Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

The Politics of Water in the Middle East: U.S. “Good Offices” Mediation Between Jordan and Israel


For countries in the Jordan River Basin, water is a life-or-death matter. Disagreements and even armed skirmishes over water issues between Israel and Arab states played an important role in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War.  A decade later, USAID Foreign Service Officer Selig Taubenblatt found himself mediating long-standing water disagreements between Israel and Jordan.

In 1975, Jordan decided to build the Maqarin Dam, later named Al-Wehda Dam, on the Yarmouk River not far from the Golan Heights at the Jordan-Syria border.  The dam was to supply Jordan with water for human and agricultural use, and produce electricity. But nothing is simple in this region. Israel protested, claiming the dam would interfere with Israeli rights downstream on the Yarmouk, a major tributary to the Jordan River.  When both Jordan and Israel asked the United States to provide “good offices” in resolving water disputes, Taubenblatt emerged as a key player in thrashing out numerous technical details. Jordan refused to conclude a final agreement without the assent of an as-yet unformed and unrecognized Palestinian State.  Ultimately the Israel–Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 resolved outstanding water issues associated with the Maqarin/Al-Wehda Dam, which opened in 2011.

Selig Taubenblatt was interviewed by Alexander Shakow beginning March 22, 2018.

Read Selig Taubenblatt’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Randy Huang

Excerpts:
“[T]he greatest obstacles in implementing a water distribution plan in the Jordan River Basin are . . . political, rather than legal or technical.”

 

Early Negotiations: When AID agreed in 1975 to support the Jordanian project to build a dam cross the Yarmuk River, known as the Maqarin Dam, it was immediately recognized that riparian (water rights) issues would arise . . .  Initially, the negotiations focused on issues between Jordan and Israel, but soon thereafter issues involving Syria and the West Bank increased in importance . . . as relations between Jordan and Syria deteriorated.

In 1975, both the Jordanian and Israeli governments asked the Department of State to play a “good offices” role to help address the riparian issues . . . and I was selected to take on such responsibilities . . . I would not represent Jordan or Israel, but would try to help both parties come to a solution on the equitable distribution of water.  [A] dam would interfere with the flow of Yarmuk River water to Israel, and into the Jordan River[.].

. . . I spent much time reviewing . . . previous negotiations, as well as technical studies . . . One of these studies was the [Ambassador Eric] Johnston Plan, which was the first effort at a unified joint development of the entire Jordan River Basin system. Although most of the technical elements of the Plan were accepted by all the parties, formal agreements were never concluded, ostensibly because the Arab League decided against formalizing the agreed arrangements on political grounds.

. . . As I learned early on, the greatest obstacles in implementing a water distribution plan in the Jordan River basin are . . . political, rather than legal or technical.

. . . The Arab States gave authority over the West Bank to the Palestinians, and thus in our negotiations, the Jordanians said that they had no say over water quantities for the West Bank. If they agreed to an amount from the Jordanian allocation, it could be rejected by the West Bank Palestinians at a later date, once they became a Palestinian State. Alternatively, the Palestinian State could request that a water amount for the Palestinians come out of the Jordanian water allocation.

 

“[Prime Minister Begin] realized that Jordan and Israel were in dire need of fresh water.”

 

Meeting with the Senior Leadership: In the spring of 1980, the State Department decided to send a high-level mission to Israel and Jordan, with the objective of reaching agreement between the parties on water rights for the Jordan River Basin. Philip Habib, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (then retired), was named a Special Envoy to meet with senior Israeli and Jordanian officials. At the time, there were very few outstanding differences remaining among the parties—except water quantities for the West Bank and agreement on water for the Adesiye Triangle in Israel. Most of the other issues had been resolved in my “good offices” negotiations. Ambassador Habib asked that I join him as Special Advisor, given my earlier role and continuing “good offices” role.

On May 17, 1980, Ambassador Habib and I met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at his office. The meeting also included Minister of Agriculture, Ariel Sharon, (who became Israel’s Prime Minister in 2001), Ambassador Eliashiv Ben-Horin, Deputy Director General, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Meir Ben-Meir, the Israeli Water Commissioner at the time. Prime Minister Begin said that he and the Israeli government wished to cooperate since he realized that Jordan and Israel were in dire need of fresh water. He emphasized the need for Jordan to agree to specific quantities of water for the West Bank, and that such amount was to come from the Jordanian water allocation

On May 19, we departed for Amman, Jordan, for comparable meetings. We had meetings with Prime Minister Sharaf and I had side meetings with Minister of Planning, Hanna Odeh, the President of the Jordan Valley Authority, Omar Abdallah Dakhqan and the Authority’s Vice President Munther Haddadin. At the meetings we discussed the possibility of forming a commission to review the political, legal, and technical aspects of Jordan’s proposal of a specific quantity of water for the West Bank for the Palestinians. Such a commission was never formed. In a . . . meeting I had with the Jordanian Foreign Minister a few months later, a meeting which included U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Richard Viets, we were told, as I had been told once before that the reason Jordan could not agree on quantities for the West Bank is because the Government of Jordan does not speak for the West Bank Palestinians.

 

“Water is politics in Israel and Jordan and other parts of the Middle East.”

 

A Long-Standing Disagreement Ends: As relations between Jordan and Syria continued to deteriorate later in the 1980s, it became clear that building a dam on the Yarmuk River straddling both the Jordanian side and the Syrian side would be impossible in the near term. Until I retired from USAID in October 1983, I continued with informal discussions and exchanges on the subject of the Maqarin Dam and Jordan River Basin water, with no further progress.

As a postscript, on October 20, 1994, the Prime Ministers of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan signed a peace treaty ending the state of war that had lasted nearly a half century. Agreements were reached on allocations of water from the Yarmuk River and other water-sharing arrangements between Israel and Jordan. Thus, despite a long and honorable history of American mediation of the Jordan River Basin water resources—initially led by Eric Johnson, followed by my “good offices” role between 1975 and 1980, the Habib mission of May 1980, and subsequent U.S. efforts, at the end, Israel and Jordan would settle their own water distribution issues without external assistance.

As I look back on my involvement in Jordan River Basin water problems, particularly my “good offices” role, over about a 5-year period, with Jordan and Israel, it is fair to conclude that most of the legal, technical, and environmental issues were resolved.

However, the intractable obstacle, particularly throughout the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s, was Middle East politics and relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Water is politics in Israel and Jordan and other parts of the Middle East. Unless political issues are addressed and resolved, it is difficult to reach agreement on water and its equitable allocation.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA in Economics, Brooklyn College                                                                                                              1944-1950

     MA in Economics, University of Michigan                                                                                                   1950-1951

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                                                           1955

     Seoul, South Korea—Foreign Service Reserve Officer                                                                               1956

     Joined the Development Loan Fund                                                                                                             1959

     Washington, D.C., USA—Loan Officer                                                                                                          1959-1961

     Joined the Agency for International Development                                                                                     1961

     Washington, D.C., USA—Director for Capital Development and Finance, Far East Bureau             1961-1967

     Washington, D.C., USA—Director for Capital Development and Finance, East Asia Bureau           1967-1972

     Washington, D.C., USA—Deputy Director, Office of Project Development                                          1972-1977

     Washington, D.C., USA—Director of the Office of Project Development                                              1977-1983

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