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Addressing the Myth of Israeli Water Hegemony

Mark Zeitoun's 'Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict'

Book review by Dr. Alon Tal

Of the five controversies that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators left to be considered in the final status talks, the one revolving around water is, presumably, the most readily resolved. While the right of return and the status of Jerusalem are not given to speedy resolution, the water issue can be resolved by technological fixes, pragmatism, ever-improving science and better management — all of which would lead to reasonable compromises and progress on the water issue. Most Israelis and supporters of Israel agree that the present hydrological conditions faced by the Palestinians are untenable and unsustainable. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Mark Zeitoun has chosen to write an extensively researched tome that is really a polemic that does little to break the present deadlock or help the Palestinian cause he so eloquently advocates. The theoretical basis on which Power and Water in the Middle East rests is too rigid to capture the complex and dynamic regional reality that drives water allocations and policy, and the book often lapses into outdated facts and adversarial rhetoric.


Zeitoun is a water engineer with considerable international experience, but the book is grounded firmly in the realm of political science and his affiliation with the  London School of Economics. Accordingly, the book’s primary objective appears to be rehashing arguments from the so-called “London School” of international  water policy, deriding Israeli hydro-hegemony. Zeitoun describes an insidious four-stage process during which Israel has improved the “compliance-producing  mechanisms” it uses against the Palestinians in the water realm. This theoretical construct borrows from earlier work by U.S. political scientist and intermittent  Israel basher Ian Lustick. The stages involve a continuum starting with “coercion”  (where direct force was used to rewrite the hydrological norms in the West Bank);  “utilitarianism” (where incentives and assistance were wielded to ensure Israel’s water-management objectives); a “normative” stage (where compliance was achieved by enacting normative expectations) and the present, most subtle — and what Zeitoun believes to be the most powerful (and evil) — stage: “hegemony.”


Zeitoun describes this final stage:

The “Ideological hegemony” mechanism holds that ideological hegemonic beliefs manufactured by hegemonic groups provide them with the most efficient mechanism for eliciting compliance about the ordering of the world. The beliefs that the subjected must hold for this method of ensuring compliance to function are considered unconscious beliefs to distinguish them from the conscious type associated with normative exchanges.


Basically, Zeitoun argues that Israel has successfully made its domination of water resources part of the subconscious paradigm that drives the decisions and menu of policy options held by Palestinian water managers and politicians. In so doing, he maintains, it has turned the pragmatic Palestinian professional community into accomplices in Israel’s post-colonial larceny of its neighbors’ hydrological resources.


The author then selects several cases of Israeli–Palestinian interactions in the area of transboundary water management that fit within this construct. All examples are carefully chosen so as to paint Israel as the duplicitous and rapacious tyrant and the Palestinians as hapless, blameless victims. Zeitoun offers detailed descriptions of damage to water infrastructure sustained during the 2002 Israeli military actions in Jenin, the effect of the separation fence and the impact on Palestinian farmers’ access to wells. He offers them as proof of the broader Zionist “hydro-conspiracy.” The work of the Joint Water Commission, established under the Oslo II agreement — generally heralded as a rare example of sustainable cooperation between the parties — is similarly attacked as an arrangement that perpetuates the asymmetric status quo rather than providing a forum for joint management. Israeli participants on the commission to control its agenda, Zeitoun claims, thus enabling them to effectively veto any proposal and generally manipulate the Palestinian members to accept continued domination. Zeitoun argues that all that the commission has done is to perpetuate hydrological injustice.


Zeitoun does make token efforts to appear objective and evenhanded. Occasionally he makes disparaging remarks about Egypt, which he views, like Israel, as a “downstream” hegemon that unfairly exploits upstream Nile riparians. He frequently quotes Israeli scholars, at least those passages and ideas of theirs that are consistent with his own views. Zeitoun is very familiar with the literature of progressive water politics, and his summary in chapter two might receive high marks  as a review of the literature section in a political-science doctoral dissertation. But ultimately the author’s bias dominates the book, rendering it severely flawed. At best, it is yet another tit-for-tat contribution to one side of the literature erasing any potential it might have had to move the discourse forward.


To begin with, there are dozens of errors — and not just typographical ones  (although there are many of those as well, and the I.B. Tauris publishing team would do well to rethink their selection of future copy editors). Many of the facts upon which Zeitoun bases his arguments are simply inaccurate. Perhaps it seems like nitpicking to take issue with the many sundry hydrological imprecisions, such as the average annual precipitation in Tel Aviv (which Zeitoun claims is greater than that of Paris — when in fact it is some 20 percent lower) or the mistakes in history, such as his confused presentation of the 1953 Security Council debate surrounding the National Water Carrier (while Zeitoun claims a motion to stop the Israeli diversion was blocked by a Russian veto, in fact Soviet Ambasssador  Andrei Wishinsky vetoed the American resolution that would have allowed Israel to continue its diversion of the Jordan at the B’not Yaakov Bridge without Syrian  agreement).


The list of such factual mistakes is long and unfortunate, but most of those errors probably do not undermine the integrity of Zeitoun’s positions per se. Yet, some of his arguments are simply preposterous and cannot be dismissed as easily. Zeitoun insinuates that Israel duplicitously increased its water pumping in 1992 in order  to inflate its “historical allocations” in preparation for the ultimate water allocation negotiations two years later in the Oslo agreements. Indeed, anyone in Israel who followed the issue closely knows that the matter had nothing at all to do with Israeli manipulation of Palestinian water resources (with the Oslo process totally unimaginable to politicians and the public at the time the decisions were made) and everything to do with local politics. Technion Prof. Dan Zaslavsky, the  brilliant water commissioner appointed by Minister Rafael (Raful) Eitan (Tsomet Party), took office after the extreme 1990 drought and imposed very harsh (but  critical) cuts on the agricultural sector. When Yaakov Tsur of the Labor Party became the minister of agriculture, he unceremoniously sacked Zaslavsky, replacing him with a more compliant bureaucrat who was willing to return most of  the water to Israel’s farming sector. No international conspiracy — just good old-fashioned domestic water politics and environmental negligence. There are many other erroneous intimations that will leave Israeli readers annoyed and suspicious of Zeitoun’s motives. In short, it is hard enough to write about Israel’s water politics intelligently as an outsider, but to do so as a passionate adversary may be nearly impossible. The absence of a proofreader who is a local Israeli expert is also strongly apparent.


But beyond the factual mistakes, there are two fundamental problems with Zeitoun’s book, which fatally wound its scholarly and practical merits. One is a consistent lack of context. No government in Israel has ever claimed that water allocations to the Palestinian sector are equitable. They are not — and that is why  the Oslo II accords not only acknowledge Palestinian water rights but also cede in the final agreement that they will have to be met. The trouble is that water is only part of the negotiating package, and unfortunately, one of the components for which Israel is willing to make concessions. Clearly, Israel would not want to do so until in return it received concessions on, say, the right of return. It is for this reason that quietly, Israel has steadily increased water allocations to the Palestinians far beyond the levels required by the Oslo II interim agreement. But such information, like the fact that dozens of Palestinian villages were linked to the water system by Israeli engineers (even during the worst days of the intifada), which might shed a beam of positive light on Israel, is conveniently omitted.


The tragedy of the present hydro-political impasse is directly linked to the overall unfortunate lack of progress in reaching a final agreement. Surely, the Palestinians bear some culpability here as well. The lack of context is particularly  strong in the case studies. One can criticize the Israeli military activities in Jenin  as disproportionate. But they had nothing to do with water politics; rather, they were the Israeli response to terrorism. The same is true of the separation fence,  which has proven to be a highly effective tool for reducing terrorist incursions. In short, the overall context and narrative is an ongoing military conflict — not a  struggle over water rights.


The other fatal flaw is quite simply that the issue of water in this region is in flux and while Power and Water in the Middle East is a 2009 publication, it is already  hopelessly out of date. In later chapters, when Zeitoun relies on Israeli data, they do not go beyond 2003 — meaning that for the most part, the numbers reflect  policies that are a decade old. He still refers to an Israeli Water Commission, even though for several years — based on a 2005 government decision — Israel has had a Water Authority, with a different (and decidedly non-agricultural) bias. Zeitoun mentions the opening of the Ashkelon desalination plant in passing, but fails to grasp how it reflects a whole new generation of such facilities, which, for better  or worse, promise a fairly immediate 50 percent increase in supply. This new,  inexpensive (and at some level limitless) source of water has entirely changed domestic and transboundary water dynamics in Israel. The author’s somewhat  archaic presentation leads one to believe that he is oblivious to climate change, which has hit the region with a vengeance. Average renewable water resources  for Israel have dropped by more than 12 percent during the past 16 years, from 1,350 to 1,175 mm3. This has to change the way everyone in the region considers past hydrological equations and assumptions, along with future challenges about water supply. Israel is starting to make this transition. However, it is not clear whether Zeitoun or Palestinian decision makers have.


The truth of the matter is that the Israeli–Palestinian water conflict will not be resolved by poly-sci polemics, but rather by addressing people’s problems and providing them and their economies with the water resources they need and deserve in order to prosper. The peace treaty with Jordan was not a pretty or principled piece of hydro-diplomacy. But it did and does contribute to improving the growing Jordanian water deficits.


Zeitoun spends much time trying to mock Israel’s attempt to shift the argument from one about water “rights” to a focused discourse over actual “needs.”  “Rights  first,” he argues, and joins the dogmatic position generally held by Palestinian NGOs. This may be a legitimate position, but Israel has always disputed its  assumptions and will continue to do so. After 15 years of paralysis, perhaps it is time to agree to disagree over theories and find another basis upon which to  solve the acute crisis at hand. Power and Water in the Middle East may be a valuable  book to read for the more avid observers of water politics, especially in Israel and among its supporters, who desperately need to do a better job of understanding  the other side in this conflict. Its primary value, however, is as an artifact — an undiluted expression of the traditional, belligerent Palestinian position which has sadly led to little or no progress on the very regional issue where progress is possible. Indeed, it is easy to take a principled position in London when one can turn on the tap and leisurely enjoy a shower and wash dishes. But a more flexible, pragmatic engineering-driven approach might long ago have provided potable water for the same Palestinian villagers whose cause Zeitoun so fervently champions.




Dr. Alon Tal is a co-founder of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.



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Did You Know?

Israel's largest single source of fresh water is the Mountain Aquifer, much of which runs under the West Bank.

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