Water Politics: The United States’ Role in Israeli Water Security

Part 1: Research Question 

Located on the border between Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea is a natural body of water high in salinity – in fact, the levels are so high that one can easily float on the surface. As a frequently visited tourist site, the Dead Sea holds is famous among the wonders of the Middle East. However, this reality is soon coming to an end. Scientists have noted that the “surface area has almost halved,” bringing the water elevation level to a new low.[i] Though Israel and Jordan have agreed to combat this impending environmental disaster, little work has been done. Despite words of affirmation, the Red Sea-Dead Sea project is stuck at a standstill, as relations between the two countries “are at a historic low.”[ii] As the crisis looms closer and closer, policymakers have been attempting to grapple with new and innovative modes of effective diplomacy over water resources. 

New responses are not necessarily better responses. It is critical to examine the past to help illuminate previous mistakes administrations have made in the realm of water politics. This paper will examine the history of US-Israel relations in regards to water security and management. The amount of literature on the role of the US in Israel’s water policies is actually surprisingly large.

My analysis will focus specifically on Israeli-Jordanian cooperation and conflict, and the role of the US in mediating the allocation of water resources. I will focus specifically on the Johnston Plan in the early 1950s and the 1994 Treaty of Peace between Jordan and Israel. The question I will answer is: What conditions lead to the failure of Israeli-Jordanian water cooperation? In the conclusion, I will answer potential counterarguments and explain how understanding the conditions of failure and success over water security can help provide insights to policymakers for dealing with current failures of Israeli-Jordanian water projects, such as joint-desalination and the Red Sea-Dead Sea project discussed in the introduction. 

Part 2: Thesis

My thesis is two-fold: first, I argue that a realist approach to water politics falls short of explaining historical collaboration between Israel and Jordan. Current realist approaches approach water as a commodity, arguing that the reason why cooperation is unsuccessful is because water security is seen as a zero-sum game, where the other opponent is reluctant to cooperate due to fears of losing out on greater access to that resource. In addition, the realist approach looks at that time period as a battle of competing influences between the United States and Russia.

Thus, cooperation fails insofar that policy decisions over water allocation affect the regional hegemonies of the United States and Russia respectively. However, I posit that a constructivist approach better explains the failure of cooperation, specifically focusing on Israeli/Arab identities as social constructs, including discussions of Zionism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the Syrian conflict. Amity and enmity are determined by identity. 

Part 3: Current/Main Approaches 

Current approaches to water security have mainly centered around a realist approach. The approach is as follows: water, in and of itself, cannot be divided. For example, if two people are dying of thirst in a desert, and there is only one cup of water left, it either has to be shared or given to only one person. It’s a non-negotiable good in the sense that it is a rare commodity that directly necessitates a trade-off. If someone receives water, it is inherently at the expense of the other. For many international relations scholars, this is why water cooperation over the Jordan and Yarmouk river fail. Israel and Jordan lose if the other defects, as the scenario is depicted as “a zero-sum game in the national discourses and as a situation of interdependence and possible mutual gains.”[iii] Scholars cite numerous empirical examples to demonstrate this. For example, after the Johnston plan negotiations failed, the Hashemite Kingdom “announced plans to divert the Yarmouk river […] through the construction of the East Ghor Canal,”[iv] while Israel attempted to retaliate back by beginning the “construction of a National Water Carrier to transport the water of the Sea of Galilee to its arid South.”[v]Water was seen as a resource that was mutually exclusive – just as nations race to proliferate for nuclear weapons, states race to secure the most amount of water. In fact, escalation from the rush to securitize water has actually produced conflict between these two states. Israel “bombed the East Ghor Canal,”[vi] believing that Jordan had malicious intent and was bent on overusing the canal. Furthermore, realists also examine the status quo division of water to prove their theory as well, showing that negotiations focus on the nitty gritty details of water allocations. Post the Madrid talks that ushered in the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, Jordan was able to secure most of its water from the Yarmouk river, while Israel keeping most of the Jordan river.[vii] Small caveats were made, with the treaty allowing the allocation “from the other river to each country […] Israel receives 25 million cubic meters (mcm) from the Yarmouk, and Jordan receives 30 mcm from the Jordan.”[viii]  

Additionally, realists would point to the way in which Israel and Jordan conduct and view water policies, especially in how they sell water to each other. The buying and selling of “water at a discounted rate to its neighbor […] reflects an understanding that the price of water is not just the marginal cost of its production but […] a political stability dividend.”[ix] Water compromise is political compromise – political stability hinges on the zero-sum transaction of water allocation. However, I will argue that though these details may be true, the over-focus on the specifics of water allocation ignores the root causes of identity formation in constructivist theory which prevent effective compromise in the first place. 

In addition, the realist approach prides itself in understanding this conflict in the context of the pursuit of hegemony. Because states pursue policies that maximize their self-interest, the US wanted to properly negotiate a solution to the water conflict between Israel and Jordan as a way to counter “communist influence spilling over to Jordan and spreading in the region.”[x]   Especially after the Soviets had managed to establish “a foothold in Egypt and Syria by supplying weapons to both countries,”[xi] the US began to fear a growing Soviet Union presence in the Middle East writ large. The US attempted to expand its influence by appearing as a broker and friend between both parties, Israel and Jordan. This is why it initially attempted to broker the Johnston plan and provide “funding for both the Israeli National Water Carrier and the Jordanian East Ghor Canal Project.”[xii] The US wanted to appease both sides, ultimately playing a balancing act between the favoritism of the Arabs and Israelis, but to no avail. Realists also look at the way the Soviet Union approached this conflict as well to see if the theory could be supported by the actions of both actors. When examining the actions of the Soviets, they found deep evidence of a Soviet pursuit of regional hegemony and establishment of a sphere of influence in Israeli-Jordanian water politics as well. For example, upon arrival of US ambassador Eric Johnston to the Middle East region, the Soviets “attempted to spread anti-Johnston mission propaganda and labeled the Main Plan US imperialism,”[xiii] even going so far as to tell the Arabs that he is a “well-known Zionist.”[xiv] 

The battle of regional hegemonies and the idea of water cooperation as a zero-sum game clearly lend credibility to the realist approach. However, I will argue that though much of the theory is warranted, it falls short in explaining in entirety why cooperation fails, specifically in the context of the failure of the Johnston plan and the success of the Madrid talks. Identity formation and social constructions function as better explanations for the eventual demise of water cooperation. 

Part 4: Discussion 

Groups function as imagined communities, constantly constructing different identities which function as in and out groups. In a sense, there remains no possibility for the construction of one group without another; in order to first exist, something must exist in opposition to it. For example, many view the rise of Islam and the West as imagined communities; there is nothing that inherently makes them enemies besides constructions of what an enemy is and what interests they have. The same phenomenon happened during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. However, these constructions can be dangerous since “interests are neither primordial nor rational; instead, they emerge from the perceptions and interpretations of the respective groups.”[xv] That framework is critical when thinking about what cooperation means in the context of constructivism. For the realist, cooperation over water would be about attempting to maximize one’s own self interests and power. For the constructivist, cooperation functions “as a social continuity, since cooperative – like conflictive – behavior is enabled and shaped by hegemonic discourses.” [xvi] Cooperation is thus about managing behavior in regards to identity negotiation, almost like negotiating which parts of social construction the other side is willing to cave in on. Seemingly, conflict is described by how dearly a group plans to stick to its social construction.

This actually manifests itself in a problematic manner – if this theory holds true, then cooperation is an extremely difficult process. It requires societal attitudes towards that social construction to change, easily proven true by these exact same water disputes. It took almost forty to fifty years after the Johnston Plan in 1953 for there to be any real progress on water management (since the Israeli-Jordanian peace settlement was in 1994). Identities naturally “cannot easily be manipulated by elites,”[xvii] which illuminates why a realist approach of attempting to strike a balance of interests in water disputes doesn’t really make sense. It’s not necessarily about maximizing which side secures the most resources; it’s about how strong identities attempt to exist in opposition to each other.  

This framework of identity formation is critical when examining water disputes between Israel and Jordan. Firstly, it’s important to understand the importance of the concept of water for Israeli/Jewish identity. For Jews, water is intertwined deeply with “the creation of a Jewish state and the Israeli identity […] water’s ideological meaning […] [lies] in political Zionism.”[xviii] Driven out of their land starting with the Babylonian Exile to the Holocaust, Jewish people have linked water to their own survival, and naturally so. The ability to access water “is a question of existence for the Jewish state,”[xix] as over half of the resources are “located outside its internationally recognized borders.”[xx]Securitization of water is thus necessary for the security of Jewish existence. Especially given the track record of water used as a weapon in Israel’s past, securitization seems inevitable. For example, 1964 was the year in which Arab states “tried to divert the tributaries of the Jordan River,”[xxi] which Israel responded to by regaining access during the Six Day War. Negotiations and questions of peace are necessarily tied to Israel’s access to water. Images of future Zionist possibilities also demarcated the securitization of water, since much of the discourse was filled with phrases like “making the desert bloom.”[xxii] This gave credibility to the notion of Jews making Israel an agricultural paradise and settling the land permanently. Zionist propaganda and government statements supported this settlement ethos as well, as they mentioned the importance of “irrigating the deserts of southern Palestine.”[xxiii] Statements by important figures such as Chaim Weizmann even stress the importance of linking water and security for Israel. For him, it was paramount that “the future Jewish state would […] ensure its control over […] water.”[xxiv]  He even wrote to the Prime Minister about the necessity to “ensure claims to territory in the North.”[xxv] Water and security were framed as top issues in Zionist discourse, constructing Israeli identities in direct opposition to Arab access to water resources. 

Moreover, as much as Zionist discourse stood in opposition to Arab control of water, Jordanian discourse equally advanced an anti-Israeli doctrine in terms of water policy, ultimately leading to the demise of the Johnston Plan of 1953-1955. Jordanians saw themselves as part of a broader Arab identity, which greatly hindered any progress on Johnston’s proposals. They followed the decision-making of the Arab League Council, who told them that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a conditional issue on which Israel needed to resolve before any agreement. Johnston’s shuttle diplomacy ultimately failed, as “two political considerations stood in the way of ratification.”[xxvi] The first was the “plight of the Palestinian refugees, […] the other was the fact that cooperation with Israel could be interpreted as political recognition of Israel.”[xxvii] For Jordan, Arab identity superseded any form of negotiation, no matter if the Johnston Plan would have actually been better for Jordan’s access to the water supplies of both the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers. Even though Jordan’s government may not have even liked the Palestinians, Arab constructions of identity were more influential than incentives to negotiate with the Israelis. Negotiation with Israel would also imply an acceptance of Israel as a nation-state. Media reports highlight that this wasn’t a favorable opinion among the people, as Jordanian “editorials went on to argue that it was better for Jordan to develop water within its own boundaries than ‘to cooperate with Israel.”[xxviii]

As mentioned before, cooperation is difficult because it requires whole populations to shift their orientations about the social constructs they have created. This is clearly witnessed in the failure of the Johnston agreement. There were vast tensions between the Jordanians and Israelis, “notably at the level of the population.”[xxix] The Jordanian people themselves felt as if the “treaty [was] unfavourable to them,” and when coupled with the “violence between Israelis and Palestinians,” it’s easy to understand the “lack of trust of Jordanians [have] towards Israel.”[xxx] However, one can notice that these identities become problematic, especially considering the fact that the Johnston Plan would have actually been beneficial for the Jordanians. The plan would have allowed “Israel […] 30 per cent of the total water, Jordan 63 per cent, Lebanon 3 per cent, and Syria 4 per cent.”[xxxi] This disproves the realist notion that states act in their own self-interest – if that were true, Jordan would have maximized their own access to water resources. It also disproves the notion that water security is a zero-sum game. Jordan would seek to attain the most amount of water, which they would have gotten with this plan, if it was at the expense of Israel. In addition, scholars note that the conflict should not be understood “as a zero-sum game […] if both parties were to apply joint management the potential benefits would be huge.”[xxxii] Arab identity clearly took precedent over rational claims of maximizing self-interest. The fact that the Lebanese parliament speaker said that “rapprochement with Israel” would cause leaders to “be assassinated, as was Jordan’s King Abdullah,” really highlights how groups view opposing identities.[xxxiii] Constructivism provides a better framework to understand the failed negotiations of the Johnston Plan. 

Likewise, the evidence is bidirectional – the Israelis saw Jordanian support and sympathy with Palestine as a reason to forestall and hinder water cooperation post-Johnston plan. Specifically, in 1969, Israel failed to cooperate with the Jordanians under the banner of Jordanian support for the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israelis went ahead and “bombed the East Ghor Canal […] scholars also point out that this attack was […] linked to the fact that Jordan was supporting the PLO.”[xxxiv]  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a huge concern for both sides in terms of cooperation, as Israeli-Jordanian cooperation is contingent on the way that Jordanians see themselves as the direct allies of Palestinians, just as Israelis see themselves as part of an exclusive, Zionist project. The same thing happened with the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.  Though the agreement was successful, Arab versus Israeli identity became a central factor that severely hampered full-blown cooperation. The treaty included discussion of Palestinian refugees, but “left [it] for final-status negotiations.”[xxxv] The issue of Palestinian refugees has yet to be resolved, however it bodes that any type of future water conflict is “instrinsically linked to the central issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict […] a regional water agreement will depend on the resolution of the entire conflict.”[xxxvi]

My argument falls short when Syria enters the picture. If constructivism is about group identity, then why do Syria and Jordan also fail to cooperate when it comes to water allocation? Syria and Jordan are both Arab nations, yet both of them failed to properly divide water resources right after the Johnston plan. Surprisingly, “Jordan’s relations with Syria have not been very brotherly.”[xxxvii] Syria violated a 1951 treaty between the two nations in regards to water security, by “constructing earthen dams on the Yarmouk tributaries inside its borders.”[xxxviii] Even after that, Syria and Jordan remained even more divided as both supported “opposite sides in the Iraq-Iran War.”[xxxix]  Arab identity was not enough to illicit proper diplomacy – even to this day. Currently, Syrian attitudes towards Jordan regarding water policy “in the Yarmouk catchment did not change, and Jordan continues to be adversely affected.”[xl] Further research will have to be done to understand what other factors besides identity are at play here. Constructivism may be able to explain why the Israeli-Jordanian cooperation over the Johnston plan failed, however falls short when it discusses conflicts among the same identity group. 

The realist argument that water cooperation fails due to the pursuit of hegemony between the US and Russia definitely has strong backing, but it falls short very quickly when we examine how cooperation becomes a success during the Madrid Peace talks. If it was about rivalries and the pursuit of hegemony, then why do the Soviets and US end up collaborating to put on the Madrid Peace talks? By 1991, the Soviet Union leadership under Gorbachev changes drastically, so much so that the “Soviet transformation […]  in the mid-1980s” ends up making “Russia a much more acceptable partner for joint conflict resolution in the Middle East.”[xli] The Soviet Union switches over from competition to cooperation before their collapse at the end of the year, which realism can’t explain well enough. The sudden ideological shift does not make sense given the Soviet Union’s previous drive towards revisionism. If all states exist to maximize their hegemonic influence, then it makes even less sense that the Soviet Union would do this when it was still considered to be the United States’ greatest competitor at the time. 

Part 5: Conclusion 

Current approaches to understanding Israeli-Jordanian water security fall short because most of the discourse assumes a realist approach to IR. Policymakers tend to view water security as a zero-sum game, which treats water as a mutually exclusive good. The realist idea of states pursuing hegemony to expand their spheres of influence can offer some explanatory potential but not all. Instead, policymakers should adopt a constructivist approach that centers decision-making around issues of identity and social construction. This will help explain the failure of the Johnston Plan as a broader Arab-Israeli conflict, rather than a Jordanian-Israeli one. My research falls short when it comes to discussing the failure of cooperation between Jordan and Syria, but I believe that as a short-term heuristic, policymakers can adopt a constructivist approach to understand Arab conflicts with non-Arab actors. We may need to develop a new framework when it comes to in-group vs. in-group violence. Further research needs to be done on the role of water conflict and scarcity from an Arab identity perspective. My future research will examine why cooperation among Arab states fails in the realm of water security. This may be due to sectarian differences in faith, essentially creating out-groups within the in-groups. Given the analysis in this research paper, it is critical for the US to realize that if it wants to play any role in resolving the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project, it needs to address the broader issue of Israel-Palestine first. 


[i] Surkes, Sue. “Sinking Israel-Jordan Relations Leave Dead Sea, a Natural Wonder, Low and Dry.” The Times of Israel, November 7, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/sinking-israel-jordan-relations-leave-dead-sea-a-natural-wonder-low-and-dry/.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Tobias Ide and Christiane Fröhlich, “Water conflict or water cooperation? A discursive understanding of water conflict and cooperation in Israel and Palestine,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Politics (2014): 17.

[iv] ECC. “Jordan and Israel: Tensions and Water Cooperation in the Middle-East: ECC Factbook.” ECC Library, Jan. 2018, library.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/jordan-and-israel-water-cooperation-middle-east.

[v] Ibid. 

[vi] Ibid. 

[vii] Mitha, Farooq. “The Jordanian-Israeli Relationship: The Reality of ‘Cooperation.’” Middle East Policy 17, no. 2 (September 2010): 105–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4967.2010.00442.x.

[viii] Ibid. 

[ix] Shay, Shaul. “Regional Water Security: Challenges and Opportunities in the Middle East .” IDC Herzliya: Institute for Policy and Strategy, (2017), www.idc.ac.il/he/research/ips/Documents/publication/5/ShaulShayWaterSecurity2.pdf.

[x] Haddadin , M.J. “The Jordan River Basin: A Conflict Like No Other.” Edited by Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell, and Mikiyasu Nakayama. Water and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding 1 (2014): 250. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781849775809.

[xi] Ibid. 

[xii] ECC. “Jordan and Israel: Tensions and Water Cooperation in the Middle-East: ECC Factbook.” ECC Library, Jan. 2018, library.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/jordan-and-israel-water-cooperation-middle-east.

[xiii] Sosland, Jeffrey. Cooperating Rivals: The Riparian Politics of the Jordan River Basin. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 2007. Page 46. 

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Tobias Ide and Christiane Fröhlich, “Water conflict or water cooperation? A discursive understanding of water conflict and cooperation in Israel and Palestine,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Politics (2014): 4-5.

[xvi] Ibid. 

[xvii] Ibid. 

[xviii] Ibid, page 7. 

[xix] Renger J. “The Middle East Peace Process: Obstacles to Cooperation over Shared Waters.” In: Scheumann W., Schiffler M. (eds) Water in the Middle East. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg (1998): 50. 

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Morag, Nadav. “Water, Geopolitics and State Building: The Case of Israel.” Middle Eastern Studies 37, no. 3 (2001): 179-98. www.jstor.org/stable/4284179.

[xxiii] Ibid. 

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid, page 191. 

[xxvi] Haddadin , M.J. “The Jordan River Basin: A Conflict Like No Other.” Edited by Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell, and Mikiyasu Nakayama. Water and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding 1 (2014): 252-253. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781849775809.

[xxvii] Ibid. 

[xxviii] Wishart, David M. “The Breakdown of the Johnston Negotiations over the Jordan Waters.” Middle Eastern Studies 26, no. 4 (1990): 542. www.jstor.org/stable/4283397.

[xxix] ECC. “Jordan and Israel: Tensions and Water Cooperation in the Middle-East: ECC Factbook.” ECC Library, Jan. 2018, library.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/jordan-and-israel-water-cooperation-middle-east.

[xxx] Ibid. 

[xxxi] Morag, Nadav. “Water, Geopolitics and State Building: The Case of Israel.” Middle Eastern Studies 37, no. 3 (2001): 194-195. www.jstor.org/stable/4284179.

[xxxii] Jägerskog A. (2007) “Why States Co-operate over Shared Water: The Water Negotiations in the Jordan River Basin.” In: Shuval H., Dweik H. (eds) Water Resources in the Middle East. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg (2007): 116.

[xxxiii] Sosland, Jeffrey. Cooperating Rivals: The Riparian Politics of the Jordan River Basin. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 2007. Page 40.

[xxxiv] Ibid. 

[xxxv] Mitha, Farooq. “The Jordanian-Israeli Relationship: The Reality of ‘Cooperation.’” Middle East Policy 17, no. 2 (September 2010): 110. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4967.2010.00442.x.

[xxxvi] Renger J. “The Middle East Peace Process: Obstacles to Cooperation over Shared Waters.” In: Scheumann W., Schiffler M. (eds) Water in the Middle East. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg (1998): 54. 

[xxxvii] Haddadin , M.J. “The Jordan River Basin: A Conflict Like No Other.” Edited by Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell, and Mikiyasu Nakayama. Water and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding 1 (2014): 253-254. 

[xxxviii] Ibid. 

[xxxix] Ibid. 

[xl] Ibid. 

[xli] Jägerskog A. (2007) “Why States Co-operate over Shared Water: The Water Negotiations in the Jordan River Basin.” In: Shuval H., Dweik H. (eds) Water Resources in the Middle East. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg (2007): 87-88.

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