14. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, March 27, 19581


  • Israel and the Development of the Jordan Valley


  • Mr. Abba Eban, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Ya’acov Herzog, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • Mr. Aharon Wiener, Hydraulic Engineer, Government of Israel
  • The Under Secretary
  • NEStuart W. Rockwell
  • NEDonald C. Bergus

Mr. Eban recalled that the Secretary had informed him on February 26 concerning U.S. support for a Jordan project to divert the Yarmouk River.2 The following day, his Embassy had asked for and received particulars of the project from the Department.

Discussion of the Jordan Valley between the Israelis and the U.S. had gone on over the last four years on the basis that the Valley was an international basin in which Israel and Jordan had substantial economic interests and Syria and Lebanon had marginal, primarily juridical, interest. Mr. Eban recounted briefly the history of the negotiations with Mr. Eric Johnston who had achieved technical agreement for a unified plan which had failed to receive political agreement. Since that date, Israel, in all its work with regard to the Jordan Valley, had maintained two principles: to manage the work so that if it were ever possible, Israel could revert to the unified plan; and to use the allocations of water among the riparian states which were contained in the unified plan as a basic planning premise. In these discussions, the U.S. had treated on an equal basis development of the Yarmouk River by Jordan, and development of the Jordan River by Israel. Mr. Eban’s following comments should be read in the light of that history.

Mr. Eban gathered that U.S. support of the Yarmouk project was based on two conditions: that the project be located outside the Demilitarized Zone and that Jordan take no more water than that allocated to it by the Johnston negotiations. Mr. Eban had also assumed that the U.S. had required that the Yarmouk project would not endanger Israel’s present usage of Yarmouk water (25–30 million cubic meters annually) or legitimate future use (40 million cubic meters annually).

Israel had examined the question of whether the Yarmouk project endangered its present rights and had come to a grave conclusion. If the U.S. still wished to proceed with the Yarmouk project, it must do other things to remove the features objectionable to Israel: The project presently would endanger existing usage by Israel by endangering the flow of the Yarmouk, particularly during the summer months. Israel could confirm this with technical data. Furthermore, the Yarmouk project would cause a change in the chemical structure of the water of the lower Jordan. The salinity of this water would be almost doubled. There were possible modifications of the Yarmouk project which could compensate for these two aspects, however.

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Assuming that ways could be found to compensate, the broader question arose as to Israel’s position if Jordan swiftly developed Yarmouk water while Israel, without U.S. aid or support, jogged along in its development of the Jordan. Jordan would get the first established use of the river system with U.S. cooperation. The result would be an imbalance which would make it difficult to return to the unified plan. Israel’s legal and diplomatic position would be prejudiced. Israel would suffer a drastic departure of U.S. policy from a position of equilibrium to one of unilateral support.

There were of course other considerations. Israel welcomed the basic idea of development by Jordan of its resources, particularly in a context where opportunities for refugee resettlement would be increased. Israel had an affirmative attitude toward the question of the use of the water of the Jordan Valley system. This led Israel to ask how the Yarmouk project could be reconciled to Israel’s requirements. If the plan were proceeded with, certain things would have to be done.

First there would be required a clear understanding that Israel’s continued use of Yarmouk water was sacrosanct. The Under Secretary asked how this might be done. If the Yarmouk project were built first, would Israel wish to be assured that there would remain adequate water for its use? Mr. Wiener said both this problem and that of salinity might be solved by additional works which would divert Yarmouk water into Lake Tiberias during the winter months for release into the Yarmouk triangle and lower Jordan in the summer.

Mr. Eban continued that Israel’s second requirement was an assurance that the U.S. would not depart from the principle of balanced projects in the Jordan Valley. The Under Secretary said he felt certain that the ICA had approved this project on the basis of its being part of the whole, which it did not prejudice. Mr. Eban said that he felt that there was then an equality of relationship to what Israel proposed. He gathered that the conditions we had laid down for participation in the Yarmouk project were that it would not be in the Demilitarized Zone nor would more water be taken than that allocated by the Johnston negotiations. Israel was prepared to consider alternative points to Jisr Banat Yacoub for its diversion of the Jordan. One was in the Huleh area, another was 1.8 kilometers south of Jisr Banat Yacoub just outside the Demilitarized Zone. These were not the only alternatives. Israel was prepared to discuss the timing of such a project. The most important thing was a U.S. assurance of equality of treatment. A great deal of discussion remained to be done. Israel would like an assurance regarding U.S. policy. If the U.S. extended moral and material support for a Jordan project, it should do the same for an Israel project. Even so, it looked as though Jordan would be the first user of water from the Jordan Valley system.

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Mr. Rockwell stated that we had been assured by competent technicians that the considerations regarding Israel use of Yarmouk water which had been raised would be met. We would like to study Israel’s facts and figures on these questions. We, of course, had had Israel’s interests in mind and had obtained expert views that these would not be prejudiced.

Mr. Eban reverted to the problem created by prior Jordan use of the water. The Under Secretary commented that this appeared to be a main preoccupation of the Israelis. Mr. Rockwell stated that we could not be too certain as to just when actual Jordan use of the water would in fact take place. He pointed out that while nothing had been done in Jordan, Israel had continued work on the Jordan diversion outside of the Demilitarized Zone. This might be cited as establishing an Israel claim to some of the waters.

The Under Secretary summed up that what we had in mind in authorizing our assistance for the Yarmouk project had been a piecemeal approach. Mr. Eban stated that there might be virtue in such an approach if Israel “had a piece of the meal.”

It was agreed that the Israelis would submit a written statement of their views and proposals for consideration in the Department.3

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 684A.85322/3–2758. Confidential. Drafted by Bergus on March 28 and initialed by Herter. Eban and Herter also discussed a summit conference and the general situation in the Middle East. Memoranda of these parts of the conversation are ibid., 396.1/3–2758 and 684A.86/3–2758.
  2. Dulles had so informed Eban during a conversation at 11:33 a.m. on February 27. A summary of this conversation was transmitted to Tel Aviv in telegram 622, February 27. (Ibid., 884A.424/2–2758)
  3. A copy of the Israeli statement, April 2, is ibid., 684A.85322/4–258.