Category Archives: negotiations

Notes – Friends of the Earth Middle East in London

This post is for Richard at Mabinogogiblog and his enduring vision of a Middle East peace which floats.

On 24 March 2011, the New Israel Fund UK hosted three venerable speakers from Friends of the Earth Middle East – Palestinian Director Nader Al-Khateeb, Israeli Director Gidon Bromberg, and Jordanian Director and Chair, Munqeth Mehyar, mainly talking about the region’s shared water crisis.

Notes follow.

Munqeth Mehyar gave a summary of FoEME’s work to date. Together, the three offices have been taking a dual approach in their response – top-down research and lobbying and bottom-up work within 29 communities. This includes initiatives like Good Water Neighbours which began in 2000 and survived as one of the few cooperation projects which withstood the Second Intifada. Good Water Neighbours is such a recognisably beneficial social enterprise that communities exist even between Israeli settlements and neighbouring Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem and Abu Dis.

Work like this has brought FoEME international recognition, including TIME magazine’s Environmental Heroes award in 2008, the Aristotle Onassis Award for the Protection of the Environment and a EuroMed award for dialogue work.

Munqeth Mehyar talked about the eco parks at Ein Gedi in Israel, Auja in Palestine and Sharhabil bin Hassan in Jordan’s Ziglab basin where a dam gives a vantage point from which it is possible to fully grasp the water source and the vast tracts of land it is required to irrigate.

Nader Al-Khateeb began with some statistics on Israeli and Palestinian water use. Israeli use averages 250 litres per person per day, excluding agriculture and as a population, 2 billion cubic metres per year in total. Palestinians use 50-70 litres per person to day, less that the 120 litres the World Health Organisation holds to be the minimum amount for adequate hygiene. The total Palestinian consumption including agriculture and industry is around 170 million cubic metres per year.

Israel controls the water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Nader Al-Khateeb emphasised the constraints this has imposed – no legislature, no jurisdiction over the water courses, and limited funding – that is, no real control on the part of Palestinians. FoEME’s Model Water Accord, to which we have drawn attention in a previous post, records the demise of the previous approach to cooperation established in Article 40 of the 1995 Oslo II accords. Cooperation didn’t flourish, as evidenced by the great discrepancy in availability, the under-provision to Palestinians and the contamination of ground water. There is no access for Palestinian to the waters of the Jordan and so it is drawn from the other main source, the mountain aquifer. Because extraction is slow, much of the Palestinian water supply is intermittent and stored in rooftop tanks where any breaches leave it vulnerable to contamination.

Nader Al-Khateeb showed a freshwater map of the region which made a very strong point without any commentary being required that the problem of water is a shared problem which cannot be solved without cooperation. Water doesn’t recognise borders. A final picture showed a large and happy group of mayors from cities and towns in the three countries wallowing in, I think, the Jordan. You couldn’t tell who was from where and – again – where water is concerned it doesn’t make any difference at all.

Gidon Blomberg spoke next about the circumstances required for cooperation. He pointed out that Israelis could not unequivocally welcome the unfolding revolution in Egypt because the decades-old peace treaty was very little to do with ordinary Egyptian people – there had been very little action either between Israelis and Egyptians or between Israelis and Jordanians, with whom there is also a peace treaty. The peace is a peace of strong leaders and cannot be taken for granted as a peace of peoples. On all sides of the conflict there are spoilers who exert pressure to end cooperation between Israelis and their neighbours.

Gidon Bromberg believes that water can contribute to peace because it is so tangible and undeniably shared. Water shows its shared nature when it flows from place to place irrespective of borders. However, FoEME have observed that the politicisation of water by which it is treated as a bargaining chip in the final status settlement, badly undermines cooperation. Consequently FoEME are lobbying to have it removed from the list of issues to be resolved. In a region in its 7th year of drought, Cooperating over water can then be treated as what it is – not an issue of privilege or charity, but of self-interest.

Self-interest is very important. Gidon Blomberg observes that water creates unlikely peacemakers, and holds up self-interest as means for Israelis and Palestinians who, in cooperating over water, are forced to defend themselves against their respective spoilers – those who perceive any cooperation as an unwarranted concession. When Israeli and Palestinian school-age students meet together to discuss water, their parents must sign a release form indicating their consent for the exchange. When school teachers are attacked for fraternising with the enemy, as they frequently are, they are able to make a convincing argument of self-interest in response. So instead of focussing on the sometimes-other-worldly vision of a peace deal, Israelis and Palestinians can focus instead on improving their freshwater reality, with tangible results which are sometimes beyond the immediate remit of the projects. For example, the cooperation between the Israeli village Tsur Haddassah and its lower-lying Palestinian neighbour Wadi Fukin has not only improved water quality, but is also one of the few examples of successful opposition to Israel’s security barrier.

Questions followed.

Somebody asked about veganism, and sadly everybody changed the subject to tropical fruit cultivation; in effect these countries are exporting their water in the form of bananas and citrus, whereas dates are far more appropriate, forgiving of a dry climate as they are. Munqeth Mehyar talked about sheep, the main animal eaten in the Middle East, pointing out that over-grazing and water consumption was not currently calculated in the cost of this meat.

I was going to ask whether the prospect of desalination was perceived by some as a silver bullet which removed the necessity be careful with water. Gidon Blomberg brought this up in a response to another question. Currently Israel is content to expend fossil fuel desalinating water, and membrane industry breakthroughs have enabled desalination at costs which compete increasingly favourably with extraction methods. The hope is that the crisis will stimulate further innovation in solar technology.

Somebody asked how the water situation had changed since the occupation. Gidon Blomberg responded that it was better to compare Palestine now to Jordan now rather than Palestine now to Palestine then, since infrastructure has undeniably improved since the occupation. However, whereas before the occupation, both Jordanians and Palestinians outside the main cities tended to rely on springs for water, the water realities in Jordan today are far better than in the OPTs. At the same time there is mismanagement across the Middle East, and even in Damascus where water is relatively plentiful there are times of intermittent supply. And while Israel may be very efficient, it is a mistake to confuse efficient use with sustainable use. Nader Al-Khateeb pointed out that whereas Israeli quality of life is on a par with that in Europe, Palestinians fare much worse, and Israel should expect to invest significantly in Palestinian water conservation and quality, again for reasons of self-interest.

Somebody asked why there was such low uptake of solar power given good elevation, around 3000 sun hours, and recent innovations in efficient CPV sun-tracking solar panels yielding shorter investment times. The reason is the Saudi oil lobby, and the Israeli and Egyptian natural gas lobbies. Munqeth Mehyar spoke eloquently about the ‘cash now’ mentality the Saudi rulers have adopted with respect to their oil. When we emerged from the stone age, he said, stones didn’t stop being useful to us. FoEME are lobbying for oil to be regarded as something precious to future generations which our children should have the chance to benefit from.

Postscript – for a party which appears, on the face of things at least, to take such a very keen interest in the Middle East and particularly Israel, I found it sad that the audience didn’t contain any members of the Green Party International Committee, nor any other Greens who have indicated their interest in various fora. My hunch, backed up by some references to “spoilers” from the panel, is that this kind of cooperation is absolutely incompatible with their hopes that Israel will fail and disappear. Fortunately for the residents of the region, the cooperation is strengthening because it is in everyone’s best interest that it does.

And because contaminated water does not recognise security walls, there may yet be an eco peace in the Middle East. Seven years of drought and 20 million mouths to feed along the banks of the Jordan says there must.

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On the end of the Israeli settlement freeze

Today Likud Minister Yisrael Katz indicated that the freeze on Israeli construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is over. During his announcement he alluded to a religious claim to the land. Settlers who refer to Barak Obama as ‘Hussein Obama’ and consider the freeze a sin promptly laid the cornerstone for a kindergarten.

As we know from Annapolis, the Road Map and the Mitchell Report into the origins of the Second Intifada on which the Road Map was based, the freeze on settlement activity is a precondition of a two state solution. As noted by writers in the August 10th edition of Bitter Lemons, there is no peaceful one state solution waiting in the wings if the two states solution fails – the alternative is tension, violence, extremism, hatred.

Some comment:

A small sample of the many Israelis who are fighting settlement expansion:

  • Peace Now documents and fights the Israeli settlers’ projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
  • Gershon Baskin of the Israeli Green Movement and the Israeli-Palestinian Centre for Research and Information sketches the the ongoing talks with more insight than many other English language commentators
  • Jessica Montell, Executive Director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre on Human Rights, writes in Foreign Policy on the role of settlements in resolving the conflict.
  • Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc.

A turning point for the worse in the conflict has been predicted, and this may well be it. It’s hard to see how Mahmoud Abbas will be able to continue the current peace talks under these circumstances.

And yet all political problems have solutions. Will the Green Party offer support for those Israelis who work for an end to the occupation, or is it hamstrung by its policy to ostracise all Israel without distinction?

A proposal to end the blockade of Gaza

Bob rounds up sane comment on the Gaza flotilla disaster, noting how depressing the response of the pro-Hamas contingent has been, and continues with a description of the far right English Defence League, observing “the squeeze on a genuinely decent and thoroughly anti-racist left, between the phobic Harryists and the pro-Hamas left”. Greens are badly affected by that squeeze.

After aiming enthusiastic invective at Israel for a few days, some commentators remembered to use the opportunity to call for an end to the blockade of Gaza. Only a very inept campaigner for the end of the Gaza blockade (and there’s a reason it has endured for so long) would fail to demonstrate their similar concern for the safety of Israeli citizens by proposing an alternative to end Hamas’ missiling of southern Israel, preparations for war, and hostage-taking.

Via Norm, Yaacov Lozowick makes a proposal. Nick Cohen does too.

Update: and Kellie.

Israeli Green Gershon Baskin: will Israelis ever accept the Arab peace initiative

Gershon Baskin  is a former parliamentary candidate for the Israel Green Movement / Meimad and co-director and founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI). He recently revealed that he had been involved in back-channel negotiations with Hamas before Kadima opted for an Israeli incursion into Gaza. He persistently puts up political alternatives to military activity.

In this Open Democracy piece he makes the case for the Arab peace initiative, for which he is a strong advocate, and explains the intensely security-minded world view which is preventing ordinary Israelis from engaging with it.

“Since the initiative has been widely overlooked by Israeli politicians it is certainly worthwhile pointing out its primary advantages and reasons why Israel should accept it quickly before it is no longer relevant. The Arab Peace Initiative was accepted unanimously by all of the member states of the Arab League in March 2002.  On the day that it was presented thirty people were killed and 140 injured – 20 seriously – in a suicide bombing in the Park Hotel in the coastal city of Netanya, in the midst of a Passover holiday seder with 250 guests. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. This attack was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back that led to the ‘Defensive Shield’ Israeli offensive leading in turn to the full re-occupation of the West Bank and the placing of Palestinian President Arafat under siege in the muqata’ in Ramallah. The Israeli mindset, at that time when suicide bombing were a daily event and under the leadership of Prime Minister Sharon was hardly in any mood to consider an Arab peace initiative.

But the initiative was once again unanimously ratified at the meeting of the League of Arab States in Khartoum in May 2006 and again in 2007 in Riyadh.”

This piece is good at articulating the circumstances but is as challenged by the task of “bridging this gap in consciousness” as the peace camp is in general. From the middle of the piece:

“This [Arab peace initiative] is almost too good to be true and had it been presented 20 years ago, it might have been received much more positively in Israel. But today, there is no peace camp in Israel anymore. Israeli society has lost its faith in peace.  Israelis no longer dream of getting into their car and having humus for lunch in Damascus. Israelis do not want to visit Cairo or Amman and do not particularly care if Jordanians or Egyptians come to visit Israel. If President Mubarak and King Abdallah II don’t want to come to Jerusalem, so be it.  Israelis no longer believe that giving up territory will bring peace.  The general Israeli interpretation of the ‘territory for peace’ scheme is that we withdrew from areas in the West Bank and created the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat which then attacked us with weapons that we provided for them. In Gaza, which Israel left entirely – withdrawing both settlements and military, we got qassam rockets in exchange.  Whether this reflects what really happened and why is not relevant. This is the way that the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that reality.  So, in this context, the Arab Peace Initiative is not particularly attractive.”

How to go about building a sense of hope and commitment to pursuing a peaceful solution in a population which perceives existential danger? Put up a different narrative of opportunity and hope.

Read Gershon Baskin’s piece.

Gershon Baskin: Gaza wasn’t a “war of no choice”

This is a few days old now, but it is worth knowing. Gershon Baskin is the CEO of the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information a candidate for the Israel Green Movement-Meimad party. On the eve of the Israeli elections he revealed that he had been involved with secret government-approved back-channel talks, to which Hamas eventually consented two weeks before the war, about renewing the ceasefire.

His is a voice for political negotiation rather than military action – and a Green Movement voice.