Israel’s Water Policy, Part 3: The Makings of Soft Power

Israeli Desalination Plant

Photograph of an Israeli Deslination Plant. Courtesy of Wharton Business School.

By Jonathan Kamel

Note: This article is the third and final part of a series discussing Israel’s water policy. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

Israel’s soft power in the form of water innovation, technology, and conservation has allowed the state to modernize despite limited access to water. While the U.N classifies Israel as a water poor country, the Jewish state has achieved tremendous water security in comparison to other Middle East states. Israel remains the leading developer of desalinization technology in the world with the world’s largest facility in Sorek that produces 150 million cubic meters of drinkable water per year. The plant’s capacity is only expected to rise in the coming decade and could provide close to 40% of Israel’s water demand by 2020.

Beyond desalinization, Israel has become an innovator in the fields of drip irrigation, waste water treatment, and water recycling. Technology has played a large role in domestic water politics by encouraging state investment in high-tech and making water scarcity a non-issue for the Israeli economy. Despite Israel’s land and population size, it ranks as the 40th largest economy in the world. Unlike in the 1950s, Israel no longer faces a water security dilemma. Due to modernization, the Jewish state relies as much on its soft power to maintain water security as hard power.

Israel’s successes in achieving water stability has not come without international criticism or continual resistance. Palestinian solidarity and social movements in the West Bank and Gaza revolve around a number of issues, yet a lack of access to fresh water for irrigation, and agricultural development plays a major role in active opposition to Israel. Much of this opposition is misguided as the Palestinian Authority is much to blame for the poor water management in the territories. The U.N and much of the global community considers Israeli military presence in the West Bank to be an untenable status quo. Ironically, Israeli hydro-hegemony of the Jordan River Valley is threatened by the same hard power strategy that has defined it since the 1960s; IDF presence in the West Bank engenders Palestinian political protests, violence, and constant tension that have inflicted a toll on Israeli society. The challenge facing the current Israeli water regime is not scarcity, but the greater political contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel must come to terms with greater shared water management of the Jordan River and assist the Palestinian Authority in establishing instutionalized water administration. As greater pressure is placed on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank or come to an agreement with Palestinian political leaders, water politics will continue to be significant to the Israeli polity. Despite these challenges, Israel’s economic development serves as an example to other developing nations on the essential nature of water infrastructure and technology to modernize a state. Processes of modernization in Israel were directly connected to the centralization of the Jewish state and the weight political leaders placed on water security.

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