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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is learning the hard way that the life of a prime minister is full of surprises. The first surprise awaited him at the end of his first trip in the air force jet. Before he got over the jet lag, it emerged that when it comes to meetings with the president of the United States, length doesn't matter. They spent six hours together in friendly talks, so much so that this whole thing about negotiations with Iran completely slipped President George W. Bush's mind.

After Olmert returned home, the Prime Minister's Bureau reported that the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remembered to phone Jerusalem to update Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The New York Times was able to relate that the new policy toward Iran is not all that new; two months ago Rice warned Bush that their coalition against Iran was liable to collapse. Even then, at the luncheon at the president's table in the private dining room of the White House, there was talk of the possibility of replacing the strategy of isolating Iran with a more moderate approach.

Government spokesmen in Jerusalem are claiming that Olmert was in on the secret the whole time, and that it was only for reasons of discretion that he was prepared to appear as though he had been caught with his pants down. Let us suppose that every word is engraved in stone. How are they explaining the second Iranian surprise that Bush prepared for his new Israeli pal?

Did the prime minister know in advance about the proposal that in exchange for the ayatollahs stopping the enrichment of uranium under the carpet, the United States would help Iran's civilian nuclear program, in addition to a handsome package of incentives? And if he knew (which is very doubtful), what happened to the understanding with the United States that every deal with Iran would include the cessation of military support of Hezbollah and the rejectionist Palestinian organizations?

There have also been surprises for Olmert in the Palestinian arena. The prisoners' letter and the referendum initiative destroyed in one fell swoop the no-partner policy that former prime minister Ariel Sharon had built up so painstakingly. The Americans, who had adopted it very warmly until now, came to the conclusion that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is the last chance of saving the Bush vision from the talons of Hamas.

Washington has informed Olmert that the success of the Palestinian president in the referendum is the success of the American president's democratization in the Middle East. This is the main reason Olmert is shrugging off the referendum. The administration has either ordered or asked Israel not to take any step that is liable to interfere with Abu Mazen, and especially to spare compliments about the prisoners' letter.

From Olmert's visits to the Presidential Palace in Cairo and the Royal Palace in Amman, it is clear to him that, like the United States, Egypt and Jordan will be very glad to see locked settlements. And better sooner than later. However, by virtue of this unilateral move Israel will not win the blessings of the international and regional community for freezing the diplomatic process. All of the leaders reiterated to the prime minister that their support for the Israeli plan is contingent on dialogue with Abu Mazen. They made sure to clarify that they are referring to real negotiations, not lip service.

Hence, at the official level the idea was born of pulling the model of the Palestinian state with temporary borders from the road map (phase 2). Under the plan that has been formulated in inner sanctums, after the referendum Israel will propose that Abu Mazen establish an independent state comprised of the Gaza Strip and 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank - those to the east of the fence. This territory would also include the Jordan Valley, apart from a narrow strip along the river that will remain under Israeli control for an agreed-upon period or be put into the hands of a multinational force. In order to dispel the Palestinian suspicion that Israel will turn the temporary borders into permanent borders, the Quartet will provide guarantees, including a timetable, for the start of comprehensive negotiations on all of the disputed issues.

The increasing tension around the Gaza Strip and the prisoners' revolt against the referendum are casting doubt on the success of a multi-sided step against the Hamas. It is doubtful that the alternative scenario - Abu Mazen's resignation, the elimination of the Palestinian Authority and chaos in the territories - is suitable for a unilateral evacuation of 70,000 Israelis.

Underground fence

Under Olmert's plan, the route of the separation fence will dictate the route of the temporary border between Israel and Palestine. Its official name is indeed "the security fence," but without very much effort the Palestinians too will discover that in a number of places the fence's connection to security is about as close as the connection between the word "united" and Jerusalem.

Especially in the Jerusalem area, the route is suspiciously congruent with master plan of the adjacent settlements. When Shaul Arieli of the Council for Peace and Security examined the Defense Ministry's route close to the northernmost neighborhood of the capital, Neveh Yaakov, he could not understand why, contrary to the basic rules of planning a security fence, the fence wound along at the foot of the ridge. Why and for what purpose did the planner decided to deviate at that particular place nearly a kilometer and a half from the eastern border of the neighborhood and go out of the municipal area of Jerusalem into the territories of the West Bank?

The riddle was solved when Arieli obtained Master Plan number 240.3 for the establishment of a new neighborhood/Jewish settlement, by the name of Geva. According to the plan, Geva is to link up via a bridge with the settlement of Geva Binyamin (Adam) to the east. Ma'aleh Adumim, too, has been granted generous margins on its southern border. In this case, the planner has admitted in a case before the High Court of Justice that the route was planned in order to ensure only the well-being and safety of the inhabitants of the settlement of Kedar (60 families) and Old Kedar (six or seven mobile homes), which belong to the Etzion Bloc. In order to keep a reserve of land for better days for the settlers, the planner is prepared to bite into thousands of dunams that belong to Palestinians, into the state coffers and into the desert landscape.

For the route of the fence to be accepted as the route of the temporary border, the Palestinians will also have to relinquish a large territory to the north of Ma'aleh Adumim, toward the settlements of Almon and Kfar Adumim. And with no connection to the matter, Kfar Adumim is the place of residence of Danny Tirza, the person at the Defense Ministry who is in charge of the planning for the fence. This is the very same government official who was castigated by the former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz (now transportation minister), after he defined the decision by the High Court of Justice to reject part of the route as "a black day."

Following the publication in this column last week of Minister Shimon Peres' intention to revive the plan, which would cost billions, for the "sea-to-sea canal," the organization Friends of the Earth in the Middle East drew my attention to the remarks of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield in the Congressional International Relations Committee.

In his testimony before the committee two years ago the senior diplomat presented fundamental questions: Will the influx of Red Sea water affect the chemical makeup and cause ecological damage in the Dead Sea? What will the ecological implications of pumping the water into the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba be? Will the costs of desalinization suit the pockets of water consumers in Jordan? A feasibility survey by the World Bank is intended to answer all those questions. Friends of the Earth Middle East claims that the canal project is reminiscent of the fiasco of the drying of the Hula. According to Gideon Bromberg, the director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, the proponents of the canal are ignoring the acute problem of the death of the Jordan river and are dispensing with the obvious alternative: restoring the flow of water in the Jordan. According to him, the dramatic drop in the water level in the Dead Sea is a direct result of the diverting of the Jordan River by Israel, Jordan and Syria, primarily for irrigation. The natural flow of the river, 1.3 billion cubic meters a year, has shrunk to 100 million cubic meters of sewage and brackish water a year. The situation will get worse with the opening of the Jordanian-Syrian "unity dam" in the coming months.

Friends of the Earth believes that the development of domestic and foreign tourism in the Jordan Valley, which would be possible after the rehabilitation of the river and the restoration of some of the water to it, is a better economic alternative to using the water for irrigation. They note that the agricultural sector, which enjoys 50 percent of Israel's water resources (and 30 percent of the fresh water) contributes no more than 2 to 3 percent of the Gross National Product. Realistic pricing of water for irrigation is likely to lead to a significant drop in consumption.

Bromberg and his colleagues take comfort in the fact that for a year now the World Bank has not succeeded in raising the approximately $15 million for the feasibility survey for the sea-to-sea canal.