Water Wars: The Battle over the Privatization and Monopolization of Israel's Water Sector

By Donna Herzog
Submitted to Session P4636 (Water and Power Politics: Palestine and Lebanon, 2016 Annual Meeting
On March 28, 1956 approximately 700 workers from Israel's water planning company, TAHAL, gathered to celebrate the completion of quarrying the Eilabun tunnel, the first of four major tunnels constructed for Israel's largest water infrastructure project, i.e. the National Water Carrier. As clouds gathered and a light rain misted the skies, Simcha Blass, head of TAHAL and the Water Department, stood to give a speech to mark the festivities of the day. The speech, meant to praise the outstanding accomplishments of TAHAL's workers, quickly turned into a scathing public critique of the government's recent decision to dissolve the construction branch of TAHAL and transfer its responsibilities to the semi-private Israeli water company, Mekorot. "Authority cannot tolerate partnership," Blass warned, as he ominously predicted Mekorot's complete domination of Israel's water industry. Three months later, Simcha Blass, the "father of Israeli water planning," resigned as Chief Water Advisor in Israel after unsuccessfully fighting a long battle to prevent the dismantlement of TAHAL's construction branch and of Mekorot's monopolization of the water industry.

This paper will discuss the implications of the debate over Mekorot's influence in the National Water Carrier and Israeli water in general. It will be argued that despite the difficulties planners faced, the debates surrounding the National Water Carrier project served as an arena where the government asserted its role as the primary owner of all Israel's water and the chief power player in the water industry. Ironic as it appears, throughout the 1950s, the height of Israeli mamlakhti (statist) ideology, the Israeli state chose to strengthen the role of Mekorot, a semi-private company in the water sector, while it weakened the role of TAHAL, a government created and owned water planning company. Mekorot's ascendency to the status of "national water company" cemented the strong ideological and bureaucratic alliance between Mekorot's elite and the ruling MAPAI (Labor) party. Collectively, these inner debates between experts, governmental departments, and various arms of the water sector represented opportunities where decisions over the future of the national water project became enmeshed in decisions that translated into centralizing authority over water policy decisions through Mekorot. The implications of this water policy decision in the 1950s helps explain the present overwhelming role of Mekorot in the current water industry in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.