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Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians sign deal to study Dead Sea rescue

Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority launched a feasibility study on Sunday to try to save the rapidly vanishing Dead Sea, in what officials said was a positive step on the path to resolving the Middle East crisis. France, the Netherlands, Japan and the United States have committed $9 million to finance the two-year study, estimated to cost around $15.5 million. It will be managed by the World Bank, a statement said.

Jordanian Planning Minister Suhair Ali urged the international community to chip in with the rest, and the statement said Spain, Canada and some European countries had indicated their willingness to finance the study as well.

The study will examine the feasibility of building a canal to channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, where the level has been falling by about a meter each year, it said.

The agreement was reached between Jordanian Water Minister Zafer al-Aalem, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer and Mohammad Mustafa, the economic adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Also present at the meeting on the Jordanian shores of the Dead Sea were representatives of the World Bank and several donor nations.

The idea for the project has been around for years, but stalled amid tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian officials alike agreed on Sunday that plans to go ahead with the feasibility study could pave the way for cooperation on improving ties between all parties.

"We want peace. The only way to cement peace is through an economic project," Ben Eliezer told a news conference. "I wish that by the end of the two years [when the study is due to be completed] we will be able to have peace with the Palestinians," he added.

"We have a stable peace with Jordan and Egypt and I hope that we can say very soon the same thing about the Palestinians," Ben Eliezer said.

The Palestinian official echoed him, telling reporters: "This cooperation will bring wellbeing for the peoples of the region, particularly in Palestine, Jordan and Israel."

"We pray that this type of cooperation will be a positive experience to deepen the notion of dialogue to reach solutions on all other tracks," Mustafa said in reference to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

For his part, the Jordanian water minister said that "this project is a unique chance to deepen the meaning of peace in the region and work for the benefit of our peoples."

Environmental experts have repeatedly warned that the Dead Sea is in danger of drying up as Jordan and Israel divert the waters of the Jordan River, which feeds it, for agriculture.

The Dead Sea is the world's lowest and most saline body of water. Its level has dropped by a third since the 1960s and restoring it to its natural water level would take 25-30 years, Alaam said.

The feasibility study will investigate a three-phase plan to build the canal as well as provide Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians with fresh water.

The first phase consists of building a 180-kilometer-long pipeline to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea at a cost of $1 billion.

The second phase, estimated to cost $2.5 billion, will involve the construction of a desalination plant in Jordan and a power plant to generate electricity.

No estimate has yet been made available for the last phase of the project, to transfer desalinated water to be shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.

World Bank representative Inger Andersen said that the decline of the Dead Sea is a "global tragedy" which demands "immediate, concerted and sustainable response."

Amman,12 12 2006
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