'Med-Dead Canal' plan resurfaces now that ice has broken between Israel and PLO

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- In the fine print of their peace pact, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators proposed an alchemy of dreams: From the dust of old schemes, they resurrected a century-old plan to connect the Mediterranean and Dead seas.

The idea of a canal crossing 65 miles of the arid Negev Desert -- an idea abandoned by Israel in 1985 as too grandiose -- was included on a list of potential cooperative projects in a regional economic program.

If they are attempting something so bold as peace, the negotiators concluded, why not think big? "It raises the fantasies of a lot of people," said one participant in the talks. "Solve the water problem in Gaza and the West Bank, and the electric needs, and create tourist attractions, and create a focus of international finance. . . . Fantasies are important."

But they are not always shared by those grounded in the realities of such a project:

"I was astonished," said Abdul Rahman Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, the experts on whom the Palestinian negotiators are supposed to rely for sound advice.

"I think it's a translation problem," insisted an unbelieving Uri Wurzberger, who headed the Israeli project years ago and was a member of the Israeli delegation to the separate, formal peace talks.

But Israel's energy minister, Moshe Shahal, has announced he will revive the government-owned company, the Mediterranean Sea-Dead Sea Canal Co., that had been formed in the 1980s to build the project.

The peace plan signed Sept. 13 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was negotiated in secret, without the experts. The "Med-Dead Canal" project was apparently included as a cooperative venture even though no one knows the cost.

Benefits on both sides

Its inclusion was not simply whimsy: Both sides were calculating. The Israelis saw a chance to get international donors to pay for a project of which they had long dreamed. The Palestinians saw a chance to block an alternate canal proposed by the Jordanians, and thus reap benefits for themselves.

"The Palestinians prefer to see it start in Gaza and end in the West Bank," said Ron Pundak, an Israeli academician who helped start the secret talks and was present throughout the negotiations.

"There are political considerations. There are serious financial considerations," said another participant in the talks, who asked not to be named. "The Palestinians went through a lot of proposals prepared by academic experts in Israel. They liked this one."

The idea is to generate hydroelectric power by using the 1,300-foot drop in elevation between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on the Earth's surface.

The most recent version of the proposal, from 1981, would have siphoned water from the Mediterranean at the Gaza Strip near Egypt's border. It would travel in a combination of underground tunnel and open canal through the Negev Desert past Beersheba, to drop down to the southern Dead Sea through four hydroelectric turbines.

Compared to Suez

Some compared the ambitious project to digging the Suez Canal. But there are side benefits that captured imaginations. The Mediterranean water would replenish the Dead Sea, which is steadily shrinking because its only tributary, the Jordan River, has been largely siphoned off for Israeli agriculture. Raising the level of the Dead Sea would also ensure survival of the Israeli and Jordanian mineral industries that depend on evaporating the brine.

In addition, as it dropped to the Dead Sea, the water could be more easily desalinated for drinking or irrigation. En route, ponds of water might be used as fish farms, and lakes to attract tourists might be formed. Israel even planned to use the passing water to cool a nuclear reactor in the Negev.

"There were a lot of creative ideas. At one time, we even thought the project was so attractive, it would be a trigger for peace," said Ilan Maoz, who was a director of the company set up by Israel to build the canal in the 1980s.

Others had long seen different benefits. British Gen. Charles Gordon had seen such a canal in the late 1800s as a barrier to a Czarist invasion. Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, described a Med-Dead Canal in his book "Altneuland," which he wrote in 1902, as part of a scheme to make the desert bloom.

After years of talk about the project, the Israeli government approved construction in 1981. It was a time of high oil prices, when panicky governments around the world adopted many grand schemes for generating electricity.

But the Israeli plan ran into an immediate blitz. A more northerly route through Israel risked contaminating fresh aquifers with salt water from the canals. The southern route from Gaza was condemned by the United Nations as a trespass on territory occupied but not owned by Israel.

Jordan, which shares the Dead Sea, quickly proposed an alternative canal to bring water from the Red Sea. Jordan's King Hussein railed that the Israel plan was "a flagrant aggression" that "threatened security."

But economics killed it. The proposed cost of the project rose quickly from $700 million to $2 billion. Oil prices fell, making the whole deal less attractive. In 1985, after spending $20 million on 80 studies and several test wells, Israel dropped the plan and ordered the government-owned Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal Co. to close.

Israel Bonds, which had sold $10 million in bonds for the project, faced "some people who were pretty furious," said Mike Ben-Avi, an official of Israel Bonds. "Some of them wanted their money back."

The project was dead, but not forgotten. When the multilateral peace talks began among Mideast nations after the Madrid conference of October 1991, Jordan again brought up its Red-Dead canal project for discussion by the committee on water resources. "In Washington, the talk was always about the Red Sea route," said Mr. Wurzberger, a participant in the talks. "Jordan was interested in it." The Italian government even offered to finance a new study on that route.

But in the secret talks in Oslo, Norway, that led to the PLO agreement, the participants had other ideas.

The Israelis, contemplating the flush of international aid expected to follow an accord with the Palestinians, thought this was the sort of flashy project that might attract some of that money.

The Palestinians, who had opposed the canal running through Gaza and the West Bank in 1981, realized they might now share in its benefits -- in the electricity, the water, potential lakes.

"It's clear that if there will be big money, the Palestinians prefer the west-east route over the north-south route" favored by the Jordanians, said Mr. Pundak. Jordan, which knew nothing of the Oslo talks and was stunned by the agreement, is unlikely to be enamored of the revival of the Med-Dead route. "I'm sure this will be one of the arguments that will be shouted about," he said. "They were not consulted."

Of course, nothing may come of any route. The project was abandoned by Israel as too expensive, and may be found so again.

Mr. Maoz and others say the calculations might have changed. Interest rates have dropped dramatically, lowering the cost of the project, and the tunnel built under the English Channel has resulted in new, cheaper digging machines and methods.

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