I do not normally dedicate blogs. After yesterday, it may become a habit. This one, however, is doubly dedicated, and to two people who are still alive. First, I dedicate this blog to my son, Daniel, who, as a very committed environmentalist, has taught me a great deal about the dangers of oil spills in particular, particularly with respect to the Canadian Gateway and Keystone pipeline proposals, and climate change in general. Secondly, I dedicate this blog to my colleague at York University, Professor Stuart Schoenfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org if you want the same information), whom I last saw with his wife, Joan, when we were visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House in Buffalo a few years back. Stuart is a member of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information, and regularly shares with me (electronically) stories of environmental threats as well as areas of cooperation in the Middle East, but particularly between Israel and Jordan and between Israel and the Palestinians. (Website “Environment and Climate in the Middle East” – http://mideastenvironment.apps01.yorku.ca/ I just want to reassure him that I am grateful and still read his missives. This blog, and the one tomorrow on the UN General Assembly decision on Friday to hold Israel responsible for the oil spill on the Lebanon Coast in 2006, are intended to serve as proof.
In a recent blog, I reported that Jordan will be joining the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the first of January. In that role, Jordan has circulated a resolution to be passed by the UNSC sidelining the USA in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and calling for an end to Israeli occupation, withdrawal of military troops from the West Bank by 2017, and the conclusion of a peace treaty within a year based on the 4 June 1967 borders, with equitable, limited and agreed land swaps, a just outcome for the Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem as the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine. Israel, including key leaders in the opposition, have rejected the proposal outright. Israel has promised to work for its defeat, though, at this time, it looks like the resolution may win the 9 votes needed to pass. The U.S. has promised to veto the resolution. Yet Jordan boasts that it is closer to the Obama administration, the government and even the Republican dominated Congress than Israel.
I promised to answer the question of why Jordan would make such a boast. Even though Jordan’s initiative strengthens the rightwing in Israel by confirming that Israel lacks a serious partner with which to negotiate a peace agreement, Dow Marmur in his blog speculated that the reason Jordan sponsored the resolution in the UNSC is because Jordan, as well as the PLO and Egypt, prefer the status quo to an independent Palestine in which there is a good possibility that Hamas could come to power. I will be offering my own answer to my question and Dow’s speculation, though in a roundabout way.
Amman, the capital of Jordan, is gorgeous, with buildings constructed out of the same Jerusalem stone as those in the city from which that stone gets its name. The people are exceptionally hospitable. Even in a very poor house in a Palestinian refugee camp, a mother with her children swarming around her will offer me tea and even a sweet if she has any. Yet with all that hospitality and generosity, Jordan is the archetype of a state and an administration walking a tightrope. I do not mean this merely as a metaphor. Jordan is a tightrope. Jordan is a string of urban areas running north to south along the eastern border of the West Bank and Israel – Irbun, Ajloun, Jerash, Zarqua, Salt, Amman, Madaba along the top half bordering the West Bank that I referred to in my blog yesterday, and Karak, Petra and Aqaba parallel to the border with Israel on the southern portion of that string of cities. Jordan is more akin to Canada in that sense, but on a north-south rather than an east-west urban axis.
Except, while Canada stretches enormously from sea to sea to sea – from the Atlantic Ocean in the east, the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Pacific Ocean in the west – Jordan is virtually landlocked. Further, Jordan has a scarcity of water. There is more fresh water that I can see from my cottage in Georgian Bay, Ontario, than Jordan, Palestine and Israel possess all together. However, Jordan, unfortunately, does not have the responsibility of Canada, or even its not so-secret “partner”, Israel, in preserving coastline, and managing the competition between the tourist/development industry and the environmental ministry as the latter resists the efforts of the former in its efforts to convert pristine coastline at the northern end of Palmahim beach into a large resort on the Mediterranean rather than a nature reserve. Jordan can only wish that it had such problems.
Nevertheless, Jordan has led the world in a number of areas, especially in developing norms to deal with migrating human populations. Further, in the specific problem of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it did set two precedents in the building blocks towards a two-state solution. First, in the face of rising Palestinian nationalism, in 1988, the King of Jordan, a country of a core 35,480 square kilometres, gave up any claims to the West Bank, the almost 6,000 square kilometres of territory that Jordan had conquered and then annexed following the 1948 war, an annexation that few other countries recognized, but which hardly any countries protested – in stark contrast to Israel’s “occupation”. Secondly, in 1966, Jordan engaged in a trade of territory with another country. In 1966, it alleviated its almost total landlocked character slightly by trading territory with Saudi Arabia on its east and extending its shoreline along the Gulf of Aqaba to 16 miles so that Aqaba could extend its port and recreational facilities.
If Canada is currently a relatively politically inconsequential actor on the world stage, Jordan is a very understated and under-rated one. Jordan’s achievements in receiving and integrating refugees is unparalleled. In the last three months, Jordan has received over 10,000 refugees from Iraq fleeing the advance of the Islamic State (IS) as well as sectarian violence in Baghdad and Basra. Recall that many of the half million Iraqi refugees that fled in 2003 remained in Jordan. Of the 3.2 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR, over 620,000 registered refugees have found a safe haven in Jordan, though just last week Jordan had to suspend the free health care services offered to those refugees in state-run hospitals because of a financial crisis. In fact, taking into consideration the estimated almost 800,000 unregistered Syrian refugees in Jordan as well as the registered refugees, the total of Syrian refugees alone in Jordan is probably over 1.4 million. And that is in a country with a citizen population of only six million! Compare that with the Canadian government’s cut off of health services for refugees who did not number 2% of that total and posed very little pressure on the economics of health in Canada. And my country cannot even manage to take in the 1,300 Syrian refugees it promised, 0.1% of Jordan’s intake, in a country with a population of 35 million rather than just over six million.
Even before the arrival of the 1.4 million Syrian refugees from the current civil war in Syria and the influx of refugees from Iraq, over 50% of its population consists of Palestinians who fled what became Israel in its war with the Arab states in 1948, as well as those who fled when Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. It is estimated that, of Jordan’s over six million naturalized population, 3.25 million are Palestinians. Unlike any other Arab country, the Palestinian refugees have almost all been given citizenship. And this in a country with few natural resources. Even Israel’s natural water shortage seems minor compared to that of Jordan.
But water is a basis for a relatively unknown area of extensive cooperation between Israel and Jordan. I first learned of this partnership when, as a producer and host of the TV program Israel Today, we did a full hour show out of Eilat on the coordination between Israel and Jordan on the preservation of turtles in the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat. The cooperation on water and the environment is far more extensive and deeper (no pun intended) than the relatively minor issue of turtles.
In Sunday’s edition of Haaretz, in an article on water shortage in the Middle East that, through yet another lens in its repeated theme of fostering Israel as the economic and technological saviour of the region and, therefore, the key agent for ensuring security, prosperity and peace, the newspaper reported both that the journal Climatic Change, published a study claiming that a drought was responsible for the collapse of the Assyrian Empire 2,700 years ago, and that current estimates that 634 million people living in the Middle East by 2050 (double the current population) will be faced with even greater water shortages and a decline in precipitation. Israel’s advanced technology, desalination and water recycling, that have helped Israel to become a kind of regional water superpower, could play a role in the salvation of the Middle East from the current and worsening water crisis. After all, although the average amount of precipitation in Israel is 1.2 billion cubic meters, Israelis consume 2.2 billion cubic meters of fresh water, a shortage made up by technology, water conservation, desalination and recycling. Israel recycles an amazing 87% of its water, whereas the second most successful political jurisdiction recycles only 25% and the third most successful only 10%.
Since 1994, Jordan has stored water from winter rains and the rise in levels of the Yarmouk River in Israel’s Sea of Galilee. Israel then pumps the water back to Jordan in the summer. Water preservation is crucial to Jordan’s survival. Water agreements, that were part of that 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, provided that Israel would provide Jordan with an additional 55 million cubic meters of water per year. For food security, Jordan needs to practice the highest degree of water preservation and re-cycling. In the Arab countries in the region, annual renewable water resources per capita are less than 850 cubic metres (the world average is approximately 6,000 cubic metres), with Jordan ranking as the world’s second water-poorest country with water per capita 88% below the international poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres per capita, a need aggravated enormously by the huge influx of refugees and the fact that, at present, the agricultural sector utilizes 85% of total water withdrawals in contrast to the maximum 40% recommended by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
Israel and Jordan cooperate, not only on water conservation, but on water waste and theft. With some remote imagery by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) incorporating some Israeli technology, the Jordanian water authority discovered “stolen” water. An illegal 1.5 km pipe in Amman was siphoning off water into a storage pool on a farm guarded by fierce dogs behind Middle East University. The water was being re-sold to other farmers. In Amman, where inhabitants receive water twice every two weeks, that situation could be alleviated if 50% of the water that leaks or is stolen from the water distribution system could be halted.
Israel and Jordan not only share a vital resource, water, and a common interest is wise management of that resource, but they effectively share the same air and, in some sense, land. When five million litres of oil from the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline leaked in southern Israel near the Jordanian border into the Arava nature reserve after a vehicle, being used in the construction of the new international airport to be shared between Israel and Jordan, crashed into and broke a section of the 245 kilometre Ashkelon Eilat crude oil pipeline on Wednesday evening on the 4th of December, Highway 90 was closed as was the town of Be’er Ora, 20 km. north of Eilat. Ironically, on the same day, a convention opened in Tel Aviv to implement Israel’s national plan for developing oil alternatives for transportation, the Eilat-Eilot Green Energy Conference. That meeting was intended also to celebrate the implementation of a plan to have the whole southern area up to the Dead Sea fully solar-powered by 2016, a plan somewhat at odds with the licensing of a Canadian company, Transeuro Energy Corporation, to develop the Hamzah Oil Field in Al Azraq.
In response to the smell from the Israeli oil pipeline leak, and the memory of the explosion of a gas well in Eilat two weeks earlier, panicked residents of Aqaba swamped the emergency rooms of Prince Hashem Bin Abdullah Military Hospital and the Islamic Hospital by citizens suffering from shortness of breath and an increased heartbeat. The panic was not medically justified, but it was understandable given the noxious smell of rotten eggs given off as a result of the oil spill that increased the hydrogen sulfide in the air above the acceptable level of 30 parts per billion (ppb) to 80 ppb and instead of the normal 1-2 ppb in Aqaba. Jordanians also feared that the gas would explode and, initially, that the oil would contaminate the Wadi Rum nature reserve north of Aqaba where a reintroduction and release program by the Jordanian EAD environmental agency of the endangered Nubian Ibex – 30 males and 70 females – had just begun.
I have not heard whether the heavy rainfall that took place a few days later allowed oil to seep deep into the aquifers and into the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea endangering the coasts and the coral reefs. I suspect not since the truism, “No news is good news,” applies, especially to the environment. The rapid response of the Israeli Environmental agency, and the proximity of Neot Hovav, formerly Ramat Hovav, 12 km south of Beersheba as Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility, probably enabled the spill to be controlled quickly.
In Jordan, fear of another kind sits immediately under the skin. Syria occupies its northern border. There is the constant dread that the Syrian War will spill over into Jordan, especially since a shortage of water in Syria from the 2006-2009 drought is viewed as a precipitating cause of that civil war. There is fear that Jordan will follow the path of its neighbours in the Arab Spring and, in the quest for greater democracy and more liberties, Jordanians might seek to overthrow King Abdullah II and turn Jordan into a failed state. There is the fear that now permeates the whole Middle East that radical Islamicists and jihadists, like Islamic State (IS), will cross the border from Iraq and Syria, infiltrate and create havoc in Jordan or, as in Syria, gain control of a crucial water source just as IS took control of the Tabqa Dam there in February 2013. There is the fear that radical Palestinians will seek to turn Jordan into part of the state of Palestine and a base from which to conquer the West Bank and even hope to defeat Israel, as the PLO once tried to do before Black September in 1970. There is even the fear that the strict form of Islam, Wahhabism, practiced in Saudi Arabia, will cross over its eastern border, particularly given past historical tensions between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. After all, the Saudis displaced the Hashemites from Hejaz after WWI and the Hashemites received Jordan as a consolation prize from the British Empire. Saudi Arabia has always been, to a small degree, wary of Jordan.
During the Persian Gulf War, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were at loggerheads. After all, Jordan, given its great financial dependency on trade with Iraq and, along with the PLO, obtaining oil from Iraq at a discount, was one of the very few polities to back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. After Iraq’s defeat by George H. W. Bush, Jordan was in dismal straits as both Jordanians and other Palestinians fled back to Jordan when they were evicted by Kuwait following Iraq’s defeat. Trade with Iraq had fallen to zero. This turned into a double whammy, since the previously large flow of remittances also dried up. By 1996, Abdullah, when he was still a prince, made the required trip to Saudi Arabia in contrition. In 2014, Jordan is now fronting the Arab League, dominated by Saudi Arabia, in sponsoring its Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal.
Given its borders, one has to understand the insecurities of the Jordanians. The only border which feels relatively secure is its border with Israel. Since all of Jordan’s major rivers are in the west running into the Rift Valley of the Middle East, environmental cooperation with Israel is not only a good idea, it is imperative. Further, Israel has the same border insecurities as Jordan, but in spades – from the Hezbollah-Lebanon border on the north, an increasingly radicalized Islamic State deployed along the border with Syria on the north-east where there is a rising possibility of Israel intervening in the Syrian conflict following an alliance between the rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades and IS, and the Hamas self-destructive madness in Gaza to the south; once again Hamas is trying to rearm and improve its missile capabilities while regaining its support from Iran only to have Israel respond to a one-off rocket attack from Gaza by bombing Gaza’s cement factory. Thus, cooperation between Israel and Jordan is not only imperative on the environment, so too is it on the political front.
Tom Friedman had described John Kerry’s peace initiative, while it was underway, as the last train to catch if peace was to be achieved, otherwise the train would run over both parties and turn into a wreck leaving the two-state solution dead on the tracks. In this past Friday’s NYT, Friedman saw one last hope – in the cooperation between Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmentalists as a model for preventing the political atmosphere as well as the environmental one becoming more toxic. Friedman wrote about the water crisis in Gaza; Gaza’s one hydro generating plant was severely damaged in the recent Fifty Day Gaza War so desalination has been greatly reduced. Israel seems the only source to provide the electric power needed to run the desalinization plant if it is repaired. The Gaza aquifers are becoming so brackish that the water is becoming undrinkable, a situation not helped by the propensities of Gazans to dig their own private wells. Untreated waste travels up the coast to Ashkelon so that Israelis get a slight taste of living in a waste management dump. In providing answers to those shared problems, interdependence and trust, Friedman argued, are fostered.
I agree with Friedman’s argument. The Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) meeting in Amman in November highlighted the issue of food insecurity faced by Arab states (they import over 50% of their food needs). With increased aridity, limited cultivable land, scarce water resources and population growth, as well as the compounding effects of climate change, the situation can only get worse.
Jordan is no slouch when it comes to the environment. Amman has been named by the Rockefeller Foundation as one of the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) declared ready to respond to the social, economic and physical shocks and stresses anticipated in this century. As both urbanization and globalization both grow apace, as anyone visiting Mexico City would have to notice, we are confronted by climate change, natural and man-made disasters, super-typhoons and category 5 hurricanes, booming populations and waning potable water, droughts and floods. Gaza last month suffered record-breaking floods, especially around Sheikh Radwan storm water lagoon, that forced the evacuation of homes and the closure of 63 schools. With very little of the aid promised reaching those needing to re-build, the situation is exacerbated by the 100,000 Gazans still homeless after the end of the Gaza War earlier this year.
As for droughts, Jordan, Israel and Palestine all face a future of a steady increase in temperatures of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius, more dry spells, as well as very much heavier rains and longer dry periods with a net drop in precipitation and an increase in evaporation, with the northern forests and freshwater ecosystems in the Jordan Rift Valley being the most vulnerable. The future until 2050 looks even worse as the region faces a rise in sea levels, extreme rainfall producing runoff and flooding, alternating with even more extreme droughts connected to rises in sea surface temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations. Add to this, increased economic inequalities and increasing irregular migration flows, a decaying and inadequate infrastructure and hyper-expensive health care, then solutions have to be found collectively and in large urban areas, not in sand swept marginal farms from which an astronaut cowboy will emerge to save the world as in Interstellar.
Thus, the main issue is not about where to draw the borders that divide, but how to unite to save the space and water both societies share, how to have the three states of Israel, Palestine and Jordan share one homeland. If they cannot share the environment, they will never be able to share Jerusalem.
To return to our original question, why did Jordan boast that it had better access than Israel, not only to the Obama administration and the American government, but to the Republican-dominated Congress? Is there any validity in Rabbi Marmur’s speculation that Jordan and the PLO have a vested interest in the status quo and prefer an administration of the right in Israel with whom they cannot make peace rather than a government of the left when the resistance to making a peace agreement will shift back to them?
I have a simple answer to the Jordan access issue which I will document in more detail, hopefully, later this week.
In the interim, I suggest the answer to both questions is “Yes!” For though Bibi Netanyahu may be a Republican in disguise, he sometimes pisses even American right-wingers off. In contrast, Jordan, even when it introduces a UN resolution that the USA promises to veto, coordinates and explains its policies in detail to the Americans. Jordan has close connections and has fully informed both the Obama administration and Congress that the proposed resolution in the UNSC is a feint. The Obama administration understands basketball. It understands that the path to a peace agreement will not be a straight line and that an agreement coming from the right might have more resilience than one coming from the left. After Kerry’s year-long immersion in the negotiations, it is clear that even if the centre-left in Israel comes to power in March, there will be no peace agreement. As there was not when Meridor and Barak made their generous offers to the Palestinians. But the Arab League must be kept on side.