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The Johnston Mission: The Johnston Mission Fails

By late 1955 the Johnston mission foundered. In 1958, Mr. Johnston described the reasons that led to the failure of his mission in an article written for the New York Times Magazine (October 19, 1958). General E. L. M. Burns dealt with the same subject in his memoirs Between Arab and Israeli (1962, pp. 112-113). Excerpts from the Burns and Johnston summaries follow:

General E. L. M. Burns: “Between Arab and Israeli”

In 1955 President Eisenhower assigned Mr. Eric Johnston to the task of getting agreement between the several Arab States and Israel on the development of the use of the Jordan waters. Mr. Johnston made several visits to the Middle East in the course of these negotiations, which in my judgment he conducted with great skill. He came very close to success at one point. The engineers and lawyers of both sides agreed that the division of the waters he worked out after many consultations with both parties was a fair and reasonable one. There was no doubt that the project, if put into execution, would greatly benefit the countries concerned. Probably Jordan stood to gain the most, as a considerable area of the lower reaches of the river in Jordan territory could have been irrigated and hence opened to settlement by the Palestine refugees idle in their camps. Two hundred thousand refugees, it was said, could be so settled.

In the negotiation, Mr. Johnston told me, the Egyptians had played a useful and constructive role. They were not immediately interested then, as their territory of course did not touch the Jordan, but anyway they acted as moderators in persuading the Syrians and Jordanians to accept, or be reasonable about, Mr. Johnston's proposals. This attitude was perhaps not purely disinterested, as at the time Premier Nasser was hopeful of getting large-scale U.S. assistance in building the new Aswan Dam on the Nile, and it had presumably been hinted that if the negotiations about the Jordan turned out well, it would be a factor favourable to American participation in this great scheme for the Nile.

This sketchy history illustrates well the complexity of the Middle East problem, and the Palestine problem within it. It is like a large ball of string. Several loose ends protrude, but when one begins to draw out any particular little bit of string, one finds it is inextricably tangled up with the other pieces in the ball. It constitutes a Gordian knot, and so far no Alexander bold enough to cut it has come along.

The Johnston negotiation, seemingly close to success, was stalled by the obduracy of the Syrian politicians. They simply would not agree to anything that would benefit Israel, even if the Arab States would thereby achieve greater benefits...

Eric Johnston: “A Key to the Future of the Mideast”

Between 1953 and 1955, at the request of President Eisenhower, I undertook to negotiate with these States a comprehensive Jordan Valley development plan that would have provided for the irrigation of some 225,000 acres. This is an area comparable in size and in climate to the Salt River irrigation project near Phoenix, Ariz., which produces crops valued at $326 per acre a year. After two years of discussion, technical experts of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria agreed upon every important detail of a unified Jordan plan.

But in October 1955, it was rejected for political reasons at a meeting of the Arab League. Syria objected to the project because it would benefit Israel as well as the Arab countries. Three years have passed and no agreement has yet been reached on developing the Jordan. Every year a billion cubic metres of precious water still roll down the ancient stream, wasted, to the Dead Sea.

Now turn to the Nile, one of the largest rivers in the world, which flows for 4,000 miles from the heart of Africa to the Mediterranean. Its watershed of more than- a million square miles extends into six States Tanganyika, Uganda, Ruanda-Urundi, Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt.

In the absence of any basic international agreement for over-all development of the Nile basin, Egypt's plan to construct a mammoth $1,300,000,000 dam at Aswan brought strong objections from the Sudan and Ethiopia. These two countries, and some others, felt that Egypt was more interested in erecting a symbolic pyramid of the twentieth century than in developing water resources to bring substantial improvement to the lot of a depressed people.

In proposing the high dam at Aswan, Egypt regarded a comprehensive blueprint, known as the Century Storage Scheme, for the whole Nile watershed. This plan, favoured by the Sudan and Ethiopia, includes a series of diversion and storage works along the entire river to benefit each State concerned. The scheme contemplates a new dam at Aswan but on a smaller scale than the gigantic structure projected by Nasser.

The boon to the Middle East of an imaginative water program can scarcely be exaggerated. If proof were necessary, one need look no further than Israel, where sound planning, a systematic program, modern irrigation techniques and ingenious use of every available drop of water have produced remarkable results in a single decade.

Since 1948, Israel has more than doubled its cultivated area, from 412,000 acres to about a million. It has quadrupled its area of irrigated land, from 75,000 acres in 1948 to 306,250 acres today. And Israel has embarked on a large-scale program to conserve land and water through modern methods of reforestation.

All this has been accomplished without the benefit of the waters of the Jordan River, which constitute the country's greatest single source of water. Israel's original plan to tap the Jordan north of Lake Tiberias has been held up for five years by the Arab States, which still refuse to agree to any plan for sharing the waters of the river with the Israelis.

Israel's new water development program, approved in 1956, indicates that the country must soon have Jordan River water to move ahead with its program of agricultural expansion. The plan makes it clear, however, that the country is counting only on that share of the river allocated to it in the Jordan Valley plan agreed to by Arab engineers and water experts during my negotiations in 1955.

But the fact remains that what Israel has done even without Jordan River water can be equaled throughout the Middle East, and indeed surpassed in countries blessed by greater supplies of water. It is clear that water resources are adequate to assure a sustained and flourishing growth throughout the area. But the availability of these resources hasn't been enough in the past, and it isn't enough now, to do it.

The crucial question remains: Are the Arab States prepared to make the necessary commitments to develop these water resources?

No one else can make this decision. It must be made by the Arab States and the Arab States alone. Up to now they have proved themselves unwilling to do so; their attitude and their actions have been precisely the reverse of what needs to be done. Nothing less is required of the Arab States than that they forego political turmoil and get together on regional watershed developments.

Today, a matchless opportunity beckons to the Middle East. President Eisenhower offered it in his recent proposal to the United Nations General Assembly for a regional development agency. Will the Arab States grasp this opportunity? Will they at last face up to the necessity of abandoning chauvinism for regionalism in realizing the rich benefits offered by the Nile, the Jordan, the Tigris and the other rivers of their land?

If they do, that field of green grass in the Jordanian desert can spread throughout the Middle East.

Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs