Middle Israel: An idolatry called environmentalism

The Kinneret's drastic retreat is but the latest reason to overrule Green orthodoxy's opposition to the Dead Sea Canal.

July 17, 2008 09:08
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )

The Kinneret, the apple of Israel's eye, is dwindling. Data released last week indicate that at the beginning of summer the lake was at 213 meters below sea level, a mere 40 cm. away from the record-low at the end of summer '07. And on its pristine shoreline's pebbles it takes no hydrologist to understand the meaning of forlorn "No Diving" signs that abound there, eerily surrounded by parched earth. Down south, the Dead Sea is evaporating even faster, plunging another 1.2 meters each year. Surely, this raises grim thoughts about many things, from global warming to Zion's demographic capacity, but most urgently our water crisis means that the disputed canal between the Dead and Red Seas should be dug, and that this visionary project's increasingly vocal opponents must be overruled. THE SO-CALLED Dead-Red Canal, inspired by Theodor Herzl's original idea of a Dead-Med canal, envisions a 166 km. waterway that would generate power thanks to the dramatic 400 m. elevation gap between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, and fuel a series of desalination plants as well as a Riviera that would shoulder three times as many rooms as Israel's entire hotel industry currently has. According to developer Yitzhak Tshuva, the project's overall cost should be $16 billion, and it should be visited every year by no fewer than 8 million tourists. Needless to say, the canal would also refill the Dead Sea. Also needless to say, all this is anathema to assorted environmentalist crusaders. Economically, they say, the creation of an upper layer of seawater will bury deeper in the Dead Sea its mineral riches and will therefore hamper the extraction of its minerals and threaten the unique health tourism for which it is famous. Ecologically, they warn, the canal might pour into the Dead Sea all sorts of new organisms, it might damage the Red Sea's coral reef, it will disturb the Arava Rift's unique landscape, and it might paint the Dead Sea white, or even red, and it might also sink the entire area under a cloud of stench. Many greens therefore demand that the plan be shelved, and the Dead Sea's decline be offset by allowing the Kinneret to feed it the way it did before we began to use so much of its water for drinking and irrigation through the National Water Carrier. Instead, they argue, we should do a lot more desalination. It's been a while since we last faced such a manipulative effort to change the original subject of our public discourse, which is our survival here, to another subject, which is the preservation, or even the restoration, not to say enshrinement, of the pre-development Middle East. FIRST OF ALL, the Kinneret's alarming decline makes it ludicrous to recommend that we spill what's left of it into its ultimate graveyard - the Dead Sea. Second, the arrival of new organisms in the Dead Sea can actually be nice; who knows, maybe we'll even be able to fish there some day, as the locals did before God buried them under sulfur and brimstone. Third, the water color prophecies of doom - white, because of the potential creation of plaster, or red, because of the emergence of some algae - are for scientists to predict and to prevent, and not for activists to take out of context and abuse. Sure, the color of the post-canal lake matters greatly, as does its smell, but if these do involve a challenge, it isn't one that science cannot address, just like the opposition to this project is not really about the reasons its opponents cite. Opposition to the canal is actually another form of either giving up on, or altogether scorning the Israeli value of defeating the desert. True, the quest to make the desert bloom sometimes became obsessive and reflected a lack of appreciation for the arid landscapes where David, Elijah, the Maccabees, the Zealots and Bar Kochba's warriors found shelter and inspiration. Having hiked much of the Negev, the Sinai and the Judean Desert - I walked from my home in Jerusalem to the Dead Sea at 14 - I need no lectures about the desert's uniqueness, beauty, solitude, tranquility and fragility. Alas, before we think about the desert's survival, we must think about our own survival, both physically and politically. Physically, the green urge to restore the Kinneret's flow into the Dead Sea and prevent its linking to the Red Sea is a recipe for national dehydration. And politically, the Mideast conflict that the canal is likely to help temper is apparently someone else's problem, not the greens'. YITZHAK TSHUVA, the contractor from Netanya who rose from rags to create a property empire crowned by the Manhattan Plaza, is not a member of Peace Now. In fact he has roots in the Likud, despite his current harmony with the canal's big prophet, President Shimon Peres. Neither Tshuva nor Peres suggests that the Dead-Red Canal will undo the Middle East conflict. They do say, however, that it will create a million jobs and supply one third of all Palestinian and Jordanian water needs. In other words, if the canal is dug and developed according to this vision, there will be many more people in our immediate surroundings with a greater stake in stability and smaller appreciation for getting killed prematurely. Next time the environmentalists cackle their anti-canal rhetoric, go southwest of the Dead Sea, climb Mount Zin, survey the view and think of Lot's and Abraham's parting somewhere around here following their shepherds' incessant quarrels, shortly before the lush breadbasket under them became the ashen moonscape that Peres, Tshuva and Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin-Talal are now out to rejuvenate. Now think of all the water, jobs, tourists, creation, reconciliation and spirit of fertility that their imagination and drive promise - and then take a stand. JUST HOW much all this will actually change the desert's complexion also remains to be seen. The Dead Sea itself, after all, already is a sea, and the Arava will indeed change its face should water ripple through it, but it will be a happy change. Water kissing the foothills of the Edom Mountains will soon be as famous, unique and agreeable as its cohabitation with the Grand Canyon's equally reddish, bare and geologically distinctive walls. In northwest China there are buried cities that once were thriving way stations along the Silk Road, but then had to be abandoned as local rivers retreated and evaporated. According to green orthodoxy that desertification should not have been disturbed then and the Arava should not be disturbed now; it's nature's course, you know. The Erie, Suez and the Europa canals should also not be, and in fact best would have been had the Stone Age never ended, and we would still be chasing game with spears - assuming of course that we avoid endangered species. Well, to Middle Israelis all this is not environmentalism but idolatry, which confuses caring for our planet with worshipping it, just like others once bowed, prayed and killed for the sun, the moon and the stars.

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