Turkey may be edging towards an unprecedented deal with Israel to sell water that will irrigate parched Israeli lands and, indirectly, could one day help meet urgent Palestinian needs.
Israeli officials were in Ankara this week to bargain a price for the commodity the scarcity of which, some have said, could itself one day trigger a Middle East war. Talks were postponed in October by a Palestinian uprising that still simmers.
"I think the Israeli intention is to close a deal - whether now or later on," said Tel Aviv-based Israeli analyst Ephraim Inbar. "There is even a sense of urgency...Where Israel was earlier hesitant, I think now there is less hesitation."
Another dry winter in Israel has only increased need there.
Under discussion is a plan to sell 50 million cubic metres of water a year to Israel, some 2.5 percent of national needs. This, ironically, at a time when levels at Turkey's mighty southeastern dams are so low as to threaten generation there.
The water would be drawn off by a plant near the mouth of the western Manavgat river, just before it empties into the Mediterranean. It would then be piped aboard specially lined tankers and shipped to the Israeli terminal of Ashkelon.
From there, it would be piped to a reservoir inland.
Turkish officials say they could easily provide 90 million cubic metres a year, or half the present capacity of Manavgat. Capacity could be doubled in six months with extra pumps.
There is not yet any international market in water. It is not, yet, bought and sold like the oil that costs Turkey so dear. But water is in many respects more precious than oil.
QUENCHING A THIRST
Turkey's southeastern dams are a raw issue in ties with Damascus, controlling as they do cross-border flows of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into Syria. But no one else claims "sales rights" for Manavgat waters which cross no frontiers.
"This is a very arid, hot region," one Turkish official said of the neighbouring Middle East. "All countries are looking for more water: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinians."
"Water is a powerful tool, but we don't want to make politics with it," he said. "We just want to sell it."
The water issue is nonetheless bound up with broader issues of Israeli ties with its Muslim ally. Israel has welcomed an increasingly active Turkish role in Middle Eastern peacemaking.
Israel's foreign minister visited Turkey last week after talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Turkey's foreign minister flew to meet Arafat at the weekend in Gaza.
"If we get a Palestinian-Israeli (peace) agreement, it could include an agreement on water," Inbar said. "Some could then be diverted to the Palestinians."
Agreement or not, Israel has to work with Palestinians over water; directly or indirectly, perhaps, over Turkish water. "There are signs the Palestinians are...drilling," Inbar said.
Palestinians have long accused Israel of denying them a fair share of water from acquifers in the occupied West Bank. They say their towns and villages go short while Jewish settlements enjoy bountiful supplies.
Drilling and drawing off water in large quantities from the subterranean water table could further threaten the purity of supplies for all in the area, including Israel.
Beyond diplomacy, there is lucrative commerce that might offset the water deal, especially in the area of defence.
A MATTER OF PRICE
Whether Israel buys water from Turkey, or how much, may depend ultimately on whether it is cheaper than desalination - extraction of salt from seawater in special processing plants.
Desalination prices are plunging, but the process uses much energy and it could be three years before a drop is produced.
Turkish water could be an interim measure or it could become, in the longer run a complement to desalinated water.
The arithmetic is tight. The cost consists of two elements - the water itself and the cost of hiring ships with specially lined tanks to transport it across the Mediterranean.
Turkey and Israel refuse to discuss prices publicly.
Turkey, however, is believed to be asking 23 cents a cubic metre, while Israel might be happier with about 15 cents.
After a June visit to Ankara by an Israeli team, the Israeli government invited offers over the Internet to ship the water.
Fourteen proposals were received, pointing at a transport price of 50-55 cents. The total cost to the Israelis, based on Turkish pricing, would then be 73 to 78 cents per cubic metre.
Israel might be looking for 70 cents or less.
Some Israelis resist in principle any arrangement making them beholden to a foreign power on such a strategic commodity, whatever cast-iron delivery guarantees Turkey has offered.
Proponents of the plan, however, argue that with such limited sales there would be no real question of dependency.
The irony of the entire project is that Turkey itself is suffering a chronic shortage of water to drive hydroelectric turbines in the southeast. Figures from the dams show reservoir levels perilously close to the point where generation must stop.
Everything depends on thawing winter snow swelling rivers in a country where water provides 30 percent of national energy.
"Water's a very dirty, very interesting business," said Professor Ali Ihsan Bagis of Hacettepe University.
"Turkey could find itself in hot water if it continued to sell water and didn't improve its own irrigation. That might not be accepted by public opinion.
"Manavgat is symbolic."
Symbolic, perhaps, of the axiom that in a dry neighbourhood, a man who thirsts might nevertheless seem to enjoy abundance in the eyes of others. If he is shrewd, he uses it.