As it has since the time of King Solomon and the quarrelling tribes of Israel, the politics of water will emerge as a major issue when negotiations begin later this month on the future of the occupied West Bank.
The dispute - born out of the premise that whoever controls the West Bank's Water will control the West Bank - will be exacerbated by the effects of this winter's drought and growing fears is Israel that the underground water table is running precariously low.
Some officials already are beginning to warn that if Israel reliqnquishes there could wreak havoc with the national supply and drive Jewish settlers out of the occupied territories by cutting off their water.
Underlying the issue also is a belief shared by each side that the other could overtap the underground reservior and dangerously increase the salinity of wells.
"The main issue is, we don't have any unexploited resources of water, so that what is already there is of utmost concern," Meir Ben-Meir, Israel's water commissioner, said in an interview.
For their part, the 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have shown almost no interest in any aspect of the autonomy negotiations scheduled to start at the end of this month. As a result, no clear position on the specific issue of water has surfaced. Egypt, acting as surrogate for the Palestinians, has made it known, however, that control of water resources must be an integral part of autonomy.
Since no agenda for the autonomy negotiations has yet been fixed, it is not known when the water issue will come to a head. Nevertheless, diplomatic sources predict it will sooner or later dominate the talks and could lead to he first serious stalemate.
Israel draws a third of the 1.6 billion cubic meters of water it requires annually from the West Bank. It is unlikely it would willingly surrender control of that reserve to anyone, much less to historical antagonists.
Disputes with Arabs over water use go back for years. The most dramatic example came in 1964, when Israel diverted the Jordan River as part of a national irrigation plan and the Arab states threatened to turn away the water at its source, which could have ruined Israel.
In the 1967 six-day war, Israel made certain it brought the Jordan River's source in Syria under its control. Its reluctance to give up the Golan Heights is based, in part, on water needs.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that all potential water resources have been tapped and that a sharp rise in consumption on one side of the pre-1967 border would automatically mean a decline in available resources on the other side.
"If the potential demand for water in the West Bank for agricultural purposes becomes five times the present consumption, that means parallel water development should be reduced inside Israel and then transferred to the West Bank," said Ben-Meir.
From the West Bank's perspective, rapid growth in Israeli agricultural development, particularly in the arid Negev Desert where irrigation is critical, inevitably will lead to a fall in the water table east of the 1967 border.
Soon after the 1967 war, when Jewish settlements began springing up in the West Bank, the Israeli military government began laying down harsh controls on Arab water use, refusing permission to Palestinians to sink new wells or enlarge existing ones. The controls extended even to the purchase of new parts for pumps and Palestinians long have complained they are economically repressed by the policy.
Israel, in turn, offered to connect Arab towns and villages to its own national water system. But the Palestinians refused, saying they could be driven entirely from the West Bank by the turn of a valve.
An exception was the town of Ramallah, whose wells had dried up. Ramallah's mayor, Karim Khalaf, makes no attempt to hide the fact that the source of much of his bitterness toward the Israeli Army is what he terms his forced capitulation to Israel's water policy.
Compounding the problem has been intensive farming conducted by some Jewish settlements meaning that a small percentage of the West Bank's inhabitants are using a disproportionate amount of water, further alienating Palestinins. Plestinian farmers have complained that the salt content of their wells have been rising steadily, endangering their crops.
A measure of how important the government regards the West Bank water source was revealed by a special interministerial committee appointed last year by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to draft negotiating positions on West Bank autonomy. The committee put high on its list a requirement that Israel retain effective control of West Bank water, to protect its own need and to assure water for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Following up on the committee's recommendations, the Israeli Cabinet recently made two key decisions: to hook Israel's Jordan Valley settlements to the national system, thereby partly defusing the water-pirating charges, and to adopt "appropriate" rules for water use in the Judean and Samarian hills of the West Bank, with allowance for the coastal plain's dependence on water sources in the hills.
Begin, prodded by the National Religious Party ministers, has made it clear in public statements who will draft the rules for whom, and it has become obvious he does not not envisage Palestinian autonomy as including control of water.
This already has infuriated Palestinian leaders, among them Hebron Mayor Fahd Kawasmah, who said denial of water exploitation rights "doesn't even give us minimum autonomy."
Echoing Kawashmah, other West Bank political leaders argue that the water policy will simply continue Palestinian dependence on Israeli authority under the guise of autonomy. CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Dave Cook-The Washington Post