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JERUSALEM – Israel and the Palestinians said Thursday they reached a water-sharing deal to bring relief to parched Palestinian communities, a modest but promising breakthrough announced during the latest visit by the U.S. Mideast envoy.
Jason Greenblatt, who helped mediate the water deal as part of the Trump administration's efforts to revive the moribund peace process, expressed hope that it would lead to more progress on other, far more contentious issues.
"Water is a precious commodity in the Middle East. The United States welcomes the agreement reached by the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel," he said.
He said Israel would sell up to 33 million cubic meters (8.7 billion gallons) of water to the Palestinians annually at a reduced rate. The water is a fraction of Palestinian needs, but will bring some relief to areas suffering from chronic shortages, especially during the hot summer. A third of the water will be delivered to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan are discussing a number of potential water projects, including the construction of a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan, to serve residents of both sides of the border.
Greenblatt declined to comment on the administration's efforts to get peace talks back on track, but all sides expressed hope that the water deal could serve as a jumping off point for further agreements.
"All of us in this room proved last night that water can serve as a means for reconciliation, for prosperity, for cooperation, rather than be a cause for tension and dispute," Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said. "When you focus on the issues and not about history or background or personal emotions or other disturbing elements, the common denominator is much bigger than what separates us."
Mazen Ghuneim, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said the agreement would help meet Palestinian needs but did not have any bearing on final status negotiations. The two sides remain bitterly divided over the thorniest issues in the conflict, including borders, security, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem.
President Donald Trump has tasked Greenblatt with kick-starting long-moribund peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Greenblatt met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem on Wednesday and is set to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.
Israeli and Palestinian officials signed an agreement Monday to provide additional electricity to Palestinian residents of the northern West Bank. Greenblatt touted both agreements as "an example of the parties working together to make a mutually beneficial deal."
Gidon Bromberg, co-director of EcoPeace, an Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental organization, applauded Greenblatt's success "in identifying that water is a low-hanging fruit issue and that moving forward on water issues has an important contribution to the welfare" of people on the ground.
The announcement of the water deal came hours after Israel's Cabinet froze a plan endorsed by the Defense Ministry to expand the West Bank's most densely populated Palestinian city by ceding military control over a parcel of land, a proposal that has outraged Jewish settler leaders.
Thursday's announcement followed a preliminary agreement signed by Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan in 2013 to build a pipeline to channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and help address water scarcity in the region.
The plan calls for the construction of a 180-kilometer (111-mile) channel, along with hydroelectric and desalination plants in Jordan, with joint Israeli-Jordanian administration and financing. One proposal involves feeding brine from the desalination plant into the Dead Sea in a bid to replenish its receding waters, though environmentalists question the feasibility of such a move.
Hanegbi said that project is expected to be completed in four to five years.