Sanders must make water his first priority in Palestine

Sanders must make water his first priority in Palestine
Comment: Bernie Sanders gets many things wrong about Palestine, writes Wilson Dizard. But he's right about the centrality of water resources to any future peace deal.
8 min read
28 Feb, 2019
Berine Sanders is a favourite on the left, but he's been disappointing on Palestine [Getty]
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced his run for president last week. If he ends up winning in 2020, his presidency has the potential to transform the US relationship with Israel and Palestinians. As America's first Jewish president, Sanders would be able to participate in the conversation over the conflict unlike any previous executive.

Caution is necessary. Sanders has disappointed Palestine
activists in the past, sometimes taking a classic "both sides" approach that is common in Washington, even though the scale of violence against Palestinians by Israelis is far greater than the reverse. He has also been lukewarm on the issue of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, not supporting it himself but also condemning attempts to criminalise it.

Sanders' record does not reach an unalloyed level of wokeness on Israel/Palestine, although he has distanced himself from the Israel lobby's talking points. During the uproar over Ilhan Omar's comments on AIPAC, Sanders reportedly called his fellow Democratic legislator to offer his support and solidarity.

Nevertheless, compared with almost all of his fellow presidential contenders, Sanders is likely to be more receptive to Palestinian activists in the United States and around the globe. If he wins in 2020, the job for Palestinians and their allies is to figure out exactly what Sanders should do to improve the lives of Palestinians. Beyond that, activists need to figure what a Sanders presidency could do to end Apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians.

The idea that activists could have an ear in the Oval Office has seemed so absurd for so long that the activist community has never before had reason to think that far ahead. They may in 2020.

address Sanders prepared in March 2016 for the annual America Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference provides a window into what he might do as president. In his speech he gets some things right and other things wrong.

But what Sanders gets right in recognising the central nature of water to the conflict should be reason for cautious optimism.

Sanders denounces Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for strangling the Palestinian economy and upbraids Israeli forces for targeting civilians in Gaza. Those are all refreshing moments of honesty from an American presidential candidate. But the Vermont senator also endorses the "two state solution" for Israel and Palestine, as other presidents, including the current one, have done.

This is perhaps the most wrong part of the entire address.

"The road towards peace will be difficult. We all know that. I cannot tell you exactly how it will look - I do not believe anyone can - but I believe firmly that the only prospect for peace is the successful negotiation of a two-state solution," Sanders said.

"But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people."

Carving out a viable, independent and sovereign state for Palestinians has in 2019 withered into a half-remembered dream of the 20th century. Even if Israeli armed forces, settlers and border police left the West Bank and ended the siege of Gaza, the Palestinians would be far from liberated, remaining surrounded by Israel with only limited access to the sea.

Getting Palestinian products from the West Bank to any port in Gaza would require either going through Israeli territory or establishing some kind of territorial corridor between the two cantons. Given Israel's unwillingness to let even sick patients needing medical treatment cross from Gaza to the West Bank, it seems unlikely the occupation's enforcers would have much sympathy for olive oil.
Control of water resources is vital to the sovereignty of a Palestinian state [AFP]

There might have been a time when the British Mandate of Palestine could have become two sovereign countries, but the drafts of those maps are antiques from the 1940s now.

The "two state solution" is a fantasy, a way of making Apartheid appear like justice. Beyond this, there is no way to create a Palestinian state that could match Israel in military power. How are the Palestinians supposed to fly their own fleet of fighter jets? They don't even have their own airport. And it seems foolish to imagine a Palestinian nuclear weapons programme as robust as the Israeli one.

There is no way to find a "separate but equal" solution to Israel/Palestine. There is, however, hope in a "together and equal" solution, where Palestinians have the same rights Israelis have, including to vote in Israeli elections. This makes more sense. The Israelis are not going to just leave billions of dollars in investment, including brand new roads and whole city-sized settlements for Palestinians to drive on and live in.

A single state solution follows the course of history and economic development more closely than trying to split apart two peoples whose countries are like conjoined twins, sharing the same heart in the same sacred city.

More than some Biblical scale urban renewal can alleviate, water resources and topography are also reasons why an Israeli departure from the West Bank is not going to happen.

Most of the water used to farm, wash and drink, by Israelis and Palestinians from Prime Minister Netanyahu to the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, resides in aquifers underneath the West Bank.

Ceding control of this vital resource to a fully sovereign Palestine does not sound like something any Israeli government would do. Beyond that, the West Bank is also at a higher elevation than Tel Aviv, making the area a natural fortress. That's the reason why, for the past 3,000 years, anyone who has established a political authority here has done so from a city nestled between its peaks. Sanders isn't going to change that.

Sanders perhaps can be forgiven for not dropping the "one state solution" mic at AIPAC in the middle of his first run for president. Although more technically feasible than the the "two state solution", it also faces fierce opposition even from the more liberal elements in the Israel lobby.

J-Street, AIPAC's hippy cousin, declined to denounce Rep. Ilhan Omar for suggesting money had something to do with lobbying for Israel, but J-Street's mission statement still calls for two states for two peoples.

Gazans and West Bank Palestinians getting the right to vote would go a long way to making Israel the fortress of democracy it claims to be, but it would also mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish country. More than democracy, maintaining the demographic status quo has become the existential purpose, and perpetual crisis, of Israeli political life.

Palestinians in the occupied territories having a say in the leadership that affects them, just like people of colour voting in the American South, is considered the equivalent of destroying Israel.

A lasting peace will have to recognise Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water

But what Sanders got right is more important than what he got wrong. It was just a short paragraph, but it was by far the most important in the entire address.

"Peace will also mean ending the economic blockade of Gaza. And it will mean a sustainable and equitable distribution of precious water resources so that Israel and Palestine can both thrive as neighbours," Sanders said.

"Right now, Israel controls 80 percent of the water reserves in the West Bank. Inadequate water supply has contributed to the degradation and desertification of Palestinian land. A lasting peace will have to recognise Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water."

Negotiating water resources is where Sanders needs to start. In a conflict fuelled by unprovable assertions, blatant falsehoods and the non-negotiable imperatives of devotion, water is the one of the few quantifiable aspects. And Sanders is right about water's importance.

For almost the entirety of human history on Earth, Quds/Jerusalem was a beautiful arrangement of rolling hills, and not a city at all. But during that whole time, any human who passed through there couldn't go three days without water before dying of dehydration. After the autonomic chore of breathing, finding and ingesting potable water is a top priority for the human body.

More pointedly, providing Palestinians more water for irrigation could boost Palestinian agriculture and improve Palestinian economic prospects. Israel's economy, the famed "Start Up Nation", does not rely on agriculture as it did in 1950. It's a deal that would mean a small sacrifice for Israel and a huge benefit for Palestinians.

Of course, doing anything to benefit Palestinians is not exactly a habit of the current Israeli government, when it comes to water or anything else. In Gaza, especially, a lack of clean water creates severe hardships for civilians. The reasons for this shortage include both the Israeli blockade and the mismanagement of scarce groundwater resources.

Pollution, also, plays a significant role, with human and industrial waste seeping into aquifers on which both Palestinians and Israelis depend. Unregistered wells and illegal settlements without proper sanitation systems contribute to the pollution. Climate change, a problem so big it's tough to even imagine, makes focusing on water all the more urgent.

A peace plan put forth by a Sanders administration must appreciate and address the ecological and climatic factors that perpetuate the Israel/Palestine conflict. Indeed, a Sanders peace plan should have more in common with the Green New Deal than with the failed Oslo Accords. With a lot of luck, maybe that could happen.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.