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John F. Kennedy Administration: Discussion of Israel's Intent to Divert the Jordan Waterway

(February 24, 1962)

This memorandum discusses Israel's decision to divert the Jordanian waterway, and the consequences that may arise from already hostile surrounding nations.

Jordan Waters

On February 21 Syrian Prime Minister Dawalibi handed Ambassador Knight a note protesting Israel's intention to divert Jordan River water to the Negev./2/ Similar notes were presented to the other three Security Council members who have diplomatic missions in Damascus: the U.K., the USSR, and Rumania.

The Syrian note is the most recent development in a flurry of speculation and concern on this problem which has swept the area in the past two weeks, centering on reports that Israel will commence diversion of the Jordan in the near future. We regard these as without foundation, having no evidence of any change in the timetable of Israel's announced plans to commence limited diversion in August or September 1963. We trace the present flurry, rather, to two factors: (a) Cairo's propaganda needling of Syria and Jordan, following dissolution of the union with Syria, for alleged acquiescence in Israel's "seizure of Arab water", and (b) the desire of Syria and Jordan, in countering this, to prove their "Arabism" by a show of belligerence. This may have, for them, the added advantage of screening two potentially constructive moves: Jordan's request for IBRD assistance in water development programs, particularly construction of the Maqarin Dam on the Yarmuk (in connection with which Sir William Iliff and General Wheeler will visit the area in mid-March), and the presumably related reactivation of a Syria-Jordan joint commission to study Yarmuk development.

Although aware of the probable motivation of the Syrian note and of Jordan's bellicose statements during the recent visit to Amman of Arab League Secretary-General Hassouna, we would not like to see these actions lead us into a Security Council debate at this time. While scrupulously avoiding a conspicuous public role, we would like to do what we can to take some of the heat out of this issue at all points in the circuit. With this objective, we have already undertaken or plan the following steps:

1. We have suggested informally to the Israel Embassy that Israel might think about ways in which, over a period of time, it might spread the word in the press and in U.N. corridors as to the scheduling of its water program, its intention to adhere to equitable (i.e., Johnston Plan) allocations, its willingness to discuss unified development at any time; its readiness to accept international observation (provided the other riparians do), and the already great contribution which its programs and research (Hula drainage, reduction in evaporation, salt spring capping, etc.) are making to the Valley's water resources.

2. Ambassador Meyer has given the Lebanese strong advice regarding the need for moderation.

3. Ambassador Macomber has by now received instructions to talk to King Hussein and Foreign Minister Nuseibeh./3/

4. On February 26 we will talk to the Egyptian Embassy in low-key, pointing out that Cairo's continual needling of Syria and Jordan is hardly consistent with the UAR's stated desire to put the Palestine problem "in the icebox".

5. We are instructing Ambassador Knight (Tab A)/4/ to make oral reply to the Syrian Prime Minister. We would rather not reply in writing but may have to consider this later, depending, to some extent, on how the Soviets handle their response.

6. We have informed the British Embassy here (Tab B)/5/ of the several steps we have in mind. We have suggested the Foreign Office consider holding off for a few days on any U.K. reply, oral or written, to the Syrians. We think this delay would be helpful in keeping our collective response as casual and quiet as possible.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 684A.85322/2-2462. Confidential. Drafted by Crawford and cleared by Sisco (IO/UNP). A note attached to the source text on McGhee's stationery reads: "Mr. McGhee commented: 'Very good. This is good preventive action.'"

/2/See footnote 2, Document 198.

/3/Reference is presumably to a February 12 letter from Strong to Macomber. Strong's letter and Macomber's response of March 6 are in Department of State, NEA/IAI Files: Lot 70 D 229, Jordan Waters Outgoing.

/4/Document 198.

/5/Document 199.

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.