Monday, February 20, 2012

October 1955: Arab League rejects water plan to help entire region - because it would help Israel

From the New York Times Magazine, October 19, 1958, by Eric Johnston, who was a US envoy to the Middle East during the Eisenhower administration (reproduced here):

Between 1953 and 1955, at the request of President Eisenhower, I undertook to negotiate with these States a comprehensive Jordan Valley development plan that would have provided for the irrigation of some 225,000 acres. This is an area comparable in size and in climate to the Salt River irrigation project near Phoenix, Ariz., which produces crops valued at $326 per acre a year. After two years of discussion, technical experts of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria agreed upon every important detail of a unified Jordan plan.

But in October 1955, it was rejected for political reasons at a meeting of the Arab League. Syria objected to the project because it would benefit Israel as well as the Arab countries. Three years have passed and no agreement has yet been reached on developing the Jordan. Every year a billion cubic metres of precious water still roll down the ancient stream, wasted, to the Dead Sea.

...The boon to the Middle East of an imaginative water program can scarcely be exaggerated. If proof were necessary, one need look no further than Israel, where sound planning, a systematic program, modern irrigation techniques and ingenious use of every available drop of water have produced remarkable results in a single decade.

Since 1948, Israel has more than doubled its cultivated area, from 412,000 acres to about a million. It has quadrupled its area of irrigated land, from 75,000 acres in 1948 to 306,250 acres today. And Israel has embarked on a large-scale program to conserve land and water through modern methods of reforestation.

All this has been accomplished without the benefit of the waters of the Jordan River, which constitute the country's greatest single source of water. Israel's original plan to tap the Jordan north of Lake Tiberias has been held up for five years by the Arab States, which still refuse to agree to any plan for sharing the waters of the river with the Israelis.

Israel's new water development program, approved in 1956, indicates that the country must soon have Jordan River water to move ahead with its program of agricultural expansion. The plan makes it clear, however, that the country is counting only on that share of the river allocated to it in the Jordan Valley plan agreed to by Arab engineers and water experts during my negotiations in 1955.

But the fact remains that what Israel has done even without Jordan River water can be equaled throughout the Middle East, and indeed surpassed in countries blessed by greater supplies of water. It is clear that water resources are adequate to assure a sustained and flourishing growth throughout the area. But the availability of these resources hasn't been enough in the past, and it isn't enough now, to do it.

The crucial question remains: Are the Arab States prepared to make the necessary commitments to develop these water resources?

No one else can make this decision. It must be made by the Arab States and the Arab States alone. Up to now they have proved themselves unwilling to do so; their attitude and their actions have been precisely the reverse of what needs to be done. Nothing less is required of the Arab States than that they forego political turmoil and get together on regional watershed developments.

Today, a matchless opportunity beckons to the Middle East. President Eisenhower offered it in his recent proposal to the United Nations General Assembly for a regional development agency. Will the Arab States grasp this opportunity? Will they at last face up to the necessity of abandoning chauvinism for regionalism in realizing the rich benefits offered by the Nile, the Jordan, the Tigris and the other rivers of their land?

If they do, that field of green grass in the Jordanian desert can spread throughout the Middle East.

A couple of days before the Arab League rejected the plan, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem made clear their opposition:

In the Arab world, more often than not, the most extreme viewpoints will tend to win - even as well-meaning Westerners will dismiss the extremists as a fringe group.

And the idea of any win-win solution when one of the winners would be Israel is anathema to many, many many Arabs.

Westerners need to understand these to basic facts - facts that are just as true today as they were in 1955.