I recently met with a young couple living on Levi Eshkol Boulevard in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol and asked them if they knew who Levi Eshkol was. “Wasn’t he a war hero or president many years ago?” was their response. I realized that it was high time to dedicate an article to this fascinating leader.
Levi Eshkol was the third prime minister of Israel, serving from 1963 until his death in 1969. He was an excellent statesman and forged strong relationships with U.S. President Johnson and other world leaders. Prior to becoming prime minister, Eshkol held many important posts, including serving as the minister of defense and the minister of finance. However, what arguably might have been his most significant position started in 1935, planning the national water company Mekorot, which was established in 1937. Eshkol’s important role is reflected by the items featured on the old five-shekel-note: Eshkol on the front and Israel’s National Water Carrier—a project in which Eshkol played a vital function—on the back.
In May 1939, the British government published the White Paper, a policy paper with the goal to severely reduce Jewish immigration to then-Palestine, in response to three years of Arab riots against rising Jewish immigration. With fears of war breaking out in Europe, the British had little interest in expending resources and manpower to keep Palestine calm.
British politicians used the concerns of its economists, who stated that the entire geographic area could not hold more than 2,000,000 people due to inadequate water resources, as a pretext for the White Paper. In 1939, the land had 834,000 inhabitants, and the British claimed that allowing Jewish immigration would drain the land of its water.
While the White Paper had tragic consequences for European Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis in World War II, one unintentional effect was to focus the Zionist leadership on the importance of creating a long-term water plan for the embryonic Jewish nation. As a result of this obsession, Israel has become a pioneer in water technology and presently has an abundance of water, to the extent that it has become a water exporter.
In 1935, Eshkol and Simcha Blass, a brilliant water engineer who was the creative genius behind the country’s early water initiatives, hatched a plan to develop water resources and then transport the water long distances to the farms. Their maiden project identified water resources and pumped water to farms throughout the Jezreel Valley. The project’s success set into motion a multi-phase master plan that has led to national water self-sufficiency.
Success bred success, leading to myriad Israeli technological breakthroughs in the water industry, such as drip irrigation, desalination (the process of removing salt from seawater) and wastewater treatment, to name just a few of the advances in which Israel has played a primary role.
With urgent reports of growing water shortages around the world—which is not limited to developing countries, as the U.S. government predicted a few years ago that 40 of its 50 states will soon face alarming gaps between available water and the growing demand for it—a global water crisis is looming. Tiny Israel stands at the forefront of helping the world avert these disasters by creating and implementing comprehensive long-term water solutions.
I highly recommend Seth M. Siegel’s enlightening book, “Let There Be Water—Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World,” which is the primary resource for this article. The book discusses how Israel has transformed itself from a parched land into a water superpower and, through sharing cutting-edge water technology, has forged diplomatic ties and promoted unity.
By Gedaliah Borvick