JERUSALEM, June 22-In an old Middle Eastern curse, enemies and miscreants are scornfully told to "drink from the sea."
But for decades now, the wealthy but arid nations of the Persian Gulf have been drinking ocean water purifying it with the world's biggest desalination plants.

Now thirsty Israel is also turning to the sea, with the government taking bids for its first large desalination projects. To be built on the Mediterranean south of Tel Aviv, the plants promise to alleviate Israel's chronic water shortage and, officials hope, avert clashes with its Arab neighbors over the region's dwindling ground water supplies.

Unlike the costly steam- based systems used elsewhere in the Middle East, the Israeli method uses energy-efficient filtration devices that Israel has helped to perfect, but long could not afford on a large scale at home.

But continuing technological innovation has now pushed the price for desalted seawater down to $2 for a thousand gallons, compared with $6 a decade ago, with experts forecasting further reductions. Urban consumers in Israel already pay about $4 per thousand gallons.

"It is affordable for Israel anyway you look at it," said David Hasson, a scientist and co-founder of the Israel Desalination Society, which has pressed for adoption of the technology here.

Water levels in Israel's reservoirs and aquifers have dropped precipitously. The Sea of Galilee, the holding tank for most of Israel's fresh water, is receding to its lowest levels on record, and the government is exploring the emergency importation of tankerloads of Turkish water to avert a crisis.

"We need this water urgently," said David Waxman, the chief executive of IDE Technologies Ltd., a company in Ra'anana, Israel, that is leading one of three consortiums seeking to build and operate a 36- million-gallon-a-day desalination plant planned for the port city of Ashkelon. Within a few months, Israel's water company will invite proposals for a bigger plant up
the coast in Ashdod, with a projected output of 47 million gallons a day.

Industry experts expect more Israeli projects, with desalination facilities integrated into coastal power plants that will be fueled by newly discovered offshore natural gas reserves. Extrapolating from current supply and consumption trends, experts say that a drought a decade from now could leave Israel facing a shortfall of at least 300 million gallons a day.