In this second itteration of follow-up essays about Israel and the Middle East, I’ve departed from my casual, “bloggy tone” and take an academic approach. If you can stomach that for five minutes, then read along! Below is a cause-and-effect essay that I wrote for a course this fall. Titled “Undercurrents of War,” it explains the role water played in the 1967 War and shines a light on the often cast-aside influence of hydropolitics in regional conflicts.
While it is often overlooked, the water conflict between Israel and surrounding Arab states that began with Israel’s establishment in 1948 significantly heightened regional tensions that lead to the 1967 War. The root cause of the water conflict between Israel and the Arabs can be traced back to the management and use of the Jordan River, a central water source running along the Israeli-Jordanian border. Israel and the Arab states’ uncompromisable positions regarding each other’s use of the River eventually climaxed at the Arabs’ Cairo Summit in 1964 . Following the Cairo Summit, the water conflict became increasingly political and violent as Arab states unified and international involvement in the Middle East grew. Consequently, a series of violent counter-retaliations between Israel and the Arabs began, setting off a chain of events that led to the 1967 War.
Central to the water conflict was the understanding that whichever power dominated the River’s water controlled the strength of the newly established Jewish state. Israel knew that water “was the very lifeblood” of their new state and that access to the River was necessary to expand agriculture, accommodate a growing immigrant population, and develop a strong national economy . Thus, upon Israel’s establishment, access to the River became a top priority.
For the Arabs, allowing Israel access to the River required Arab states to recognize their enemy’s existence as a sovereign state and to watch Israel grow. The Arabs were unwilling to do either. They worried that a growing Israeli population would lead to increased water demands and ruin any future possibility for Palestinian refugees to return to the land they lost in 1948, perpetuating an already challenging refugee crisis . The Arabs also feared that Israel’s development and territorial aspirations would escalate and infringe on more Arab land . Finally, the Arabs knew that the stronger Israel grew, the more difficult it would be to defeat should an armed conflict arise. Consequently, the Arabs sought to prevent Israel’s access to and diversion of the River.
Conflicting positions on water use resulted in regional tension during the construction of Israel’s National Water Carrier. Israel had designed the water carrier to transport water from the Jordan River Valley south towards the Negev to expand agricultural land. In 1953, construction of the water carrier began in a zone that was demilitarized in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War . While Israel viewed the demilitarized land as its own, Syria felt that the construction encroached on Arab land and water rights. In response, Syria filed a complaint against Israel to the UN Security Council, garnering global attention .
The Syrian complaint and water carrier conflict aroused concern in the United States regarding the stability of the Middle East. The United States favored a stable Middle East to maintain Western oil operations and prevent the Soviet Union from gaining influence in the region . As a result, the United States sent Secretary of State Eric Johnston to Israel to establish a resolution between Israel and the Arabs . The resulting 1955 Johnston Plan allocated 39% of the River’s water to Israel, with the remaining percentage divided between surrounding Arab states. The Johnston Plan also required Israel’s diversion of the River to be rerouted outside the demilitarized zone . While both the Israeli and Arab technical teams approved the plan, only Israel gave the plan overall approval. The Arab coalition did not formally respond, as doing so would infer that they acknowledged Israel as a sovereign state .
Ignoring the lack of Arab approval, Israel resumed construction of the National Water Carrier in 1956, complying with the Johnston Plan and avoiding demilitarized zones . This undoubtedly increased Arabs’ frustration, but no concrete Arab response was formulated until the Cairo Summit in 1964. But, by the time the Cairo Summit was held, the construction of the National Water Carrier was nearly complete .
In retrospect, the Cairo Summit proved to be the catalyst that escalated the water conflict into a cause for the 1967 War. While Arab states generally disapproved of Israel, prior to the Cairo Summit the states had disagreed with each other regarding the specifics of Israel’s existence and regional hydropolitics. Differences in opinion had intensified in 1961 when the historical Egyptian-Syrian unification crumbled and Arab powers turned against each other . This falling out had changed the water conflict on the Arab front from a “Pan-Arab cause to a controversial issue between Arab camps” . Thus, it was not until three years later at the Cairo Summit that Arab powers would regroup, creating an solidified Arab front that was coordinated enough for war.
The Arabs’ actions at the Cairo Summit indicated that the water conflict had quickly become a top priority. At the summit, a joint technical team drew up plans to prevent further Israeli water diversions and to reroute the River in Arab favor . Meanwhile, the Arab states also established the Unified Arab Military . This merge of military power demonstrated that the Arabs thought that the water conflict was not a simple skirmish with Israel, but a substantial conflict that would require military power in the immediate future. Thus, the Arab states’ involvement at the Cairo Summit transformed a previously fragmented Arab world into an established, confident front prepared for war.
The Cairo Summit also increased international involvement in the Middle East, providing both Israel and the Arabs with the political support, money, and arms needed for war. The United States, in particular, worried that the newly unified Arab front would incite violence and threaten regional stability. In response, the United States affirmed its plan to defend Israel and continue to supply Israel with weapons . While initial arms deals between two countries were established years prior to the Cairo Summit, the summit demonstrated the need for extensive Israeli military power to combat the Unified Arab Military Command. Thus, the reaffirmed alliance between Israel and the United States reassured the Israeli military that they had the support of the United States. With this backing, Israel was determined to secure its future as a state and stop any Arab counter-diversions of the River.
Interest from the Soviet Union also grew after the Cairo Summit. The Soviet Union, in the midst of the Cold War, saw the Arab-Israeli water conflict as an opportunity to act upon their “expansionist ambitions” and gain influence in the Middle East . While the Soviets had sided with the Arabs as early as 1955, they reestablished their support following the Cairo Summit, condemning Israel’s diversion of the River as a preemptive act of war. Additionally, the Soviets financially supported the Arab counter-diversion plan and increased arms supplies to the Arab Unified Command, bolstering Arab strength .
The boost in international support Israel and the Arabs received allowed each side to become increasingly uncompromising and powerful. This resulted in a cycle of retaliatory attacks, pushing the region further towards what appeared to be an inevitable war. Following the Cairo Summit, the Arab forces began construction on their counter-diversion plan for the River. This plan threatened Israel’s water access, causing great concern in Israeli society. By late 1964, Israel was desperate and the Israeli government felt that all peaceful methods of mediation with the Arabs regarding hydropolitics had been exhausted. On its own accord, Israel used military force to prevent the Arab counter-diversion of the River, launching an airstrike against Syrian counter-diversion sites . In response, Syria mobilized soldiers to wreak havoc on Israeli water carrier sites and demilitarized civilian zones . Syrian aggression would eventually prompt further Israeli airstrikes and air battles between the two forces. This shift from diplomatic disagreements and smaller land operations to aerial combat marked a significant escalation. No longer was the water conflict simply a regional political disagreement, but a situation that both sides felt necessitated the use of serious military force.
With counter-retaliations growing increasingly frequent, war seemed inevitable. The Soviets, worried the Arabs would not win a war against the Israelis, warned Egypt of Israeli threats to attack Syria on a “much larger scale” . The Soviets hoped this warning would lead the Egyptians to mobilize the Egyptian-Syrian Defense Agreement, intimidating the Israelis and preventing war. Egypt, however, had already begun to secretly deploy its forces. As such, the Soviet warning only served as further Egyptian assurance that military action was necessary. Thus, in May of 1967, with the belief that Israel was ready to strike Syria, Egyptian forces entered the Sinai Peninsula, setting off a sequence of events that began the 1967 War .
In conclusion, it is undeniable that the Arab-Israeli water conflict escalated regional tensions that led to the 1967 War. Rooted in each group’s uncompromisable position on the River, the struggle over water became progressively violent as Israel continued to build water infrastructure, Arab states became a reunited front, and international involvement in the Middle East increased. While this sequence of events is evidently unique, the path from conflict to war in the Middle East offers up broader lessons for today’s global community. As the world population grows, infrastructure development expands, and the demand for natural resources increases, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the greatest challenges of our time will stem from a struggle over the one thing we cannot live without: water.
 Wolf, Aaron. Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River; Scarce Water and Its Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. United Nations University Press, 1995.
 Gat, Moshe. “The Great Powers and the Water Dispute in the Middle East: A Prelude to the Six Day War.” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 41, no. 6, 2005, pp. 911-935.
 Haddadin, Munther. “Negotiated Resolution of the Jordan-Israel Water Conflict.” Journal of International Negotiation, vol. 5 no. 2, 2000, pp. 236-288.
 Shemesh, Moshe. “Prelude to the Six-Day War: The Arab-Israeli Struggle Over Water Resources.” Israel Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 2004, pp. 1-45.
 Neff, Donald. “Israel-Syria: Conflict at the Jordan River, 1949-1967.” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, 1994, pp. 26-40.
 Elmusa, Sharif. “The Jordan-Israel Water Agreement: A Model or an Exception.” University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies, vol. 24, no. 3, 1995, pp. 63-73.
Thank you so much for your well written overview. Much appreciated
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While I am out of the habit of reading such informational pieces I did read this one…twice, even three times in many places and it served to reinforce the fact that what is going on in the middle East is way more complicated than we are led to believe by our news coverage. I come away from each of these discussions shaking my head and trying to weave the multitude of facts together into some sort of fabric that makes a least a modicum of sense.
We are a strange species we humans.
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