Israel’s Water Policy, Part 2: Becoming a Hydro-Hegemon

The Jordan River

The Jordan River

By Jonathan Kamel

Note: This Article is Part Two of a Three Part Series Discussing Israel’s Water Policy. You can read Part One here.

Photo of Jordan River Courtesy of National Geographic.

Water politics for Israel’s economic development incorporated strategic military action that increased Israel’s national security against its neighboring Arab states. Israel sits downstream on the Jordan River basin which originates in Syria and trickles down to create a border between the present-day West Bank and Jordan. As the Middle East scholar Mark Zeitoun addresses in his research on “Hydro-hegemony,” the state that sits downstream from a vital watershed must take active measures to guarantee its access to the supply.

Similar to Egypt, which gained hydro-hegemony over Ethiopia through qualitative military advantage, Israel pursued a water policy of domination of the Jordan River basin. Not only did the NWC draw heavily from the Jordan River watershed, but it also placed Jordan and Syria at an extreme disadvantage in terms of access to water. While the United States attempted to broker a water agreement between the riparian states of the Jordan Valley under the Johnston Plan of 1955, none of the parties ratified the proposed Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan. This trend of Israeli water domination continued throughout the 20th century and remains one of the core issues of the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The use of hard power was crucial to Israel’s eventual hegemony over the Jordan River watershed. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his successor Levi Eshkol viewed Israel’s long-term water security as a vital existential threat to its growing population. They therefore acted unilaterally to deny Syria or Jordan a majority access to the shared water basin. In 1964, Israel launched an attack on a Syrian project to divert the Banias River, (a tributary of the Jordan River) that completely destroyed all construction.Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Israel’s extended deterrence policies through active use of military force maintained the riparian status quo in Syria and Lebanon and gave Israel ‘remote’ control power over the Upper and Lower Jordan River. Posession of the Golan Heights by the Israel Defense Force in 1967 gave Israel greater security over the Hasbani, Liddan, and Banias tributaries. While water was not a main driver in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 or 1973, the balance of power shifted dramatically in Israel’s favor.

Yet, in more recent years, water-sharing of the Jordan River has been integral in carrying out Arab-Israeli peace. The agreement between Jordan and Israel signed in 1994 put an end to competing water claims between the two nations and has led to greater diversion of resources from the Sea of Galilee to the Hashemite Kingdom. While critics of this treaty cite the favoring of Israel to maintain a majority of water control, Israel and Jordan have enjoyed two decades of water peace since its signing. Overall, Israel’s water policy has enhanced its strategic position and helped foster relative peace with its Arab neighbors.

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