Politics bars Dead Sea from World Wonders contest

JERICHO, West Bank Sun Jun 28, 2009 9:04am EDT

A woman floats in the Dead Sea in Ein Bokeq November 27, 2008. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

A woman floats in the Dead Sea in Ein Bokeq November 27, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Eliana Aponte

JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - The Dead Sea will be eliminated next week from a contest to choose the seven natural wonders of the world, because of a Palestinian boycott over the participation of an Israeli settler council.

Its almost certain exclusion from a competition which it had good chances of winning underline how the bitter politics of the Middle East conflict permeates every aspect of Palestinian life, no matter how harmless or even beneficial it may seem.

The New 7 Wonders of Nature is a global Internet contest under the slogan: "If we want to save anything, we first need to truly appreciate it." In 2007 it chose the new seven man-made wonders of the world.

Its rules state that if a nominee site is located in more than one country, all countries in which it is located must form an Official Supporting Committee (OSC) by July 7.

Israel and Jordan have both done so for the Dead Sea, which they share, but the Palestinian Authority has decided against.

For the Dead Sea, a win would highlight the environmental threat to a unique lake which has shrunk dramatically in the past 30 years due to human exploitation of the Jordan River feed waters and Dead Sea mineral extraction.

"We will not be forming a committee," Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Douaibes told Reuters, because the Israeli committee "has been consulting with settler councilmen on occupied land and this contravenes international law."

"Therefore, we are not interested in the issue," she said reflecting a view that renders the contest and its potential benefits insignificant next to the Palestinians' long struggle against Jewish settlers in their midst.

LAST-MINUTE REVERSAL?

Jordanian officials declined comment. But sources in Amman said the contest had become politicized, in that it could be exploited by Israel to gloss over the settlement issue, on which Jordan sympathizes with the Palestinians.

Unless there is a last-minute rethink by the Palestinians, the decision means the famously buoyant lake at the lowest point on Earth cannot advance to the next stage of the contest.

That is when Internet voters worldwide narrow down the field of 261 to 77, from which the final shortlist of 21 will be chosen ahead of the final vote in 2011, in which N7W predicts one billion electronic votes will be cast.

Jordan benefited handsomely after the ancient ruins at Petra were voted a man-made Wonder of the World in 2007. Visits to Petra have more than doubled since it won the contest.

Live rankings on the contest website www.new7wonders.com list 7 "nature" categories, including islands, mountains, forests and seascapes. The Kalahari Desert, the Galapagos Islands and Lake Titicaca are among current favorites.

"New7Wonders completely understands that political sensitivities about involved settler communities around the Dead Sea may be causing concerns among the Palestinian authorities here, although they have not directly communicated this to us," spokeswoman Tia Viering told Reuters on Sunday.

Viering said there were five days left for a change of mind.

The Palestinian refusal was no surprise to interested Israelis who predicted months ago that the involvement of the Megilot Dead Sea Regional Council -- which governs settlements -- would prove a major obstacle to Palestinian participation.

Any program involving Israeli officials in the occupied West Bank, with links to Jewish settlements considered illegal by the World Court and on land the Palestinians say is stolen, was sure to run into a political brick wall, they said.

The Palestinian decision is "very sad," Megilot Dead Sea Council spokeswoman Gura Berger told Reuters. "The Dead Sea is so unique it's beyond politics. Neither my kids nor Palestinian kids will be able to enjoy it if nothing is done to save it."

The Dead Sea's water level is dropping by one meter (3.3 feet) a year, according to a World Bank study.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Charles Dick)

(For blogs and links on Israeli and Palestinian news, go to blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)

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