Israel, U.S. Seek to Defuse Tension from Lebanese Water Use Scheme

In the parched Middle East, playing with water is playing with fire.

With Lebanon moving forward with plans to divert a major source of Israel’s water supply, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that the project could become a casus belli.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud replied that the decision to tap the Wazzani River was “final and irreversible.” Hezbollah threatened that “the hand of Israel would be cut off” if it tried to interfere in the project.

American experts who toured the southern Lebanon waterworks on Monday hoped to keep the water crisis from reaching a boil.

Lebanon insisted that the American team was just technical, and that any dispute over the water would have to be decided by the United Nations.

The Americans, for their part, said they did not intend to mediate between the two sides, but only to gather facts and urge both countries to keep the situation in check.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other members of the “Quartet” — the European Union, United Nations and Russia — to discuss the issue. Powell reportedly told Peres that the United States takes the issue very seriously.

With good reason. The dispute comes as the Bush administration has been working hard to prevent the Palestinians, Syrians or Hezbollah from opening a second front with Israel as a means of inflaming the region and blocking momentum toward an attack on Iraq.

Israel is sensitive to Washington’s interest in dampening the issue — yet feels it can not tolerate the Lebanese move, both for its practical implications and for the precedent it sets.

In Washington last week, Peres discussed the crisis with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

“We do not want a flare-up,” Peres said, “but we will not give up water.”

Israel also sent Noah Kinarti, a veteran expert on water issues, to Washington to try to present Israel’s case to the Bush administration.

There seemed to be no differences on the issue among Sharon, Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, all of whom forcefully condemned the Lebanese project.

Lebanon recently finished laying a pipeline to carry pumped water from the Wazzani River to several villages in southern Lebanon.

According to the Lebanese, the project should supply the needs of only five to six villages. Israel believes the project is much bigger, and is geared to serve about 60 towns and villages.

The Wazzani is a tributary of the Hatzbani River, which is one of three key sources of the Jordan River. That flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main water reservoir.

The Lebanese project could divert some millions of cubic meters from the lake, which already has suffered major water loss in recent years due to drought.

On Tuesday, Ben-Eliezer estimated that the Wazzani provides up to 10 percent of Israel’s water. While it is not a matter of life and death for Israel — which provides some 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan every year under a peace agreement — the diversion would be not only a blow but a worrying precedent.

The current crisis is not the first one over Lebanese plans to divert the Wazzani. In March 2001, Lebanon laid a water pipe from the Wazzani to a nearby village. Israel also issued a harsh warning, but calmed down after the Lebanese government said it was only a four-inch-wide pipe for local use.

Then, in August 2001, a Lebanese farmer placed a small pump near the Israeli border which he used to water his fields. After warnings, Israel ultimately swallowed that pill as well.

However, the new efforts — which involve a 20-inch-wide pipe — are seen as a serious attempt to divert the Wazzani. They also are seen as part of a pattern of provocations by Hezbollah, with the blessing of Syria, to ignite the region ahead of a possible American attack on Iraq.

The U.N. resolution that mandated the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 also obligated the Lebanese government to take control of the region afterward. The Lebanese government has declined to assert its authority in the south, however, essentially leaving Hezbollah free to do as it pleases, under Syrian sponsorship.

For its part, Hezbollah, which sought international legitimacy as a resistance movement against Israeli occupation, has been searching for a raison d’etre since the Israeli withdrawal. Perhaps to that end, Hezbollah has been trying to provoke Israel into a military confrontation along the border.

Its provocations have intensified since the Palestinian intifada began two years ago, and have focused on the Shaba Farms region near the border with Syria. Hezbollah says the area is Lebanese territory, a claim that Israel — and the United Nations — dismiss.

Hezbollah fighters captured and, apparently, killed three Israeli soldiers along the border in October 2000. They continue to hold an Israeli businessman they kidnapped from Europe several weeks later.

Hezbollah often fires anti-aircraft rockets — sending shrapnel falling on Galilee communities — and has caused several casualties among Israeli soldiers deployed along the border.

Most ominously, Hezbollah — with Syrian and Iranian aid — has deployed along the border long-range missiles that can hit Haifa and other Israeli population centers.

So far Israel has restrained itself, but in recent weeks Israeli leaders have been issuing stiff warnings over the water project.

Israeli experts say this is the most serious Lebanese attempt to divert a major source of Israeli water. If Lebanon goes ahead with the plans to pump from the Wazzani, Sharon told the Cabinet last week, it would be “the type of thing that Israel cannot abide.”

Ben-Eliezer on Tuesday sounded a similar note, saying that “Israel can not tolerate the diversion” project, which he called “a violation of every agreement we have signed in the past.”

Lebanon says it is entitled under international law to take the Wazzani water. The problem, Lebanese officials said, is that Israel does not want to admit that its occupation of southern Lebanon has ended.

Sharing limited water sources often has caused tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

In October 1953, President Eisenhower sent an emissary to negotiate a water agreement among Israel and her neighbors. Under the plan that evolved, approximately 60 percent of the water of the Jordan River system was to be allocated to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, with the remaining 40 percent going to Israel.

The Arabs refused to sign the “Johnston Plan” because it implied cooperation with Israel, but the plan has served as a basis for subsequent water negotiations and unwritten understandings.

In 1964, Israel completed its national carrier to bring water from the north to the coastal plain and Negev. To foil the plan, Syria tried to divert a Jordan River tributary before it reached Israel.

Israel then bombed the Syrian waterworks in retaliation for raids from Syria into Israel. The incident was part of spiraling tensions between the two countries that helped ignite the Six-Day War.

Dan Zaslavsky, a former Israeli water commissioner, said that from a technical standpoint the current dispute could be resolved easily: Lebanon could divert the needed water from the Litani River, which spills into the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition, Zaslavsky told Israel Radio, the amount Israel uses could be made up for through desalination projects.

Failing that, he said, Israel could resolve the whole matter with just a “few tank shells” at the pipe, citing the 1964 dispute with Syria.

Ben-Eliezer was placing his faith in a less martial course.

“I trust the Americans to stop it,” he said Tuesday.

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