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8. Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs0


As a flank attack on the Arab-Israel problem and in order to forestall future conflict over Jordan River water resources, Eric Johnston was sent as a Presidential emissary to the Near East in 1953.1 His purpose was to achieve a unified plan under which the Jordan basin’s waters would be equitably divided among the riparians. Although his initial reception was not favorable, Johnston after two years of intensive negotiations produced a plan which was with two minor exceptions agreeable to Arab and Israeli technical experts. However, when considered by the Arab League at the political level in the spring of 1955, Johnston’s plan was not accepted. Arab resistance to the Johnston plan [Page 16]or any like it is based primarily on the Arab conviction that any set of allocations which allows Israel to irrigate the Negev desert will only encourage new Jewish immigration thus inevitably generating pressures by Israel for territorial expansion.

A fundamental principle of the Johnston Plan was that all the reasonable needs of the Jordan basin must be accommodated. It was privately understood by the negotiators that once allocations were made it was each riparian’s own concern as to what it did with its share. Thus the Kingdom of Jordan which is affected much more than any of its Arab neighbors was allocated water for full development of the valley, even though much of it is not now under cultivation. Jordan and Syria were to receive adequate shares. The balance which went to Israel was of sufficient magnitude that some 2202 MCM’s would be available for lifting over the central Palestine highland to the coast and down to the Negev. There were also provisions for international supervision.

Although Johnston’s efforts stalled, it was decided that the hard-won progress which he had skillfully achieved should be preserved. Accordingly, pursuant to a secret NSC decision in the spring of 1958, our government has through judicious use of its assistance quietly been assuring that any water projects undertaken by either Israel or the Kingdom of Jordan should be consistent with the Johnston Plan. To this end, the United States has thus far expended some $6,000,000 in financing the East Ghor irrigation project in the Kingdom of Jordan, while some $30,000,000 has been made available to assist in Israel’s extensive and far sighted national water resources development program. We have written assurances respectively from Jordan and Israel that they will abide by the terms of the Johnston Plan, although Israel has made clear that its assurances are conditioned on Arab acceptance of a mutually agreeable plan within the reasonable future. This piecemeal but unadvertised execution of the Johnston Plan is feasible largely because 85% of Jordan’s needs can be met by water from the Yarmouk River, which is the principal Jordan River tributary and which is almost entirely under Jordanian control.

A key future date will occur in mid-1963 when Israel begins withdrawing water from Lake Tiberias through a network now under construction which includes a 9-foot conduit for transporting water to the Negev. While the maximum capacity of this diversion system will within 10 years be 450 MCM’s the Israelis insist that their planned withdrawals need not exceed the Johnston allocations. The Arabs, however, can be expected to resist strongly to any diversion and the possibility of [Page 17]hostilities cannot be ruled out. In recent months there have been a number of indications that the Arab governments are consorting as to what counter-measure might be taken, including the diversion of the Jordan’s headwaters which rise in Syria and Lebanon. Such diversion for spite purposes only would be almost prohibitively expensive and only partially effective. It is doubtful if the Arabs will in fact undertake it.

During the past two years, thought has frequently been given to a renewal of our efforts to find a solution. Prospects for a change in Arab opposition have, however, not been bright. Eric Johnston, who has retained a keen personal interest in this matter, has on a number of occasions spoken with Arab and Israeli leaders informally. President Eugene Black of the IBRD has become interested, particularly following the Bank’s historic success in solving the Indus waters problem.IBRD representatives a few months ago consulted with State Department representatives concerning the details of the progress achieved by Johnston and have indicated that at a suitable occasion the Bank might consider lending its good offices.

Whether or not a new effort should be made depends primarily on what decisions are taken with respect to approaching any of the various aspects of the Arab-Israel dispute, e.g. refugee problem, boundaries, security guarantees, compensation, Jerusalem, Arab boycott, Suez transit, etc. A full-scale “package approach” having failed in 1955 (the top secret Anderson mission), and in order not to inflame emotions in the present relatively tranquil Near East, it has been the Department’s inclination to follow a “piecemeal approach”, if a U.S. initiative is determined to be necessary. From the standpoint of urgency, either the refugee problem or the Jordan waters problem might be considered as initial targets. Because of Congressional restiveness over appropriating approximately $23,000,000 annually for the refugees and because this problem is a perennial focal point for argument at the United Nations, the Department’s preference has been to focus first attention to the refugee problem. The Jordan waters problem, because it possesses some small rays of hope, might also be considered as first focal point. However, in an unadvertised piecemeal fashion of its own de facto progress is already being made on the Jordan waters problem and this progress might be jeopardized if a new Western initiative were undertaken. In any case, an approach to the Jordan waters problem should be coordinated from a timing standpoint with whatever other steps the United States Government may have in mind with respect to the general Arab-Israel problem.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 684A.85322/2–761. Secret. The source text is undated and bears no drafting information. The date and bureau attribution are taken from the transmittal memorandum. Stoessel sent this paper to General Goodpaster at the White House on February 7 under cover of a memorandum that reads: “In response to a telephone call on Saturday from Mr. Richard Goodwin of the White House, I am enclosing a memorandum concerning the Jordan River Development.” Jones transmitted the paper to Bowles for transmission to the White House on February 6 under cover of a memorandum that indicates: “It is our understanding that because of the President’s personal interest in this subject the White House would like to have this background information today.” The covering memoranda are filed with the source text.
  2. For documentation on the Eric Johnston mission, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, volume IX, Part 1, and ibid., 1955–1957, volume XIV.
  3. This number is illegible on the source text. The number printed here comes from the copy sent to the White House. (Kennedy Library, Richard Goodwin Papers, Jordan River Development)