By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy announced an Israeli-Palestinian water agreement on Thursday but dodged questions on whether he was making headway on reviving peace talks.
At his first news conference in Jerusalem since launching a series of visits in March, Jason Greenblatt declined to say if he was any closer to a return to negotiations between the two sides that collapsed in 2014.
"Let me interrupt you to save time. We are only taking questions about the Red-Dead (water) project," said Greenblatt, who was a legal adviser to Trump's businesses before being appointed Special Representative for International Negotiations.
He was referring to a World Bank-sponsored plan to build a nearly 200-km (120-mile) pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and a desalination plant in the Jordanian port of Aqaba that was agreed in principle in 2013.
Under that deal, which aims to increase fresh water supplies for Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel and revitalize the Dead Sea's falling water levels, Israel agreed to increase water sales to the Palestinian Authority by 20 million to 30 million cubic meters a year.
Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, estimated it would take another four to five years to complete the $900 million endeavor.
The desalination plant will produce at least 80 million cubic meters of water annually. Under an agreement signed with Jordan in 2015, Israel will buy up to 40 million cubic meters of that at cost each year.
Greenblatt said Israel, whose own desalination plants have led to a water surplus, would sell up to 33 million cubic meters to the Palestinian Authority as part of the finalised agreement signed on Thursday.
Palestinian Water Authority head Mazen Ghoneim put the figure at 32 million and said 22 million would go to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and 10 million to the Gaza Strip.
"We hope that this deal will contribute to the healing of the Dead Sea and that it will help not only Palestinians and Israelis but Jordanians as well," Greenblatt said.
"I am proud of the role that the United States and our international partners have played in helping the parties reach this deal and I hope it is a harbinger of things to come."
The idea of a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea was first talked about by the British in the 1850s, as an alternative to the Suez Canal.
Many plans have since been proposed, mainly aiming to preserve the Dead Sea, whose minerals are used in ointments and cosmetics.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Robin Pomeroy)