It is difficult to evaluate the tripartite Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian project to build a link between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea without analyzing the broader political context. Granted, saving the ancient Dead Sea, which is expected to dry up in 50 years unless there is a diversion of water from another source, is of utmost necessity for people in the region who are suffering from an acute shortage of water. However, the agreement has not questioned, or even taken into account, Israeli control of Palestinian resources. In addition, the lopsided deal with Jordan leaves the kingdom vulnerable to Israel for supply of its water needs.
For while Israel insists on controlling water-rich areas in the West Bank–and different Israeli plans reveal that it would not withdraw from these areas–Jordanians have not felt a drastic change after their agreement with Israel over water resources.
Not only has Jordan, as a result of the imbalance of power, had to suffice with less, but also Israel has managed to keep the wells it dug in former occupied Jordanian territories.
In return, Jordan accepted diversion of some water from Lake Tiberius to its territory. Still, the deal was by no means equitable: Jordan could not ensure the quality of the water diverted and, more significantly, it received less than what was allocated to it in the American Johnston plan of 1954, which itself was already a compromise of Jordanian rights.
However, the most alarming part of the Jordanian-Israeli agreement over water, and a part that is almost never mentioned, is a far-reaching political compromise that was a prerequisite for Israel’s acquiescence to accept some of Jordan’s water needs.
In a point kept hidden from the Jordanian public, Amman has agreed to the permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees in the country in return for acquisition of part of its water rights.
Although officials deny it, former Water Minister Munther Haddadin, who negotiated the deal, has disclosed this dangerous aspect of the water agreement in lectures and a in a study that has not been publicized in Jordan.
Dr. Haddadin simply lists this element of the compromise in a table that compares the Johnston plan and the Israeli-Jordanian agreement. Meanwhile Jordanian officials continue to maintain that the government supports the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes if they so choose. It is no secret that Jordan hopes that a final comprehensive settlement in the region would involve generous compensation for loss of resources, mainly water, as a result of its receiving two waves of Palestinian refugees in 1967 and 1948.
Thus, in addition to Jordan’s loss of water rights, the Red-Dead Sea project could again involve a political compromise that would pull the kingdom deeper into a contradiction with Palestinian national interests and further fuel hostile public opinion.
Moreover, the experience of the past 11 years has proved that the agreement leaves Israel in semi-total control of direly needed water supplies .That became painfully evident in March 1999, when Israel asked to suspend water diversion from Lake Tiberius as severe drought threatened the region.
The crisis was solved when the two sides reached a compromise whereby Israeli provided part of the water allocated to Jordan. But the political damage was done. The episode left the Jordanian government in a weaker position vis-a-vis opponents of the treaty, as it proved their point about Israel’s control of one of the country’s scarce life-lines.
The problem with the Dead Sea Canal is once again that agreements are being reached with consideration to the water rights of the weaker parties, while Israel remains the main beneficiary, sharing its neighbors’ water without giving up usurped resources.
Finally, the dividends for Israel go far beyond de facto imposition of its control of water resources. They also serve its plans of integration into the region without its fulfillment of provisions of international law that stipulate its withdrawal from captured water-rich territories.
The political benefits were already clear to the founder of modern Zionism. Theodore Herzl promoted the idea of a hydropower canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea in his 1902 novel Altneuland. He wrote that it would be possible to take advantage of the 400-meter drop to generate hydroelectric power.
Herzl had no consideration for international law then, and the Israeli government seems less interested now as it uses its military prowess to prove that "what is ours is ours and what is theirs is ours too."