Israel Begins Jordan River Project
National Water Carrier of Israel. Map: Public Domain

September 2, 1953

Israel starts work on a project to divert some of the water of the Jordan River at the B’not Yaakov (Daughters of Jacob) Bridge in the north of the state for use in irrigating the Negev and in the process generate electricity.

In 1952, the Agriculture Ministry’s water department published its seven-year plan to integrate all water resources into a single countrywide system, with a focus on moving water from northern Israel and the Jordan to the barren Negev. At the same time, Jordan was developing its own water plan. Under the encouragement of the United Nations, Israel wanted to coordinate with its Arab neighbors on water movement and planning, but the Arab states were unwilling to work with Israel.

On Sept. 23, Syria responds to the Israeli work at B’not Yaakov by protesting to the United Nations that Israel is violating the 1949 armistice agreement by planning a canal through demilitarized zones. The United Nations orders Israel to halt the work while it studies the issue, and, after protesting the decision, Israel agrees to suspend its efforts under threat of a cutoff of U.S. aid. When a Soviet veto prevents a U.N. Security Council resolution on the issue in 1954, a U.N. deadlock proves unbreakable.

Using an idea that arose from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ tour of the Middle East in May 1953, the United States proposes regional cooperation on the development and allocation of water in the Jordan basin. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Eric Johnston leads two years of negotiations among Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that resolve the major issues, but the Arab League scuttles the agreement at the urging of Syria, which opposes any agreement that could economically benefit Israel.

By 1956, Israel decides to move ahead with an alternative, more expensive plan to divert water from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and thus avoid any armistice issues. The result is the National Water Carrier, which begins pumping water in 1964.