Government said set to approve long-stalled Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project

Government said set to approve long-stalled Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project

Minister responsible for talks on joint initiative with Jordan says approving plan will ‘strengthen the peace’ between Jerusalem and Amman

A view of the Dead Sea in southern Israel, on October 18, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)
A view of the Dead Sea in southern Israel, on October 18, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

After years of delay, the government is set to approve a highly touted joint project with Jordan for a canal linking the Red Sea and Dead Sea, according to an Israeli TV report.

An agreement on the canal was signed in 2013, with the aim of helping to alleviate Jordan’s severe water shortage while also helping replenish the fast-shrinking Dead Sea.

The project has long been delayed by bureaucratic hurdles, financing difficulties, and environmentalist objections, as well as diplomatic tensions between the countries.

According to a report by Israel’s Hadashot TV news Friday, the decision to bring the project to a cabinet vote came after secret talks in New York between Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and his Jordanian counterpart, as well as a visit by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat to Jordan.

The report said the cabinet would vote to approve $40 million in funding toward the project over the next 25 years when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns next week from his visit to Brazil.

“The Red Sea-Dead Sea canal will enable Jordan to deal with its water troubles, allow us to work toward saving the Dead Sea from drying up and most importantly strengthen the peace between us and an Arab state that maintains a peace agreement with Israel,” Hanegbi, a member of the Likud party, said in a statement to the network.

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi attends a press conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 13, 2017, announcing a water agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, making it the second and only other Arab country besides Egypt to establish diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

The repeated delays to the project have elicited anger from Jordan, which has reportedly demanded answers on whether Israel is still committed to its implementation.

Last month, the Haaretz daily reported Israel was seeking to advance work on the project as a means of improving its relations with Jordan.

The report said Israeli officials believe the repeated delays in implementing the project are a central factor in ongoing tensions between Jerusalem and its neighbor, which suffers from severe water shortages that could be alleviated by the canal.

According to the plan, a desalination plant in Jordan will provide much-needed drinking water to the region while its brine (very salty water left over from the desalination process) will be pumped north to the Dead Sea to replenish the fast-shrinking lake, while also producing green energy through use of water turbines.

Officials were said to be looking at the possibility of redefining the project as one with security implications, in order to help bypass red tape, open up new funding possibilities and make it easier to win in court against expected challenges by environmental groups.

A border gate is closed on a bridge leading from Israel to Jordan, in the Jordan valley area called Baqura, or Naharayim, Jordanian territory that was leased to Israel under the 1994 peace agreement between the two countries, on October 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In a sign of strained ties, Jordan announced in October that it will not renew an agreement to lease two parcels of land on the border to Israel for agriculture use, which it has done for the past 24 years as part of an annex of the historic peace treaty between the nations signed in 1994.

Jordan has said the decision would not affect the decades-old peace agreement, seeking to assuage fears in Jerusalem that ties could be downgraded.

Officials in Israel have expressed fears that the move signaled Jordan’s desire to effectively reduce diplomatic ties, and many saw it as a reflection of intense domestic pressure from a public that still largely views Israel as an enemy.

With the announcement, the sides now have a year to negotiate the end of the lease. While Netanyahu had indicated he would lobby for Amman to reverse the decision, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the only item on the table was the mechanism for canceling the agreement.

Tensions between Israel and Jordan have mounted in the past year over such issues as the contested status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, and last year’s shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy guard in Amman, which ignited a diplomatic crisis.

AP contributed to this report.

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