Israel is considering advancing plans to build a canal linking the Dead Sea and the Red Sea in an effort to improve relations with Jordan.
The canal is one of several ideas that have been proposed to ease Jordan’s water shortage in advance of the expected negotiations with Amman on the enclaves of Naharayim and Tzofar.
Last week, Jordan announced that it would not extend Israel’s lease on those enclaves when it expires next year, 25 years after it went into effect with the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
However, a government official said this week that the canal project probably wouldn’t change Jordan’s decision.
The project would pipe water from the Red Sea to a desalination plant in Jordan. The desalinated water would then be piped to the Amman region, while the brine would be piped to the Dead Sea in an effort to halt its shrinkage. The World Bank has been involved in planning the project, which is expected to cost about 10 billion shekels ($2.7 billion).
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Government and defense officials, including senior officials close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been discussing the project ever since Jordan announced the lease’s cancellation. They have discussed its security aspects, the canal’s route and the necessary crossings along the Israeli-Jordanian border.
Though the project was initially meant to be an economic one, Israel is now trying to turn it into a security issue that would streamline the necessary bureaucracy, as wel as help the government defeat the expected petitions to the High Court of Justice by environmentalists and other canal opponents.
Despite the assessment that Amman won’t change its mind about the lease, Israel believes that helping Jordan ease its water problems could at least lessen the bilateral tensions of the past few years. Officials involved in the project said Amman would view the project’s advancement as a confidence-building measure.
Though there was no violation of the peace treaty in Jordan’s refusal to renew the lease, Israel saw it as another reflection of the bilateral tension. Israel believes one source of this tension is Jordan’s feeling of being excluded from decisions regarding the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, to Muslims) and the Palestinians.
Consequently, Amman has been using Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations as intermediaries on the Palestinian issue.
Speaking earlier this week about Jordan’s decision to terminate the lease, a government official said, “Is it possible to prevent this? I don’t think so. There’s pressure from the Muslims, from the Syrians, a great deal of pressure.”
Jordan “also has serious water problems, and we must understand this,” he added. “We told them we want to talk with them. My impression is that we’ll talk about the terms for returning the [leased] territory.”
Jordan has accused Israel in the past of delaying the canal project, even though both countries signed a deal to build the canal in 2015. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, whose ministry is responsible for the project, apparently wanted to advance it even before the tension with Jordan ratcheted up, but the Prime Minister’s Office wanted to back out of it, in part because the Mekorot Water Company estimated it would cost 1.3 billion shekels just to connect the Arava region to the project’s infrastructure.
Jordan, however, considers the project critical, because its water crisis is so severe that periodically it has had to stop supplying water for household use, sometimes for several days a week.
Environmental groups, in contrast, oppose the canal, saying the infusion of water from the Red Sea would alter the Dead Sea’s composition and lead to the growth of algae, which would turn the water red, and the formation of calcium sulfate, which would turn it white.
Environmental professionals also say there’s a risk that the project will release hydrogen sulfide gas, which has a bad smell, and this would undermine tourism to the area. Finally, tests run by the Dead Sea Works company found that the algae and calcium sulfate would interfere with its industrial processes.
On the other hand, the Dead Sea’s water level has been dropping by about a meter a year due to overuse by local industry, and the canal project is meant to halt that shrinkage. The falling water level has also created a host of other problems, such as sinkholes.