Jerusalem — It will be the most ambitious engineering project attempted in the Holy Land since Herod the great renovated the Second Jewish Temple 2,000 years ago. In modern times, only the digging of the Suez Canal, begun in 1859, can compare to it.
When it is completed, Israel will be far less dependent on outside sources for energy.
All of which indicates the considerable political and strategic consequences of the proposed building of a canal linking the Dead Sea with the Mediterranean.
Like the Suez project over a century ago, digging the new 67-mile-long canal, to run from Katif in the occupied Gaza Strip to Masada by the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, will take 10 years. The $685 million project, which includes a hydroelectric plant near Masada, also is expected to irrigate most of Israel's Negev Desert (once the seawater can be desalinated) and to replenish the dangerously low Dead Sea water table.
But the significance of the canal lies elsewhere:
In a sense, the dilemma of oil procurement, not strategic depth or political isolation, constitutes Israel's greatest vulnerability. The country must import 99 percent of its domestic needs, and only two nations, Egypt and Mexico, have been willing to do business, providing Israel with about 60 percent of the petroleum it needs each year. The rest is purchased on the uncertain spot market in Rotterdam.
The canal will generate enough hydroelectric power to provide 7 percent of Israel's energy requirements for the year 2000. In addition, it will make possible the construction of a nuclear power plant and the exploitation of shale-oil reserves, as both enterprises are dependent on huge amounts of water.
Feasibility studies concerning the nuclear plant have ruled out all locations along the Mediterranean Sea for environmental reasons. But the canal will bring enough water to a remote site for a plant slated to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Since Israel's current generating capacity is 2,600 megawatts, that is a significant chunk.
The shale-oil reserves, only recently discovered, amount to 2 billion metric tons in the Negev and constitute the most important future element in Israel's war against dependence on foreign oil.
Prof. Yuval Neeman, Canal Steering Committee chairman, said the canal will bring the Dead Sea's water level quickly back to normal, saving the world's saltiest lake from becoming a dried-out basin. The Dead Sea's trouble began in the 1950s when both Israel and Jordan began land reclamation schemes along the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea. Since then the sea's level has been dropping almost 2 feet a year.
The canal project, which recently was reported to have received Cabinet approval, is not free of complications, however. For political reasons, Egypt is unhappy about the canal starting in Gaza. Thus, the steering committee already is drawing up plans for an alternative site just north of the strip. Israeli officials claim this presents no technical problems, but will raise the cost of the project since it means a longer canal.
The project could have an adverse effect on the Dead Sea Works, Israel's primary mineral exploiter and the basis of this nation's well-developed chemical industry. This is because the influx of water from the Mediterranean will dilute the Dead Sea's mineral content. For the same reason, officials in Amman, Jordan, fear the canal will damage Jordan's fledging potash works at the Dead Sea's southeast end.
Another controversial point is the expected flooding of a new health resort complex just south of Masada and the dropping of other tourist-related projects still on the drawing boards. The foreign currency they earn is considerable.
Teams of experts are studying these problems. But whatever the drawbacks, it is a foregone conclusion here that the project will commence soon. Jewish fund-raisers in the United States have already pledged $100 million annually for the next several years to finance it.