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                     Publisher\Editor Don Canaan
                       July 19, 1995, V3, #130
All the News the Big Guys Missed

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Will the War over Water be won by the Arabs? by Ze'ev Schiff, Ha'aretz

The impression given by the declarations surrounding the interim agreement with the PLO is that the primary problem involves either the by-pass roads in the West Bank, or how Palestinian policemen and the settlers will treat each other. These issues are obviously important, but they are not the first priority.

To my mind, the water question is in first place, but unfortunately, it appears that question is being pushed into a secondary position, like on the Golan Heights. The importance of the issue, which is of great strategic significance, is once again being forgotten. The protection of water sources is connected to security, but the actual water is of far greater importance than the narrow concerns of security.

The case before us involves, before all else, the defense of Israel's largest and most important water reservoir:

Yarkon-Taninim. This aquifer -- which provides about 350 million cubic meters of water per year -- is located under the coastal region, from Hadera southward. It extends a few kilometers under the slope of the Samarian hills, and is thus called the "mountain aquifer" by many. The problem is that the interim agreement between Israel and the PLO could immediately and directly affect this essential water reservoir.

The interim agreement establishes that the Palestinians will receive control over major West Bank cities, including responsibility for internal security and public order. In rural areas, the Palestinians will be given power over civilian matters -- while, for the time being, Israel will maintain responsibility for internal security and public order. If we look at the border region near the Yarkon-Taninim water aquifer, we will discern that the Palestinians will receive civilian authority in nearby rural areas. Accordingly, their control over the mountain slopes, and over the area adjoining the aquifer, will be substantial.

Israel's understandable sensitivity to unsupervised water drilling in this strip has always been great. If the Palestinians receive even partial control in this strip, we will have to be doubly sensitive. It is sufficient to glance at what happened as a result of water drilling in the Gaza Strip (after Israel withdrew from the area). Hundreds of haphazard drilling expeditions have since been carried out in Gaza. It would seem that the Palestinian entity has lost control over what is being done in the water sphere. Israeli water experts have told the Palestinians that they are marching toward a catastrophe in this regard. Clearly, they are quickly heading toward a re-salination of water sources. The conclusion is that negotiations on water issues should neither, under any circumstances, be postponed until a later phase, nor discussed only superficially. Our general tendency is to leave the difficult issues until the final stage of the negotiations. In this case however, a delay would mean the possibility of very severe damage. The water issue, in this respect, is unlike other complicated issues like the refugees or Jerusalem -- because, here, the interim agreement can have an immediate effect. Given this, the discussion of water issues must be brought forward, and the parties must now determine the rules of conduct. If not, long-term damage will be caused -- not only to Israel, but also to the Palestinians.

True, the Palestinians and our other Arab neighbors also have water needs -- and we must not create a situation where one side has abundant water resources, while another does not even have drinking water -- but Israel must safeguard its vital interests, even before arriving at regional solutions. This struggle will involve even small quantities of water.

An example of this can be found in what is happening between Israel and Jordan. Even though the parties have reached an acceptable water agreement, the Jordanians have not scaled back in their efforts to achieve more for themselves. According to the agreement, we permitted Jordan to run a water pipeline through Israeli territory to the Beit Zera pool. Now, they have proposed extending this line to the Sea of Galilee, and have said that they are prepared to fund the construction of a pumping station there; obviously, this suggestion was rejected out of hand.

As for the Palestinians, it would be unconscionable to rely on their guarantee that everything will be fine in the area sloping toward the coastal aquifer, and that they will closely supervise the reservoir -- and we are not talking only about the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer, but also the smaller water aquifer at Gilboa (north-east of Jenin, which is to be evacuated). It must be that Israel retains supervision over drilling in the strip adjacent to the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer.

Israel has no lack of high-caliber water experts. The problem is how to integrate them, professionally and correctly, into the multilateral negotiations. They must fill no less a major role than the military personnel. It should never be forgotten that, if we fail to preserve our water resources in the north and on the Golan -- which will simultaneously affect the coastal aquifer -- Israel is liable to become a crippled state. Even drinking water will be scarce, and not just in border areas, but in Tel Aviv as well.

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