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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 23, 2005

RAMIFICATIONS OF... 1) the Palestinian Legislative Council new electoral system? 2) A "Red-Dead Canal"?

Q. The Palestinian Legislative Council recently ratified a new electoral system for the July 17 national elections. President Abbas wants to change it. In the backdrop is the likelihood that Hamas will register remarkable electoral achievements in these elections. What considerations underlie this dynamic, and what are its broader ramifications?

A. The Council voted last week to enlarge itself from 88 to 132 members. Of these, two-thirds would be elected in July in a regional/district representative system, with the remaining one-third chosen from national lists. This system to some extent represents a victory for the more traditional Fatah line over the reforms proposed by Abbas (Abu Mazen) and promised by him to Hamas.

In the Cairo agreement between Abbas and Hamas some five months ago, Hamas agreed to participate in the July elections on condition that the electoral system be revised so that fully 50 percent of the Council members are chosen from national lists. The Fatah majority in the current Council, in opting for only one-third to be chosen this way, argues somewhat dubiously that, by enlarging the council by half, Hamas still gets to compete for the same number (44) of nationally elected members as if Council membership remained at 88 and half were chosen nationally.

Abbas is adamantly standing by the Cairo agreement, lest Hamas pull out of the elections and abandon the current troubled ceasefire. Hence he now insists that 50 percent of 132 be chosen nationally, threatening otherwise to veto the new legislation. According to some accounts, he wants the entire Council to be elected from a national list, Israeli- (and Iraqi-) style. Council Judicial Committee Chairman Ziad Abu-Zayyad told me he is prepared to consider amending the procedure to a 66-66 basis.

Meanwhile election preparations can't begin until the system is decided. Some Fatah activists, aware of the movement's disarray and current lack of voter appeal, are interested in further delays that would postpone elections and perhaps provoke a Hamas withdrawal.

Behind the obvious Fatah-Hamas jockeying for power and the debate about the electoral system lie issues fraught with heavy long-term ramifications. One is the internal debate within Fatah concerning the pros and cons of different electoral systems. Abbas appears to believe that the safest way to bring Hamas into Palestinian politics is to have the largest possible proportion of Council members elected on the basis of a single national list. In this way if, say, even 40 percent of Palestinians vote for Hamas candidates, Fatah will still be able to rally a working majority among the remaining 60 percent, who will be Fatah candidates along with independents and secular leftists. Abbas also fears that the internal frictions within Fatah will hurt the movement at the polls if district constituency representative elections are held, because regional Fatah leaders will fail to agree on candidates. The internal Fatah opposition to Abbas on this issue argues that regional constituency elections will serve Fatah better, insofar as they award greater influence to clan politics where Fatah remains strong and where its corrupt and squabbling image will have less impact on voters.

The ultimate Council decision on these issues could be momentous, both in determining the timing and composition of elections and in setting the future agenda for Palestinian society. As Israelis have known since 1949, once you opt for the single national constituency system, which is the most purely democratic, you are liable to enshrine in power a variety of minorities capable of exploiting coalition politics to prevent almost any further change in the system.

Meanwhile, Hamas leaders are beginning to refer disparagingly to the Council scheduled to be chosen on July 17, and to hint that Hamas intends to exercise its primary influence within the PLO, not the PA. This approach is based on the assumption that Hamas' electoral achievement in the Council will, according to the agreement with Abbas, be translated into proportional representation within the ranks of the PLO as well. This could enable Hamas to continue to argue that it does not recognize the Oslo accords, which created the PA and its Council.

But Oslo also recognized the PLO as Israel's interlocutor for further peace talks. Moreover, by enlarging the Council from 88 to 132 members, the Council's Fatah majority is unilaterally altering a central provision of the Oslo accords, which established the Council. Fatah leaders argue in their defense that the new change is irrelevant, insofar as Oslo has been violated regularly since 1999, when final status talks were supposed to end.

Not that the Oslo accords were ever favored by Israeli PM Sharon as the framework for progress in the first place. Meanwhile, the fate of the Palestinian elections, and more significantly their outcome, are so uncertain that it is virtually impossible to predict the course of Palestinian-Israeli relations after July 17.

Q. Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the World Bank recently signed an agreement to carry out a feasibility study for a "Red-Dead Canal". What are the political ramifications?

A. Israel and Jordan just agreed in principle to renew planning for a number of joint economic projects that have been dormant since the peace process collapsed nearly five years ago. The Red-Dead project is the only one of these that includes the Palestinians. It is also by far the most ambitious, expensive, and risky.

The waters of the Dead Sea have been dropping at a rate of one meter a year for some time now, resulting in a depletion of 30 percent of the sea's water thus far. At the present rate the sea will cease to exist by 2050. The water loss is caused primarily by Israeli, and to a lesser extent Jordanian, exploitation of the Jordan River and its tributaries for irrigation purposes and drinking water. Today the tiny quantity of water brought by the Jordan to the Dead Sea at the sea's northern end looks more like sewage. Israel and Jordan also operate burgeoning bromine and potash mining operations at the southern end of the sea, which require the evaporation of large quantities of the sea's water. Besides the rapid disappearing of the sea, the lowering of its water level causes dangerous sink-holes to form along the shores as a result of the influx of sweeter ground water.

As currently conceived, the Red-Dead project (with apologies to those in America who remember the "better red than dead" slogan of the early cold war years) would channel sea water north from the Red Sea nearly 200 kms. via canal and pipeline to refill the Dead Sea. On the way the water would drop some 400 meters below sea level, thus exploiting the Dead Sea's unique geography and enabling the generation of electricity. Some of the electrical power would be used to desalinate the Red Sea water by the reverse osmosis method, which separates out sweet water, leaving behind a heavy brine. Some 800 million cubic meters of sweet water per annum would be produced. Two-thirds of this would be utilized by Jordan, thereby alleviating its water shortage for the next 50 years. The heavy brine would flow into the dead sea, restoring its previous level within 15 years.

The feasibility study is needed to assess costs and environmental and other ramifications. One negative side-effect that is already known can be demonstrated in a bathtub. Add regular sea water to the mineral-thick water of the Dead Sea and a chemical reaction occurs that produces a layer of hard plaster on the surface of the water. This would immensely complicate mining efforts and preclude health tourism, a growing industry on both the Israeli and the Jordanian shores. For the project to succeed the feasibility study, which will cost $15 million and last two years, will have to propose ways to remedy this prospective development.

What made the launching of this project feasible from the Jordanian perspective is the success in integrating the Palestinians into it. Virtually all prospective final status maps award the Palestinian state the northwestern portion of the Dead Sea, near Jericho; without their inclusion in the project the Jordanian leadership hesitated to proceed. For the Palestinians, the long term payoff lies in the restoration of their designated portion of the Dead Sea--it would otherwise have soon disappeared, whereas now they will presumably also wish to mine it for potash and bromine--and in allocation of all or most of the remaining third of the desalinated water for their use.

But herein lies a catch. In discussing water issues in the course of various peace negotiations, Palestinians and Israelis have generally been at loggerheads. The PLO position, backed by other Arab neighbors like Syria, holds that in the course of more than 50 years Israel has taken far more than its fair share of the waters of the Jordan and its tributaries, and that since 1967 Israel has unfairly exploited West Bank water for its exclusive use and that of settlers, thereby depriving the Palestinians of vital water resources.

Israel acknowledges that, faced with the refusal of its Arab neighbors back in the 1950s and '60s to make peace, it went ahead and developed its water economy at a far more rapid pace than theirs. But it disputes the figures. In particular, it argues that West Bank and Gaza settlers have used water supplied by pipeline from Israel rather than locally-pumped water. At the same time, Israel recognizes that for a Palestinian state to thrive and develop it will need additional water resources; it proposes they be supplied by desalination of Mediterranean waters. Israel opposes the Palestinian demand that Israel agree to re-divide existing water resources, which in any case are a limited and even dwindling resource.

Had the Camp David II talks succeeded in July 2000, they would have generated an American-led plan to desalinate an initial 500 cubic meters per annum of Mediterranean water at plants in Gaza and along the Israeli coast, for subsidized supply to the Palestinian State. Meanwhile Israel is about to inaugurate its first Mediterranean desalination plant, capable of producing 100 cubic meters of fresh water a year for Israeli use.

Now the Palestinians have agreed in principle to accept a virtual gift of desalinated water from the prospective Red-Dead project. When asked by me how this affects the Palestinian demand to receive water currently used by Israel, Minister of Infrastructure Benyamin Ben Eliezer, the Israeli signatory on the feasibility study, told me at the signing ceremony at the World Economic Forum on the Jordanian Dead Sea coast on Saturday that the Palestinians agreed to set aside their traditional demands. In any case, he stated, their status in the project is that of an observer.

A senior Palestinian official disputed this interpretation, arguing that the Palestinians are full-fledged partners rather than observers and that they have reserved their right to reopen the water issue with regard to their traditional demands. His remarks reflect a concern on the Palestinian side lest the acceptance of desalinated Dead Sea water weaken their argument that Israel has been "stealing" their water. There is also the fear, that Jordan has obviously overcome--it has been receiving an annual allocation of 50 million cubic meters of water from the Jordan River in Israel since 1994--of becoming dependent on water co-produced with Israel. The Red-Dead canal, pipeline and electricity/desalination plant, incidentally, are envisaged to be constructed entirely in Jordanian territory.

The Red-Dead idea, and similar ideas for a Med-Dead canal and a canal from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River just below the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), have been floated for decades. All have the same objectives: producing electricity and drinking water and saving the Dead Sea by refilling it. The World Bank carried out a "pre-feasibility" study on the Red-Dead project back in 1995. Then the slowdown and eventual derailing of the peace process changed the atmosphere and precluded agreement on a feasibility study. The current agreement, which was negotiated over the course of the past two years--i.e., talks began at the height of the intifada and under Yasser Arafat's leadership--proves that the increasingly disastrous situation of the Dead Sea, and Jordanian and Palestinian water needs, are stronger than any political realities on the ground. Whether this positive posture can be maintained until the Red-Dead comes on line around a decade from now, remains to be seen.