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

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

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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.

Perry made himself a champion of the Texas-Israel knowledge exchange. But, says Moore today, "what Rick Perry wouldn't say is that it originated under Jim Hightower."

It's origins notwithstanding, Perry became a staunch advocate for the Israel research partnership. In a 1996 op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman, Perry bragged about teaming up with Israel, "a country known for using technology to turn a desert into an agricultural oasis of productivity." For Perry, the emotional impact of the Texas drought ran deep: "If you asked an old-timer what two events in this century left their imprints the deepest in the minds of rural Texans, I'll bet the answer would be the Great Depression and the drought of the 1950s." Even if, for him, the pain was somewhat removed: "They both spawned more hardship for grown folks than most of us can imagine today. I lived through the big drought but l had my pony and my dog, so I didn't pay much attention to my dad sitting at the kitchen table scratching out figures on a Big Chief tablet."

About ten years after authoring the newspaper piece, Perry, now governor, solidified his intellectual debt to Israel, with the creation of the Texas-Israel Chamber of Commerce, "a private, not-for-profit business organization whose aim is to boost the economies of Texas and Israel by helping member companies develop important business relationships with each other and explore new market opportunities," with a focus on high-tech collaborations. Today, the Chamber claims as its two main champions Perry and Israel's Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor.

Contacts between U.S. states and Israel aren't, of course, exclusive to Texas. Among the states whose governors have made recent trade missions to Israel are Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Oregon; Virginia maintains a tech alliance focused on encouraging Israeli companies to do business in the commonwealth. But, going back as it does more than quarter century, the exchange between the state of Texas and the state of Israel is generally considered the oldest such relationship, and it is certainly one of the most robust.

The Texas-Israel Exchange program has had its critics. The Sunset Advisory Commission is a body of the Texas legislature that evaluates the state's government agencies with an eye towards identifying and eliminating "waste, duplication, and inefficiency." In its once-every-12-years review of the Texas Department of Agriculture, conducted in 2008, the commission, citing the $500,000 in grants paid out through TIE in 2008 and 2009, found that the program was too much of a black box. "The Texas-Israel Exchange Fund Board provides funding for agricultural research projects intended to be of mutual benefit to Texas and Israel," wrote the commission in its report. "While the program is able to leverage state dollars to fund useful research for Texas agriculture, the funding for and results of these projects are not transparent to the Legislature, the agriculture industry, or the public. The same functions could be provided by an advisory committee, rather than a semi-independent board." The board was indeed abolished, and its functions rolled back into the department as a whole. Eaton also points to the obstacles inherent in trying to move farmers into new and, in their eyes, potentially, untested ways of farming. "You're changing how people farm," he says. "You're changing how you go to market. It's a challenge."

The reality, of course, is that both Israel and Texas continue to struggle with water. Israel, mindful of the mid-60s "Water Over Water" concerning rights to the Sea of Galilee -- thought to have contributed to the tensions sparking the Six Day War -- has worked to bring online major new desalination plants. This summer, the country said that with the completion of a plant in Ashdod, "desal" water -- expensive, energy-intensive desalinated water -- would now make up 75 percent of the water consumed by its people. And Texas, of course, is in the midst of a drought of historic proportions, one that the state's existing water system can't cope with. The lack of water is reported to have caused some $5.2 billion of economic pain to the state's agricultural sector, and the state has been ravaged by fires. On the latest U.S. Drought Monitor color-coded map of drought conditions, Texas is nothing but a big angry red ball. Some three-quarters of the state is suffering through "exceptional" drought conditions, and the state climatologist is warning that this situation could continue through 2020.

Perry, who said during a September presidential debate that climate change science is "not settled" and seemingly compared global warming doubters to Galileo, has coupled his belief in the benefits of knowledge transfer with a faith of the more spiritual variety. In April, Perry declared a long weekend of prayer. "It seems right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer," reads the proclamation from his office, "to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought and these dangerous wildfires." Texans might be forgiven for getting down on their knees. A scary 2012 draft state water plan from the Texas Water Development Board recently found that unless the skies open up, the state "does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises."

It's a major challenge. For the Israelis' part, the Consulate General for the southwestern U.S. has stated that "with water set to become the oil of the 21st century," research jointly funded by Texas and entities in Israel "will be essential in helping stretch this precious natural resource as far as possible in two arid agricultural producing areas: Texas and Israel." The severity of Texas and Israel's shared challenge is something that Perry seems to have been attuned to for at least two decades now, and understanding his approach to Israel would seem to require paying a good deal of attention not just to oil, but to water.

Image credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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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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