Israel’s Water Policy, Part 1: Essential Nature of Water Politics to Israeli Modernization

Israel's National Water Carrier. Photograph by Ariel Palmon via Wikimedia

Note: This article is Part 1 of a three part series discussing the importance of water for Israeli policy.

By Jonathan Kamel

Water scarcity has posed a geopolitical challenge to the nation-state of Israel since its creation in 1948. As a resource poor country, Israel has relied on state led infrastructure, military power, and technology to secure access to water on the Jordan River Basin. The essential nature of water to develop the Israeli economy predicated a strong and centralized state under the Labor Party of the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Throughout the mid-20th century, water became a politicized commodity that Israel developed internally and externally as its powerful military enabled it to become a downstream hydro-hegemon.

Water politics continues to play a large role in Israeli society as technology such as desalinization and waste-water utilization has increased Israel’s water security in a period of constant instability for the Jewish state. The essential nature of water remains a major complication in the establishment of working Israeli-Palestinian relations and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.

Building of the National Water Carrier

After Israel received U.N recognition in 1948, the development of water infrastructure became a national priority for the ruling Labor Party. From 1948-1954, Israel’s Jewish population doubled as Jews from around the world and particularly from countries in the Middle East immigrated in waves to the fledgling state. The movement of water to the increasingly urban areas surrounding Tel Aviv and to lands of agricultural development in the Negev desert was essential to the modernization and political consolidation of Israel.

Beginning in 1956, Ben Gurion’s government began construction of the National Water Carrier (NWC), a massive state led project that transported water from the Sea of Galilee in the North to the arid regions of central and southern Israel. A state controlled company named Mekorot was created to execute this complicated project which included large canal design, pipelines that traveled throughout much of the country, and the connection of groundwater aquifers to the main reservoir in the Sea of Galilee.With technical assistance from the United States, Mekorot designed a pumping station on the Jordan River that transported water from a depth of 209 meters below sea level to 44 meters above along its path to the hydro-bare Negev region. The NWC remains one of the largest state funded projects in Israel’s political history and was the catalyst to economic development in what is now Israel’s wealthiest region between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The completion of the NWC in 1964 had dynamic effects on the Israeli economy and state water management. The flow of water to western and southern Israel allowed for the intensive farming of the Negev desert and the socio-cultural vibrancy of the agricultural based Kibbutz life throughout early Israeli history. The Negev, which comprises 60% of Israel’s territory, became Israel’s bread basket as land that was once inhabitable became conducive to large-scale agriculture.

The transnational project also cemented the power of a centralized Israeli state under the disciplined leadership of Ben Gurion. The NWC achieved Ben Gurion’s goal of creating an institutionalized water management system in which most of Israel’s water needs were regulated by the state. Water became a commodity provided to citizens by the national government and was separated from local control. The threat of water scarcity became a political tool to not only increase state power, but affirm the legitimacy of the ruling Labor party. The NWC reflected the dominance of the Labor Party’s agenda in Israel’s early political system, consolidating a sense of Zionist national unity with the ideals of statism.

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