By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel wants to harvest salt from the bottom of the Dead Sea in hopes of protecting its southern shore, but a $2 billion price tag has pitted the government against one of the country's largest companies.
The project, set to commence in the coming weeks, will prevent a small part of the Dead Sea that has been rising in recent years from invading a group of hotels built to the southwest.
Israel's Tourism Ministry said the job should be funded mostly by Dead Sea Works, a unit of Israel Chemicals, the second largest company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, whose mineral extraction has in part caused the shift in coastline.
The company told Reuters in a statement on Thursday it has "consented to take part in the funding of the proposed harvesting solution," but says the state is ultimately responsible and should bear the brunt of the costs, which it says are much lower than the government estimate.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowing his government will "save the Dead Sea," decided this week that salt harvesting was the best solution. He has formed a committee that within 18 days must decide who will ultimately fund it.
"We will try to reach a solution through discussion with Dead Sea Works, but if not, we will act in all ways at our disposal, including taking legal actions," Netanyahu said during a tour of the area, according to an official statement.
The project will not, however, tackle the bigger problem of poor water management that has caused the Dead Sea, a favorite spot for tourists who enjoy floating in its densely salted waters, to shrink by a third in the past 50 years.
The ailing sea, located at the earth's lowest point, has alarmed environmentalists worldwide. The three governments with coastal access -- Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority -- have joined forces to try to rescue it.
With shorelines receding at an overall rate of a meter (3.3 feet) each year, the Dead Sea today is actually made up of two lakes -- the larger basin to the north, and a smaller one to the south, which the Israeli plan targets.
The southern basin is in fact a series of artificial evaporation pools where Dead Sea Works produces potash. The company is the world's sixth largest producer of potash, a main ingredient of fertilizer.
The hotels sit on the edge of the largest pool, which is 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) in size.
As a result of the evaporation, salt sediment in that pool sinks, causing the sea level in that specific area to rise 20 centimeters (8 inches) annually and encroach on the hotels.
By continually harvesting that salt, the water level should remain steady, said Jiwchar Ganor, a professor of geological and environmental sciences at Israel's Ben Gurion University.
"Studies show this option is the most durable," he said.
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, who together with the minister of environmental protection has championed the cause, insists that most of the money must come from Dead Sea Works, declaring: "The one who pollutes is also the one who will pay."
But Dead Sea Works vice president of infrastructure, Noam Goldstein, said the harvesting of 16 million cubic meters (565 million cubic feet) of salt was mostly the state's burden.
"It's been checked by two different state comptrollers and by the Supreme Court. So there is no doubt here. The one who needs to provide for most of the costs is the state," Goldstein told Channel 10 television.
One government official with knowledge of the deliberations said Israel Chemicals will likely end up covering at least half the expenses.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)