International Symposium on Sustainable Water Management in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions

15-19 May 1995
Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, Israel

From remarks by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shimon Peres:

The major problem today, as far as peace is concerned, relates to the people, not so much to the rivers. People all over are asking themselves: How will this peace change and affect our lives? The real problem, as far as peace is concerned, is to convince the people and to show them that peace is not just a political ceremony. It is a deep change in the fortunes and destinies of every country.

I believe that the choice today is not necessarily between war and peace, but between poverty and hope. There is a camp of memories, which remembers all the wars, and there is a camp of hope that is trying to produce the necessary changes for the future.

When I look around in the Middle East, war is no longer a real option, at least not classical war. In the past, the Middle East, like many other regions in the world, profited from the world conflict. The world was divided clearly between East and West, between Russia and the United States, and economically between north and south. Many countries in this region profited from this division, because if you didn’t like the Russians, you turned to the Americans; if you didn’t like the Americans, you turned to the Russians, and the Russians in particular provided arms and money. Now that the conflict is over, there is nowhere to turn. They simply don’t give money; they don’t give arms. To make war costs a lot of money. To arm your own armed forces you have to replace the generations of tanks, guns, and planes every seven years. Three generations ago, the cost of a fighter plane was $400,000; today it’s $40 million. There is no economy in the world that makes such a jump.

Today, the Middle East spends $70 billion a year on the arms race. With only half of it, we could have changed the Middle East. And I do not see today the givers or the donors. We see the changes in the Russian economy, we see the changes in the American mentality, the hesitations. Clearly no country, or no community, is prepared to pay for the follies of leaders and nations.

Not only that: generally, there is no longer a real intention to support the poor. I mentioned the division between East and West. It was basically a logical division. We can also mention the division between north and south, or what used to be called the Third World. Many people were convinced that the north white and successful would remain permanently rich, and the south poor and rejected would always remain backward. But this division, too, is no longer the case of our time. With the emergence of the so-called tigers in Asia, with the emergence of new economies in Latin America, this division does not hold any more water. No matter what the color of your skin, no matter what your geographic location: if you adopt the right economic moves, you can really make a leap forward, as happened from Korea to Thailand, as is happening from Chile to Argentina, among other places. It may happen, in my judgement, in Africa as well.

Now let’s first of all analyze and ask ourselves: What makes a nation strong and rich? It is no longer the size of the land; it is no longer the wealth of the natural resources; it is no longer the number of the people. What makes a country rich and strong today is its science, technology, education, knowledge, know-how. You can see Japan, which has very little land and not much water. Part of the land is volcanic, with almost no natural resources, and it has become one of the three major economic forces of our time.

We can see Russia, with vast land, tremendously vast Russia is thousands of times the size of Israel. We are 24,000 square kilometers; they are 24 million square kilometers. The Russians have a lot of water, which we do not possess. The Russians have three million lakes; Israel has two lakes, one of which is dead. The Russians have a hundred thousand rivers, twelve among the largest in the world: the Don, the Dnieper, and the Volga; Israel has a single river, and there too, we have more history flowing than water. When you hear about the Jordan River, it’s a very great river. But when you look at it, you will regain your sense of modesty. It is a really small, tiny little river. And yet, Israel has grown, agriculturally, in the first twenty-five years of our existence, twelve times. Twelve times, without any water, without adding land. Our scientists are so keen on water nowadays that some of them have even promised us that we are going to raise fish without water.

Then again, science does not recognize sovereignty. Technology doesn’t have borders. If you want to transfer or gain information, you don’t go through customs. It is free, in your mind. It is no longer material or territorial or national; it is universal, global and intellectual. Everybody can achieve it. Instead of going to the gold mines, go to the schools or, as the Egyptian Minister of Education said quite nicely, "Education is the oil of our time."

That brings me to the issue of water. Land is static. Water is manageable. With water, you can make policies. With land, you can make wars. You can assemble water, collect water, direct water, change water. But water, too, is very sensitive. It can be polluted very quickly, it can evaporate, and it is in permanent shortage, because the more the population of the world, or the region, or the countries, the more it poses a danger to the quality of water. The overuse of water, the salinization of it, brings the world many countries, many regions to the verge of catastrophe.

In the Middle East, the Arab countries possess twelve million square kilometers. That’s an important piece of the globe. And yet, 89 percent of it is today desert. The Middle East is becoming more and more a desert land. With guns and tanks you cannot irrigate the country. With tanks and guns you cannot kill poverty. You must be more serious than that, and more sophisticated than that. What we are saying to our neighbors is: Water is totally apolitical. You don’t have left-wing water and right-wing water. The rivers do not follow the frontiers, and the rain does not pay duties. Let’s organize the water properly, collect it, purify it, direct it, divide it because the need for water is always growing. Whenever you have a new child, you need a new drop of water if you want to assure his future.

Israel, too, was basically a desert, and most of our agricultural success came from science more than from sun or land or climate. We estimate that 96 percent of our agricultural success is a matter of science and management. Agriculture is basically a joint venture between the Lord and man, and one of the partners is totally unreliable and has moody ideas about drought and sun or rain. One of the nice stories I always liked I got from Adlai Stevenson. He said: A priest was near a beautiful piece of land that was cultivated by the farmer, and he said: "My son, I want to congratulate you on the great job that the Lord in Heaven and yourself are doing in cultivating this beautiful piece of land." The farmer turned to the priest and said, "Father, you should have seen the place when only the Lord was cultivating it." We have to understand that this is a real joint venture in many ways, and we say: Let’s take the water we have and put it to the right use.

Water is necessary today both for agriculture and for the quality of life. Today, when you come to a country, you don’t look just at the budget, if there are deficits. You look beforehand at the color of the country: brown or green. It is not just a matter of aesthetics. Today the poor people live in polluted conditions and only the rich can afford to live properly. Unfortunately, the Lord gave us, free of charge, air to breathe and water to drink, so we are misusing it. If it were the other way around if we had, say, tomatoes free of charge and had to pay for the air, I am sure we would handle the air as we handle our tomatoes: wash it, care for it, pack it. But more and more, with the growth of population, every country must be very clean, keeping their land green, their water fresh, their air unpolluted.

All of us, without exception, prefer to remember the past. We prefer to remember the things that we know instead of confronting new challenges of a new kind. When we speak with our Arab friends, for example, they say, "You want to colonize the Middle East, you want to dominate the Middle East, you are endangering us." If D’Israeli would come to the Queen of England, today, and tell her, "I have a gift for you: Bangladesh, Pakistan, India" I am sure that the Queen would say, "You know what? Once is enough. If you want to have a strong England, look for science and technology. Don’t look for colonies and empires. It will kill your children, it will create hostility, it will solve nothing."

You can no longer dominate the world; you have to compete. The answer to domination is not generosity, but hard work and real competition. We told our Arab friends: "Look, if you are suspicious of us, tell us; in five minutes, we are out of this. We don’t want to participate." President Mubarak cut me short and said, "Israel and Egypt are cooperating in the domain of agriculture for the last ten years. I don’t feel in the slightest way that you try to dominate us. Why should you?" And really, Egypt today has oranges, bananas and strawberries, and is very successful.

Whatever we have gained in agriculture we are ready to share with every country. We don’t have any secrets. We don’t want to dominate anybody. We don’t even want to impose or dictate or suggest, but we are telling everybody: "If you want to learn, please do." Israel has created many model farms in other countries, and we don’t keep secrets because our specialty is to go ahead. We have increased the yield of tomatoes from four tons to twelve tons per dunam. We can sell the technology to everybody. Today, with technology, you can change everything. We already have a tomato without seeds, tomatoes with different colors, and we are developing new products all the time. Everybody can join. The key to it is water.

As against old-fashioned thinking, old wars, old assumptions, we have to understand that the world today is free for all free for all, if you will do the right things. And the right thing is to invest as much as you can: first of all in education. What made Korea a success is how youngsters were taught the fact that tens of thousands of young Koreans were either sent abroad or studied at home, and everybody can do it. Then you have to understand that everything in life today is based on science and technology. There is no sense in going to war, because you cannot conquer wisdom. You cannot conquer knowledge. You cannot conquer science. You can only waste your resources.

Then again, you must understand that the world is today an open world. There is no Israeli economy or Arab economy or African economy or American economy. There is the right economy and the wrong one. Half of the world population today three billion people have already adopted a market economy, and they are doing well, by and large. Another three billion people are still lagging behind, and they will pay a heavy price for it. So why not adopt it? Open the borders. Don’t defend your national economy because it cannot compete with others and you don’t have the money to subsidize it. You have to open everything all the windows, all the doors, for the fresh air and the competition, and try to compete. It’s difficult. But everybody can do it eventually.

You also have to cooperate regionally and globally and otherwise because today, markets in the world are more important than countries. Markets have no national barriers. You see more and more the world getting itself organized in huge economic organizations and markets; we just added another three countries. America is now organizing itself with Mexico and Canada, and it will go south to Argentina. In Asia, you have beginnings of the same organizations. You have to open up, and you have to give equal rights to women. If you want to have a society where a hundred percent of the people are participating in real terms, in its management and building, you have to vote the democratic way. If you will hand over your fate to the hands of a single leader, you will be victims of his whims and craziness.

In the Middle East, I believe that water may be the key. What we have to do here in order to get out of the war, in order to make people feel that peace is a reality, is to spend less on fire and more on water; less on arms and more on irrigation, to save the land before it becomes a desert, which means before it makes poverty an eternal part of people’s existence.

We can already do things to alleviate the lack of water: we can desalinate water, we can reuse or recycle the water. We can introduce vegetables and fruits that need less water, even fish and animals. And in the Middle East, where you have today more oil than water the cost of water in some countries is already reaching the price of oil. The Americans occasionally laugh about us and say that the Middle East is divided into two sorts of countries: the oily countries and the holy countries. We are a holy country because we don’t have oil. So we have to make a living on our holiness, which means on our capacities, on our qualities, our spirit and our past.

This seminar is of great importance, really, to first of all face the realities and the invitations of the new age. The problem before us in the Middle East is not how to make every country integrated in the Middle East, but how to lead the Middle East to the twenty-first century, which will no longer be a competition of hunters, but a competition of traders; where you can make your living not by killing somebody or occupying his land, but by enabling your own talents and your own capacities to reach the heights that science and technology and research have developed. If we go in this direction, I am sure that each of us will serve his country and all of us will serve peace and promise in the future of the country.