'Med-Dead Canal' plan resurfaces now that ice has broken between Israel and PLO

October 10, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- In the fine print of their peace pact, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators proposed an alchemy of dreams: From the dust of old schemes, they resurrected a century-old plan to connect the Mediterranean and Dead seas.

The idea of a canal crossing 65 miles of the arid Negev Desert -- an idea abandoned by Israel in 1985 as too grandiose -- was included on a list of potential cooperative projects in a regional economic program.

If they are attempting something so bold as peace, the negotiators concluded, why not think big? "It raises the fantasies of a lot of people," said one participant in the talks. "Solve the water problem in Gaza and the West Bank, and the electric needs, and create tourist attractions, and create a focus of international finance. . . . Fantasies are important."

But they are not always shared by those grounded in the realities of such a project:

"I was astonished," said Abdul Rahman Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, the experts on whom the Palestinian negotiators are supposed to rely for sound advice.

"I think it's a translation problem," insisted an unbelieving Uri Wurzberger, who headed the Israeli project years ago and was a member of the Israeli delegation to the separate, formal peace talks.

But Israel's energy minister, Moshe Shahal, has announced he will revive the government-owned company, the Mediterranean Sea-Dead Sea Canal Co., that had been formed in the 1980s to build the project.

The peace plan signed Sept. 13 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was negotiated in secret, without the experts. The "Med-Dead Canal" project was apparently included as a cooperative venture even though no one knows the cost.

Benefits on both sides

Its inclusion was not simply whimsy: Both sides were calculating. The Israelis saw a chance to get international donors to pay for a project of which they had long dreamed. The Palestinians saw a chance to block an alternate canal proposed by the Jordanians, and thus reap benefits for themselves.

"The Palestinians prefer to see it start in Gaza and end in the West Bank," said Ron Pundak, an Israeli academician who helped start the secret talks and was present throughout the negotiations.

"There are political considerations. There are serious financial considerations," said another participant in the talks, who asked not to be named. "The Palestinians went through a lot of proposals prepared by academic experts in Israel. They liked this one."

The idea is to generate hydroelectric power by using the 1,300-foot drop in elevation between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on the Earth's surface.

The most recent version of the proposal, from 1981, would have siphoned water from the Mediterranean at the Gaza Strip near Egypt's border. It would travel in a combination of underground tunnel and open canal through the Negev Desert past Beersheba, to drop down to the southern Dead Sea through four hydroelectric turbines.

Compared to Suez

Some compared the ambitious project to digging the Suez Canal. But there are side benefits that captured imaginations. The Mediterranean water would replenish the Dead Sea, which is steadily shrinking because its only tributary, the Jordan River, has been largely siphoned off for Israeli agriculture. Raising the level of the Dead Sea would also ensure survival of the Israeli and Jordanian mineral industries that depend on evaporating the brine.

In addition, as it dropped to the Dead Sea, the water could be more easily desalinated for drinking or irrigation. En route, ponds of water might be used as fish farms, and lakes to attract tourists might be formed. Israel even planned to use the passing water to cool a nuclear reactor in the Negev.

"There were a lot of creative ideas. At one time, we even thought the project was so attractive, it would be a trigger for peace," said Ilan Maoz, who was a director of the company set up by Israel to build the canal in the 1980s.

Others had long seen different benefits. British Gen. Charles Gordon had seen such a canal in the late 1800s as a barrier to a Czarist invasion. Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, described a Med-Dead Canal in his book "Altneuland," which he wrote in 1902, as part of a scheme to make the desert bloom.

After years of talk about the project, the Israeli government approved construction in 1981. It was a time of high oil prices, when panicky governments around the world adopted many grand schemes for generating electricity.

But the Israeli plan ran into an immediate blitz. A more northerly route through Israel risked contaminating fresh aquifers with salt water from the canals. The southern route from Gaza was condemned by the United Nations as a trespass on territory occupied but not owned by Israel.

Jordan, which shares the Dead Sea, quickly proposed an alternative canal to bring water from the Red Sea. Jordan's King Hussein railed that the Israel plan was "a flagrant aggression" that "threatened security."

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