You have to really use your imagination here. We were standing on a bridge above a canal that leads water to the turbines of the power station, trying to imagine the Naharayim resort. Between the dam on the Yarmouk river and the artificial lake that feeds Pinhas Rutenberg’s turbines, hotels, a Disney World-style water park, and even a casino were supposed to be built.
Eli Arazi from Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov and his partner, businessman Yaakov Nimrodi, fantasized about making this piece of land the Middle East’s Las Vegas, an Israeli-Jordanian co-production in the scorching valley, right on the border, half in Jordan, half in Israel. Later, at his office in the kibbutz, Arazai showed us the pamphlets he and Nimrodi made, showing sketches of their vision on fine paper.
We traveled to Naharayim following King Abdullah’s decision to reclaim Jordanian sovereignty over Tzofar in the Arava region and Naharayim, seven kilometers from the Sea of Galilee, which Israel has been leasing from the Hashemite Kingdom over the past 24 years under the peace treaty between the two nations.
n the Arava, this means 270 acres farmed by the residents of Tzofar. The 30 families that live off of the peppers they are growing in the enclave have no other way to making a living in the area.
In Naharayim, the story is entirely different and is a part of the early history of the Zionist vision.This is where the Israel Electric Corporation was founded, bringing electricity to the rest of Israel. It was an ambitious project of Hebrew labor, for which a workers' town was built nearby—Tel Or, named for the magic that was manufactured in the power station.
From the foundation of the power plant and into the years that followed the signing of Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, Naharayim has attracted many dreamers.
In many ways, Naharayim’s dreariness and the Jordanian wish to reclaim it tells the tale of the entire region—the dream of a new Middle East that many longed and hoped for in the 1990s, a dream that was shattered.
Land registry from Irbid
Eli Arazi, 74, was born in Ashdot Ya'akov, and is considered the Jordan Valley’s expert on Naharayim. He says his interest started in October 1991, when the Madrid Conference to discuss peace between Israel and the Palestinians was convened.
“I was following reports on the conference on the news and was alarmed to hear the Jordanians are saying they will demand the Naharayim territory in future negotiations,” says Arazi.
“We’ve been farming the lands there since 1948. As a kid, Naharayim was our playground. We used to compete in jumping to the Yarmuk River waters from the Naharayim bridge. Not everyone was brave enough,” Arazi reminisces.
“The border was right in the middle of the power station's lake, and we were farming all the surrounding lands. So I immediately started reading up on the subject and collecting documents,” he continues.
“I learned that the Naharayim lands were bought by Pinhas Rutenberg, right after he received a mandate from the British Government to build a power station here,” Arazi says. “Rutenberg bought 1,160 acres in this region from the Irbid Land Registry Department, going all the way to the Gilead Mountains.”
“Don’t ask me how I got to these documents, I won’t tell you,” Arazi says, pulling out a pile of document in Arabic. “I have the land registry drafts.”
Rutenberg, a colorful Ukrainian-born revolutionary, was an engineer that specializes in dams. When he arrived in Israel in 1919, he surveyed the usage of water sources and their utilization to produce power. He found the meeting point of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers—which the Jews called Naharayim and the Arabs called Baqoura—suitable for a hydroelectric power plant thanks to the 27 meter drop between the rivers. In 1921 he got the permit, and six years later the construction started.
Romanian-born Shaul Shahar, 92, worked as a night guard at the plant. He met his wife Malka at the worker’s cafeteria there, and they have been together ever since. We met them at an assisted living home in Haifa, and although it has been years, Shahar remembers almost everything.
“There was a net that prevented the fish from being sucked in to the turbines and causing trouble. Whenever I wanted, I threw in a bucket and pulled it up with fish—we ate fish every day. Ruternberg’s home was just in front of the dam, which we called The Fortress, and we called his home the White House since it was large and white,” he recalls.
More than 600 workers built the power plant, and they referred to Rutenberg as the Old Man of Naharayim. For the grand 1932 opening, he invited the Emir of Jordan Abdullah, the future king and grandfather of the current King Abdullah, to push the button to start the station's operations. For years it supplied power not only to Israel, but also to the palace in Amman.
On May 14, 1948, when the Arab militaries invaded, the Iraqi army took captive the 30 plant workers. Shahar was one of them, but managed to jump off the truck in Irbid and go back to Israel with the help of a local Jordanian gardener who worked at the power plant and drove him back to the kibbutz.
When the 1949 Armistice Agreements were signed in Rhodes, the border line was drawn right in the middle of the artificial lake. The Jordanians, however, had other maps they had received from the British, which included Naharayim. They agreed to the armistice lines, but never forgot about Naharayim.
The War of Independence put an end to the power plant. Years later, in 1969, during the War of Attrition, terrorists settled in Rutenberg’s old White House and started shooting at Ashdot Ya'akov. Despite the sympathy to this piece of Zionist history, the IDF bombed the building, destroying it completely.
Several decades went by, and in 1994, secret negotiations started between Israel and Jordan. Then-Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein headed the Israeli team.
“Rubinstein and his team got here to see what this is about,” says Arazi. “I met with them because I was already known as a Naharayim expert, and I sent them materials I have been collecting. Because I was in the know, Runistein invited me to join the negotiations team, and the meetings took place in hotels in Eilat, in Tiberias and in the Sea of Galilee area. Dozens of meeting, and all under the media's radar.”
Rubinstein, a former Supreme Court justice, recalls the talks about the Tzofar and Naharayim territories. “In the Arava, there was already Israeli farming across the Jordanian border. It was adjacent to the border, so we could swap it for alternative lands with the Jordanians. The problem was with Tzofar’s agricultural lands-it was about five kilometers into Jordanian territory, if I'm not mistaken,” he says.
Arazi recalls an anecdote from the negotiations. “One of the heads of the Jordanian team asked Rubinstein about the meaning of the name Tzofar. Rubinstein started telling him knowingly and at length a story about the biblical origins of the name. The Jordanian smiled at him and said: 'and we just thought you called it Tzofar because it was so far into our territory!'”
And so, Rubinstein explains, the Jordanians did not agree for land swaps in the Tzofar area, since it was too deep into their territory.
When they discussed Naharayim, the Jordanians pulled out the maps that the British had given them during the British Mandate. “Regarding Naharayim,” says Rubinstein, “we knew the land was registered in Irbid as belonging to the Israel Electric Corporation, and wanted the farmers of Ashdot Ya'akov to keep their farmlands.”
“This is where Yitzhak Rabin’s good relationship with King Hussein was useful, as well as the fact our negotiation parties were on good terms. This allowed us to reach an agreement about a special regime in Tzofar and Naharayim, which allows 25 years of Israeli farming under Jordanian rule, with a year's notice in advance if after the 25 years one of the sides wishes to change the agreement.”'
October 2018 was the deadline for the notice.
Trips to the palace
Regarding Naharayim, the agreement said the territory is to be under Jordanian rule but Israeli private ownership with right of property. A stone gateway with a guard post stands where the "special regime" territory begins, and any Ashdot Ya'akov farmer holds a special Jordanian permit to enter and work the land. The Jordanian guards check the permits before entry.
Back to Arazi’s Ashdot Ya'akov office. He pulls out a brochure from one of the lockers that says “Naharayim-Baqoura bilateral peace project.”
“I grew up here during all the wars, but I always knew that the Jordanians are my neighbors. I was so involved in the peace process, I saw it as an amazing window of opportunity,” says Arazi.
“There was this euphoric atmosphere of a new Middle East that was being built in front of our very eyes with regional cooperation. I dreamed of a joint project with thousands of Jordanian employees, which will make both sides a lot of money, and persuaded the kibbutz to invest several thousands in the planning. The thought was that the kibbutz would be a partner,” he elaborates. “We took this idea to officials in Israel to get us in touch with businessman. I had dozens of meetings.”
The 92-year-old Iraqi-born former intelligence man Yaakov Nimrodi was then a prominent businessman. He was joined by Aharon Sharf, a Mossad man, who led the organization's relations with foreign intelligence agencies and countries Israel has no diplomatic ties with.
“Yaakov got me into things, the idea was to make Naharayim into the Middle East’s attraction," Sharf remembers. Rabin's longtime associate Eitan Haber "said we should schedule a meeting with King Hussein the Amman palace if we want to do this,” Sharf continues.
From here on, the story sounds like an Arabian Nights tale. Sharf and Nimrodi travelled to Amman. “We drove in with a car, and crossed the Allenby Bridge, usually only open to Palestinians. In the palace, we were welcomed by Ali Shukri, the King’s bureau chief,” he says. “It was very clear the Jordanians were interested in the Naharayim project. When we went home that day, Nimrodi said he’s going for it big time.”
Arazi picks up the story, “Nimrodi put a lot of money into it. He went on many meetings in Jordan, and I joined some. It was an incredible experience. We met with Prince Hassan, King Hussein’s brother, with the water minister and the tourism minister and with Jordanian entrepreneurs.”
The sketches look like they have been taken from another world, a place that has nothing to do with us in the Middle East. Around a 1 square foot lake, there were supposed to be a conference center, a guest house, two hotels, a large Disney-style water park, a promenade with clubs and restaurants, a golf course and an amphitheater.
The plan was to make the area a tax-free inter-state zone. There was talk of hotels that would cost a minimum of $200 a night. The jewel in the crown of the project was supposed to be a casino at the center of the lake. A gambling tycoon from abroad was invited over to examine the area. “He sent in a team to look into it and was very enthusiastic about the opportunity,” Sharf says.
However, there was a problem. “We were told Islam bans gambling, and casinos are also illegal in Israel. We realized it wasn't going to happen, and planned to built a synagogue and a mosque instead, as a symbol of coexistence between the two countries and religions,” Arazi recalls.
A fine suit and paratrooper boots
The planning was handed over to an architect firm headed by Be’eri Holzman of Kibbutz Ein Harod, who would later go on to become an advisor of prime minister Ehud Barak.
“The company put in a lot of money,” Sharf recalls, “and we also told Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, who were both excited about it and encouraged us to continue.”
Arazi says Peres was especially excited and had the idea of building a cancer research center in King Hussein’s name, to help push the project forward.
In February 1999, King Hussein died. Several months later, they had another meeting at the Amman palace. “We arrived with our team, and I remember King Abdullah dressed in a fine suit, but he wore paratroopers boots. We laid out our vision, but he cut us off and said 'forget about the Naharayim project. It was my father’s vision but I don’t support it,'” Sharf says.
“I think he already had the 25-year-exit window in mind then. He thought that since he is still young, he will have a chance to get those territories back to Jordan. He didn’t say it openly but implied it, and we dropped the idea and never dealt with it again,” he adds.
“Imagine all of this full of water,” points Arazi, showing me where the lake was until the plant stopped working in 1948. Over the years, vegetation took over the dried lake. “In my dream, this whole place should have been full of water, surrounded by tourists and attractions.”
In March 1997, a horrible disaster struck in Naharayim. A Jordanian soldier opened fire at a group of Israeli school girls who were visiting the site, and killed seven of them. King Hussein arrived in Beit Shemesh to express his condolences to their families. It was another nail in the project’s coffin.
Friends around the Kibbutz make fun of Arazi: “What’s the matter? They took your Naharayim?” they say. Arazi began sending letters to state officials over six months ago, to alert them to the need to prepare for the end of the special regime in both the Naharayim and the Tzofar enclave.
“I consulted with Rubinstein and wrote to everyone who needs to know. They should have started preparing for this possibility,” he says.
Do you know if any such preparation was done?
“Forget it, I don’t want to answer. We won’t collapse financially if Naharayim is returned to Jordan. It’s not like in Tzofar. It still doesn’t mean we are ready to give up the territory easily. It is an important landmark in the history of Zionism, we have cards to play, like water for agriculture they get from us, more than what the peace treaty says. They depend on us and we have the possibility to negotiate.”