The Basis of Rick Perry's Middle East Policy: It's Not Oil, It's Water

The Texas governor's ties to the Jewish state stretch back to his time as agriculture commissioner


Ever since it became apparent that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a staunch defender of Israel, and all the more so when a video emerged showing him joining rabbis in a spirited Hanukkah dance in the governor's office last year, the roots of his long-standing affection for the nation state have been a subject of speculation in some quarters. Was it oil? The religious affinities of a conservative Christian? Or was it a shared fighting spirit? Perry, after all, once drew a connection between Masada, the site of a siege during the First Jewish-Roman War, and the Alamo.

After Perry gave a speech on Israel at the W Hotel in New York City late last month, Maggie Haberman of Politico picked up on a detail that points to yet another explanation. In 2009, Perry told the Jerusalem Post that part of the Texas-Israel "connection that goes back many years" included the reality that "Israel has a lot we can learn from, especially in the areas of water conservation and semi-arid land." It raised the possibility that at the root of Perry's deep commitment and professed connection to Israel doesn't lie in what Texas has in abundance -- oil, faith, orneriness -- but what it lacks: water.

For eight years in the '90s, while Texas agriculture commissioner, Perry helped to lead the Texas-Israel Exchange, a program that aims to transfer knowledge between the two lands, where farming is a way of life but the water to do it with is often difficult to come by.

"Get a globe and draw a line from Texas to Israel," observes Prof. David Eaton, a water expert at the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. "They're basically the same neck of the woods." Indeed, as far as latitudes go, they are: Austin and much of Israel both sit at 31º North of the Equator. "Texas isn't England," says Eaton, continuing to lay out the similarities. "We've got wet years, dry years, geographic variability. They've got South Israel and North Israel, and we've got East Texas and West Texas." Homeowners in El Paso, says Eaton, are being encouraged to practice xeriscaping, the art of having a lawn that requires little hydration by virtue of it being filled with low-water plants, rocks, and pebbles. It's a method of landscape beautification that is traced back to Israel -- and its often strict residential water restrictions. Texas' mountain aquifers have their equivalent in Israel's karst aquifers. "You can't be theoretical with farming," says Eaton. "You want to have it done in the field with real farmers. So many of the conditions of uncertainty are consistent between the two that it makes for a really useful parallel. Israel doesn't have enough water, but they've figured out how to succeed."

Begun back in the mid-'80s, the Texas-Israel Exchange has experimented with a variety of technologies to try to squeeze the maximum possible water from dry land, and to make the most out of what does exist at the surface. One early $50,000 grant under TIE, as it's known, studied whether some plants could be watered with salt water. (It worked for Blackfoot daises; on velvet sage, not so much.) Drought-resistant Israeli grains were cultivated for their genetic material so that they might be tried in Texas. One major effort involved using drip irrigation to grow rice, rather than the water-hogging flood irrigation method in more general use. The Lower Colorado River Authority and the Tel Aviv-based firm Netafim partnered on the project; proponents say it can grow the same amount of rice with half the water. Then there are projects focused on water reclamation -- that it, using treated waste water, including sewage, to irrigate, cool, or in manufacturing processes. For both sea-adjacent lands, desalination through either evaporation or forcing the salt water through a permeable membrane is seen to have potential. Texas has its eyes on its 350 miles of coast along the Gulf of Mexico, and what it says is 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater. In 2002, Perry, then governor ordered the Texas Water Development Board to explore whether the state might build a large-scale desalination plant that might produce for Texans a supply of fresh drinking water.

The partnership between Texas and Israel officially began under Perry's predecessor as agriculture commissioner, Democrat Jim Hightower, who held the post for two terms in the '80s before becoming a liberal radio personality. And in something of a strange political twist, some observers say that one person that Perry might have to thank for his early and frequent exposure to the needs of Israel is...the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Steven A. Moore, director of the sustainable design program at the University of Texas, wrote a 2001 book on Laredo's Blueprint Farm, one of the earliest fruits of the Texas-Israel partnership. Hightower became a prominent national supporter of Jackson's presidential bid, writes Moore. That created problems for Hightower when, shortly after Jackson made a high-profile visit to Texas, he was quoted in the Washington Post referring to Jewish Americans as "hymies." The incumbent commissioner soon planned a trip to Israel, saying that Texas "should take its cue from Israel's water conservation pioneers." Analyzes Moore, "Hightower's dramatic and timely construction of common cause with Israel was born a brilliant solution to political (and agricultural) problems."

It was while touring Israeli kibbutzim that Hightower met Avraham Katz-Oz, Israel's deputy minister of agriculture. The next year, Katz-Oz visited Texas, and the Texas-Israel exchange program was born soon thereafter. As Hightower tells it in his own book, the partnership's origin was as a new kind of "global trade deal" that brought together "plain old dirt farmers" and others on the lower rungs of Texas farming society with their counterparts in Israel. In 1991, the relationship was further formalized with the creation of a Texas-Israel Fund Board, focused on paying for applied research between the two places. That same year, Perry -- who beat Hightower in the race for agriculture commissioner in part by playing up the Hightower-Jackson connection -- took his first trip to Israel.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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