt to divide the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which, along with Gaza, comprise the occupied territories.

The process will examine each Israeli settlement in the Palestinian territories and, if there is an agreement, will likely result in around half the 250,000 settlers being asked to leave their homes and live within Israel's final borders, according to David Newman, an expert in political geography at Israel's Ben- Gurion University of the Negev.

"There's not a great deal to be discussed about borders today which hasn't been discussed in the last five or seven or 10 years, " Newman said on Thursday.

The parameters are already known to both sides, it is just a question of where the exact lines are drawn, Newman suggested. Eventually, some of the settlements will remain in Israeli hands and the Palestinians will receive in exchange parcels of land currently under Israel's sovereignty.

What will be problematic for Israel is that the settlements need to be dismantled are usually where the most hawkish and ideological of the settlers currently reside, Newman explained.

With regard to Jerusalem, Newman believes that there is general understanding between Israelis and Palestinians that the Jewish areas will remain in Israeli hands while the Arab neighborhoods will become part of a state of Palestine. The main area of contention will be over the Old City, which contains the Temple Mount, the holiest site to Judaism, and currently the location of the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque, the third most sacred site for Muslims.


It used to be argued by Israel that handing the West Bank to the Palestinians would mean a farewell to one of the country's largest reserves of water. The main sources of water for Israelis are famously the Sea of Galilee, but also the water embedded beneath the mountains of the West Bank.

As matters stand today, even though the aquifers in the West Bank are theoretically in Palestinian territory, they are controlled by Israel, in Palestinian eyes. The Palestinians argue that a joint water committee leaves the Israelis holding most of the cards and the vast majority of the water.

Israel has reduced the amounts of water it consumes from the West Bank, but the Palestinians allege that the settlers are given a far more plentiful supply than their Palestinian neighbors.

Another thorny area is control of the Jordan Valley and with it the once mighty Jordan River. Nowadays there is a dry riverbed but the Palestinians would like to receive a share of the level of water that once flowed through the historic valley.

Arguments between the parties also persist about the pollution of the water supply in the West Bank.


However, with any lasting solution that includes permanent boundaries, much of the controversy surrounding the water issue will take care of itself, according to the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, Gidon Bromberg. Technological advances contribute to the possible solutions, he says.

"For the most part, the ground water is already shared. For the northern and western water basins of the mountain aquifer, the border would be of little difference," said Bromberg.

With the removal of Israelis from settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinians will then control their own water sources, ending their dissatisfaction with the joint committee. While there will still be discussions, they will not be anywhere near as intense as those over settlements and Jerusalem, said Bromberg.

"All natural sources of water are shared between Israel and its neighbors, so in the past I would have said that water is a high- politics issue, but today it shouldn't be," said Bromberg.

Part of the reason for this more relaxed approach to water is that Israel has become increasingly independent in terms of water. It no longer has to look to rivers that begin in hostile territory to the north for its major supplies.

By the end of 2011, Israel hopes to be producing an annual 500 million cubic meters of desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea, which is more than the entire Sea of Galilee.

Israel is also learning to better manage its water resources and the Palestinians are well aware that they too will have to be careful not to overuse any water they gain as a result of a peace deal.

"Overexploitation of the water is going to ruin that resource for both sides," warned Newman.

One possibility is that in years to come the Palestinians will not only use the West Bank's water reserves but will also desalinate water off the coast of Gaza. Bromberg said it is possible that the Jordanians and Israelis could join the Palestinians in constructing a huge desalination plant that would serve all three peoples, but at this stage only the Israelis seem to be in favor of that particular potential peace dividend.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017