It came as a surprise (to me at least) that the Israelis are showing some interest in the Red Sea - Dead Sea Canal (RSDSC) project after opposing the idea for so many years.
It was not a secret that Israel always preferred another canal extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea and they only engaged in talks about the RSDSC in the trilateral committee with Jordan and the United States for the sake of not being attacked as non-cooperative. Thus, their engagement in the works of the committee and the master plan study of the Jordan Rift Valley was minimal and lacked any enthusiasm. They even assigned Mr. Rafi Benvenisti, an old timer and an expert on details but few results under his belt at least in that area, to head their team. What added to my surprise now is that Benvenisti is back heading the Israeli team to talk to their counterparts in Jordan about the same project. Since I do not believe in coincidences especially where Israel is concerned, this led me to look further into the Israeli initiative.
The Israeli team came to talks that resumed lately at different levels here and in Israel, backed by a review report written by one of the prominent Israeli Consultants firms, Tahal. The Tahal paper depended mostly on the work done by Harza and Dar Al Handasah with the support of the World Bank and financed by the Italian Government. The Jordanian Government through the American firm Bechtel later reviewed this study. All the previous mentioned works agreed on the three components of the project, which are: - The canal will carry water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea in a combination of pipelines and tunnels.
- A desalination plant and a hydroelectric power station in the Dead Sea area.
- Conveyance systems to transfer the desalinated water to consumers in Jordan, Israel and the PA.
The whole project when first studied jointly in 1995 was about integrated development in the Jordan Rift Valley and the RSDSC was an essential part of the scheme. However, the Israeli report is only interested in the canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It even gave a new name to the project, the 'Red Sea-Dead Sea Peace Conduit'. One does not have to look further to understand that the main interest Israel has is looking for ways to save the Dead Sea from further decline by restoring the natural environment. This would help save tourist and industrial investments on the Dead Sea from the destructive effects of declining sea water levels causing sink holes in the ground. Unlike previous studies, the Israeli report is limiting Israel's role only to the execution of the canal carrying sea water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It is leaving the desalination process - the focal project from a Jordanian point of view - to be privatised. It also accepts that the canal will be on Jordanian soil as a Jordanian project thus eligible for soft loans and grants.
Nevertheless, Israel is accepting to call the project a joint one and even share in selling the conveyed sea water to the desalination plant. They are thus not excluding the role Israeli companies might play in implementing the presumed Peace Conduit.
One wonders where this generosity comes from? It is apparent that the Tahal study finalised in July of this year was made for the use of the Israeli Ministry of Regional Cooperation and supported by Minister Peres and the centre named after him. Clearly the Israelis took advantage of the fact that Jordan could not say no to such a vital project which would secure over 500 million cubic metres (mcm) of fresh water and provide development in the poor valley and unique employment opportunities. Realising more and more that there would be little reward for Jordan as a result of the final status talks between Israel and the PA, such a project might be a reasonable compensation to satisfy Jordanians! Remarkably enough, the Israeli initiative was more than welcomed in the Jordanian official circles and meetings are leading to efforts to secure funds needed to complete the necessary studies. Even Jordanian businessmen attending the annual meeting of the Peres Centre for Peace this September started collecting information about the project and seeking partnerships with their Israeli counterparts.
Since deliberations have barely started, it is thus not too late to remind all that the project is only feasible if executed in its totality as an integrated development project and not fragmented into components where partners would pick what is profitable for them and discard the rest. Though this is the project that may secure Jordanian needs for fresh water, any initiative in cooperation with Israel should also emphasise Israel's implementation of other projects stipulated in the Peace Treaty with Jordan. Those projects include the additional 50mcm water for Jordan, the dams on the Jordan River and the rehabilitation of the Jordan River.
This by all means should not diminish the Israeli move since the execution of the RSDSC project is only achievable through cooperation with Israel and the future Palestinian State. It is thus apparent that a sort of jointly managed commission needs to be formed to enable the implementation of these projects. Such a commission granted international support and managed through private sector type initiatives, is necessary to cut red tape, execute projects and prevent future water conflicts in the region. On the other hand, there is a big difference of wills in Israel between the Prime minister's office and the Peres Centre and one would really feel more confident if the initiative was coming from Barak's office. An office that was not able to help in the election of Peres as the president of Israel would find it as difficult to secure the $5 billion needed to implement the project. (Jordan Times (Amman))
The writer is a water expert and a member of Jordan's former peace negotiating team with Israel
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)