Using Water as Leverage in Deadlocked Middle East Peace Process

Almost 25 years after Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo I agreement, on the lawn of the White House in 1993, a lasting solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict seems as far away as ever. The Netherlands and the EU remain committed to a two-state solution but without success. The French efforts to jumpstart the peace talks earlier this year were ignored by Israel. With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visiting The Hague this week, is there something the Netherlands can bring to the table to provide a new impulse to the peace process in the Middle East? There is one area in which the Netherlands has a worldwide reputation and where it can use its experience and expertise to make a difference: water management.

Water is one of six key issues discussed in the Middle East peace process. Fair distribution of and access to clean water is a crucial step towards improving the humanitarian situation in Palestine. It would also lead to greater food security and a better environment, and it would boost tourism, the economy and employment. Instead, the current lack of clean water is feeding frustration, protests, and violence. Extremist political parties capitalize on the hopelessness felt by people, who are desperate for change. In this light, an agreement between Israel and Palestine on water could break the cycle of violence and be a first step towards stability in the region.

Back in 2014, The Hague Institute played a mediating role in water cooperation talks between Palestine and Israel, with support from the Dutch government, which resulted in a blueprint for a future water agreement, as part of the Geneva Accord. In June of this year, the Institute was represented on an expert panel at the European Policy Center, which discussed the opportunities for closer EU-Israel cooperation through water security and diplomacy. Water scarcity and low socio-economic development were identified as two factors that further strain political tensions in the Middle East and caused security spill-over effects. External support by the EU and others could improve the efficiency of water management in the region.

Demonstrating further its commitment and expertise in water in the region, The Hague Institute and its partners launched the Water Diplomacy: Making Water Cooperation Work project in 2015. This included the development of an innovative framework for multi-track diplomacy for understanding and advancing water cooperation. The state-of-the-art framework entails a legal and political-economy analysis focusing on the specific challenges and the options for cooperation. The framework is currently being tested and fine-tuned in the Jordan and Brahmaputra case-study basins, while recognizing that cross-border power dynamics can only be understood by also analyzing the processes of support and contestation at multiple levels within the respective countries. The research findings, on the specific challenges and opportunities related to water cooperation within the basin, will be presented and discussed in multi-stakeholder dialogues in both river basins.

Two other examples of Dutch involvement in addressing water problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict include PADUCO, a partnership between Dutch and Palestinian universities to strengthen research and education on water, and an initiative of Dutch engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV and local partners to devise a sort of Marshall Plan for the Jordan Valley. An investment plan of €4.3 million until 2050 would restore the water flow of the heavily polluted Jordan River, reinvigorating the entire region. The GDPs of Jordan, the West Bank, and even Israel would grow substantially as long as a two-state solution is realized that enables economic development in the Jordan Valley. This is a win-win situation for all involved, providing an incredible impetus to political and economic ties with the EU, the Netherlands, and others.

The challenges though remain significant. Because of the current political impasse in the Middle East peace process, even the most pressing water issues cannot successfully be addressed. For example, the cross boundary problem of untreated wastewater cannot wait until a two-state solution is in place. The health of both Palestinian and Israeli populations are at risk, and groundwater pollution would cause irreversible damage that jeopardizes the water supply on both sides. Solutions are within reach only if we can muster the political willpower, knowledge and creativity needed to find them. There is an opportunity for the Netherlands to play a role as mediator and knowledge broker in the field of water management, and to foster cooperation towards  mutual trust that would provide a foundation for a future solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is now up to Prime Minister Rutte and Prime Minister Netanyahu to seize this opportunity.

A version of this commentary appeared as an op-ed in de Volkskrant [in Dutch].

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