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The Quantity and Quality of Israel's Water Resources
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Once the National Carrier was underway, it was clear that Israel had al-ready tapped the majority of its replenishable water. It was time for the country to institute a policy that focused on conservation and preserva-tion rather than simply allocation and expansion. Such a strategy had to

be anchored in law, with a strong arbiter empowered to sort out competing needs. As early as November 5, 1952, Blass presented thirteen principles for a Water Law to a committee of experts and government ministers. But he was more interested in developing water sources than in writing laws regulating their use.[88]

A subcommittee was appointed, chaired by Haim Halpren, who had moved from being Director of the Ministry to Director of the Agricultural Bank of Israel. At the committee's first meeting, one of its five members, Pinhas Sapir (who was both the Director of Water and the Director of the Ministry of Finance as well as the Chair of Mekorot and Tahal), announced that he was against a water law in principle. At the time Blass was busy planning the National Water Carrier, and it is little wonder that it took seven years for the committee to complete the task.

When it was finally enacted, the Water Law was hailed as an innovative and comprehensive statute.[89] Among its key provisions were the elimina-tion of private water rights, along with a vague guarantee of the public's right to receive and use water as long as it did not deplete a source or cause salination. A Water Commissioner—appointed by the government, based on the Minister of Agriculture's recommendation—oversees the allocation of water. The law created a Water Council to advise the Minister of Agriculture, a Water Court to offer judicial review to the Commissioner's decisions, and a system for setting water prices. Tahal retained its planning function, and by government agreement, Mekorot remained the primary water utility.[90] Yet it fell short of what might be called an environmental statute. The word “pollution” did not appear in any of its 150 sections.[91]

It fell to Moshe Dayan, who then served as Minister of Agriculture, to ap-point the first Water Commissioner. (The relationship between the Commissioner and the Minister of Agriculture can be compared to that be-tween the Israeli Army's Chief of Staff and the Defense Minister.) Here again, Dayan made the right call, setting an important precedent by ap-pointing a professional rather than a politician for the job. Even at age thirty-seven, Menahem Kantor was probably one of the most experienced water engineers in the country. Kantor moved to Israel in 1922, when he was one year old. Fourteen years later he joined the Haganah and soon thereafter found work at Mekorot as one of its first five Haifa-based employees. When Mekorot's planning department moved to Tahal, Kantor went to work under Blass as head of the Hydrology Department. Among his many tasks was as-sessing just how much water was available in the country.[92]

Retired today at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, Kantor describes the water bureaucracy during his tenure as Commissioner as one big happy family.


He has only good things to say of his compatriots, including his old boss, the controversial Simcha Blass. Kantor's quiet, authoritative demeanor was quite a contrast to Blass's emotional style, and he managed to quell some of the turbulence that his former boss enjoyed stirring up. As Water Commissioner, he instituted weekly meetings with the directors of Tahal and Mekorot. Even academia was co-opted. In those days the Technion had an even tighter monopoly on technical training in the field than it does today, and Kantor quickly acted to bring its faculty on board as consultants and thereby ensure a consensus.[93]

The record is not quite so cozy. For instance, in 1967 a committee was established to recommend ways to reduce friction among the different water institutions.[94] As might be expected, the tensions continue to this day.[95] Kantor was respected and consistently came out a survivor in the in-ternecine quarrels. He remained at the job for twenty years, more than twice as long as any subsequent commissioner, and then he went on to run Tahal. His longevity was not hurt by a consistently paternalistic approach towards agricultural interests. The Minister of Agriculture remained the government reference for water until 1996 and was unquestionably the Commissioner's boss. The agricultural sector consistently received the vast majority of overall water allocations, enjoying a much cheaper price than industrial and domestic users, far below the actual costs of extraction. The record shows precipitous deterioration in water quality during Kantor's administration, but water supply ambitions still dominated Israel's hydro-logical agenda.

For a time, desalination was thought to be the key to a continued strat-egy of resource expansion. Although it typically connotes high technol-ogy, the process is hardly new. Aristotle wrote that saltwater became sweet when it turned into vapor and was condensed. During the siege of Alexandria, Julius Caesar used stills to desalinate seawater for his sol-diers.[96] It was only natural, then, for Israel's history-conscious leaders to attempt to give this ancient idea a modern application.

If there was an environmental area in which Prime Minister Ben-Gurion displayed his visionary qualities, it was that of desalination:

The purification of seawater by an inexpensive process is not only vital for Israel—it is a necessity for the world. Hundreds of millions of the inhabitants of the great continent in which we live suffer from lack of food, but as yet only a small part of the earth's surface is tilled. … If Israel succeeds in desalting the water of the sea, it will bring great benefits to the entire human race, and the task is not beyond the power of Israeli science. … The irrigation of the desert with purified seawater

will appear a dream to many, but less than any other country should Israel be afraid of “dreams” which are capable of transforming the natural order by the power of vision, science, and pioneering capacity. All that has been accomplished in this country is the result of “dreams” that have come true by virtue of vision, science, and pioneering capacity.[97]

Spurred by this ardor at the highest level, in 1965 Tahal proposed a fifteen-year, one-hundred-million-dollar massive desalination venture. It was officially adopted by the government, but by then, Ben-Gurion was no longer running the show. This time the Cabinet was not inclined to sign a blank check. Israel tried to interest the U.S. government in joint funding for the project, but the Americans balked at the price, considering the proj-ect technologically premature and economically unfeasible.

At the same time, the agricultural lobby was decidedly unenthusiastic. Even as late as the 1990s, in the circular logic that ruled the agricultural lobby, the idea prevailed that once water was desalinated, farmers would be forced to pay the full treatment price.[98] And so the pursuit of desali-nation technologies was abandoned. Without an engineering fix, Tahal had no alternative water strategy. Instead Tahal lamented inadequate infrastructure and began to assume the prophetic role of “predicting water doomsday.”[99]

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