The Most Valuable Liquid in Israel Is Not Oil

The Most Valuable Liquid
in Israel Is Not Oil


Leonard Zwelling

         I had always been told that in Israel it is all about the
water. Nothing is more important in this bone dry land than access to water and
that access is severely limited from natural sources. The mighty Jordan is a
good-sized stream. The bayous of Houston are often “mightier.” What I was not
aware of is that water more than oil played a vital role in the wars of Israel
for it was tension over access to the water from the north coming from the
Jordan River, its head waters, and the Sea of Galilee that have led to
incredible conflict among Israel, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Even the Six Day
War had its origins in a water dispute over a dam built by Syria that
diminished what Israel could extract from the north. Syria in turn was negatively
impacted by a dam built by the Turks that deprived it of needed water and thus
there was a domino effect that eventually allowed the Egyptians, with whom the
Israelis had a real beef, to sucker in the Syrians and Jordanians to making war
on Israel. Unfortunately for them Israel struck preemptively and annihilated
the Egyptian and other air forces on the ground and the real Six Day War was
over in 6 hours and changed the way the world viewed the Jewish people.

         Throughout the day on October 5 we darted across the Golan
and Galilee on tight mountain roads with switchbacks too severe to attempt in
the dark on an unlit stretch of road that winds through still active mine
fields, through Arab villages that are no longer, to tanks and Israeli outposts
long abandoned. The land on which all this history stood is now firmly within
the post-1967 boundaries of modern Israel, either through the seizure of land
that was the British Mandate of Palestine and formerly Jordan or from former
French territory that was Syria like the Golan.

         This is not the Galilee of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s across
the “lake” as guide Gil refers to the Sea of Galilee on the northwest shore. We
are to the east where the battle for water characterizes all of the
interactions that took place between the governments of Syria, Jordan and
Israel. The bright spot is Jordan, which though viewed often across a brand new
barbed wire fence, has still signed a peace pact with Israel and shares water
access and rights with the Israelis. Despite 55 million cubic meters of water
per year flowing to Jordan from Israel in an exchange program, five days a week
the taps in most of Amman are dry. The Jordanians cannot desalinate like the
Israelis can and despite the 1994 peace treaty, the average Jordanian does not
realize the benefit of this water for peace deal. And the country that once was
Syria is less affected because 40% of its population doesn’t even have water

alone in this part of the world has created a modern, democratic capitalist
state with burgeoning high tech companies and an affluent population that is
more secular than ever and more 21st century than the rest of the
region is.

is the lifeblood of all of the countries in the Middle East, far more so than
oil is, and certainly so to the majority of the people who actually live in
these places. The wars seem to be about land, but they are just as much about
water. And, like those involving the land, the missteps surrounding water deals
have often led to continued conflict (e.g., with Syria) and the occasional
peace (with Jordan). It all depends on the water, the politics and the firm
belief held by many Israelis that neither war nor peace is the best option for
Israel to survive, but a constant state of anxiety at the border may increase
the longevity of the Jewish state. While that may make no sense to me, and be incredibly
cynical, there is a certain logic in keeping your friends close, your enemies
closer, and everyone else confused. If that has been the goal of the Netanyahu
government, it has succeeded mightily.

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