- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel has decided to accept a long swig of water from Turkey for a price of up to $1 billion, despite second thoughts about whether the country was really that thirsty.

Political and economic considerations were decisive in the controversial announcement Tuesday by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would import 50 million cubic yards of water a year from Turkey probably in cleansed fuel tankers over a 20-year period.

There was considerable opposition within Israel's bureaucracy to the deal because Israel will be paying about 75 cents per cubic meter compared with 54 cents a cubic meter of water to be produced by desalination plants in the planning stage. Mr. Sharon, however, decided that it was worth paying the extra cost in order not to endanger Israel's political and economic relations with the large Muslim country.

Turkish officials had made it plain that economic relations, at least, would be harmed if Israel did not go through with the deal. These relations are considerably in Israel's favor. In recent weeks alone, Turkey signed a $700 million deal with Israeli firms for the refurbishment of its army tanks. Numerous other deals are in the pipeline.

The Turks have announced that at least one major deal for a regional development project will be canceled if the water project falls through.

Beyond the economic factors, however, Mr. Sharon does not want to risk the existing friendly diplomatic relations with a major Muslim, albeit non-Arab, country particularly one that borders Israel's enemies, Syria and Iraq.

The imported water would satisfy less than 5 percent of Israel's water needs but Israeli officials are considering sharing it with the Palestinians and possibly Jordan as part of an overall settlement in the region.

The Turks themselves have frequently spoken of contributing to the Middle East peace effort by making water from their river-rich land available to the parched areas of the region.

Although a pipeline would be the most desirable way of bringing water from Turkey to Israel, it would have to pass through Syria, which at present is impossible.

Discussions between Israel and Turkey about a water deal have been going on for more than five years. The Turks claim that they established a $150 million water-export facility on the Manavgat River near where it meets the Mediterranean on the basis of Israeli promises that it would become a major consumer of water from the project.

Israel, however, postponed a decision several times because of unanswered technological problems. Officials said there was no experience in transporting water in these amounts and there were concerns about sanitation problems. As desalination projects began to be pushed through, concern also extended to the cost of the Turkish water.

The director-general of Mr. Sharon's office, Avigdor Yitzhaki, said yesterday that the decision to import Turkish water was aimed at shoring up the political-strategic links between the two countries.

"It is very important for us that the project succeeds," he said. "If it doesn't, it may cost Israel on the strategic level."

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