This summer, Shimon Peres will turn 83. People his age, who have been lucky enough to live this long, play with their great-grandchildren, buy gifts for their grandchildren and irritate their children. The vice premier, after successfully completing his Amir Peretz revenge project, has now turned to new political plans. Indeed, according to Kadima polls, Peres' presence in the party brought it six to eight Knesset seats that might otherwise have gone to the Labor Party, and thereby nabbed the position of prime minister for Ehud Olmert. But it was not a problem for the prime minister, one who forgets a childhood friend such as Dan Meridor and leaves him outside, to ignore a new partner such as Peres. Olmert left his vice premier outside of the disengagement plan, assuming that a politician who had already seen and heard everything in life would be satisfied with trips to the Negev and Galilee.
But the phoenix, in the words of the title of his new biography, refuses to rest. Let the boys play with political plans. In any case, nothing much will come of it. Peres decided he would spend the rest of his days, hopefully many, implementing the sea-to-sea canal program, which has been around almost as long as he has. The idea is to link the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and make the border that separates Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States bloom. Peres argues that an economy is not subject to political borders. And yes, he is still certain that the future of Israel and the entire region is hinged on regional development.
The concept behind the plan is that it is not peace that will lead to economic prosperity, but economic development and the creation of jobs that will foster the desire to achieve regional peace and reduce the importance of political borders.
In order to "privatize the process of peace," Peres set up the Forum for Peace in the Middle East, which will be based in the Netherlands (for tax reasons.) The forum will serve as an extension of the Davos Group initiative. A distinguished group of public figures, including John Major, James Wolfensohn, Alan Greenspan and Felipe Gonzales, have consented to be among the founders. Bill Clinton announced that he was also considering the invitation. Peres says the Egyptians, Palestinians and Jordanians have responded enthusiastically. Even the Gulf States have expressed interest. Jordan is particularly receptive to any initiative that distances Hamas from its eastern border.
The plan will be presented to an independent corporation called MIC (the Middle East Investment Corporation), which will be registered in Luxembourg (also for tax purposes.) It will have 2.5 billion euros in initial capital that will come from businesspeople in the private sector who will also run the project and receive the support of countries in the region; the redemption values are expected to be enough to finance 8-10 billion euros worth of infrastructure.
The infrastructure projects will include a canal channeling the Red Sea's waters to the dying Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Two desalination facilities, one north of Eilat and the second south of the Dead Sea, will render the water usable for irrigation. The water will irrigate vast swaths of desert along the route of the canal in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, for the benefit of agriculture, industry and tourism in the area, costing a grand total of $2 billion. Among the other projects are a rail line from Irbid, Jordan to Haifa to promote trade between the countries by providing Jordan with a direct link to the Mediterranean Sea with a stop in Palestine (estimated cost - $300 million); an international airport in Aqaba to be jointly used by Jordan, Egypt and Israel that will enable accelerated development of population centers in the three-state area ($300 million.) The canal will also facilitate development of a large industrial center in the Beit She'an region and the operation of the Timna copper mines by a joint Israeli-Egyptian-Jordanian team.
It seems that Olmert is not willing to take the risk that Peres' plan - some call it a fantasy - will take off without him and so, just in case (and so that he doesn't come out looking badly), the prime minister has decided to appoint a ministerial committee to oversee the matter.
The new fence route
Amir Peretz re-discovers everyday that the defense establishment resembles a giant aircraft carrier. Any change in course is a national project. So, for example, someone whispered in his ear that the separation fence's route, which was determined during the Shaul Mofaz-Amos Yaron era, is not necessarily the safest, least expensive and quickest one. The leadership of the Council for Peace and Security, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, disclosed to Peretz, as well as to the other ministers, that Israel's citizens could receive the same degree of security in exchange for less of the fence. On the map the council presented to them recently, they could see that on the festive occasion of the fight against terrorism, Mofaz decided to annex a large area that would expand Jerusalem from 126.4 square kilometers to 233.8 square kilometers. The council's route cuts away no more than 6.8 square kilometers. The significance of this huge difference between the two routes (100.6 square kilometers) is the addition of 33.3 kilometers of fence (NIS 10 million per kilometer) and 152,000 Palestinians (for a total of 211,000 instead of 59,000 Palestinian residents.)
"Including 200,000 Palestinians inside the fence in Jerusalem," write the heads of the Council for Peace and Security, who were until not long ago senior members of the defense establishment, "harms the rationale of separation between Israelis and Palestinians and threatens the effectiveness of the whole security obstacle." They explain what seems obvious: "A fence with Palestinians living on both sides of it is not a security fence. The security forces will have difficulty operating in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods and, in the best case, it will not be effective. In the worst case - it will serve as an operations venue for terrorists and a trap for the security forces."
The retired commanders caution that the unnecessary blow to economic and family ties and proximity of tens of thousands of Palestinians to religious centers will cause population shifts. Residents of Ramallah and Bethlehem and of the Palestinian neighborhoods, who remain outside the fence, total some 1 million people. This population is attached to government institutions in Jerusalem. In the absence of a budget to create alternative systems outside the fence, their collapse will undermine the strength of the entire city. From this point, it is only a short way to terrorist attacks.
In order to spare the system any shocks, Peretz decided for the time being to keep key officials in the ministry in place, among them Col. (res.) Danny Tirza, who is responsible for planning the fence. Will the minister also decide to hold on to the bloated, expensive and, worst of all, dangerous fence route?
Gates of hope?
For years, there were reports of Palestinian enclaves trapped in the middle of "legitimate" settlements, i.e., settlements established with government approval, not unregulated "outposts." Several days ago, B'Tselem received confirmation of this phenomenon from an unexpected source. A signed letter from "veteran residents of the community" of Sha'arei Tikvah (gates of hope), which arrived at the organization's offices in Jerusalem, discloses that in the community, which lies on the border, five minutes away from Rosh Ha'ayin, the local council built a public institution on land belonging to an Arab. And not just any institution, but a synagogue, a place that is supposed to be free of sin and full of graciousness and compassion.
In order to make room for a house of worship for Jews, ancient olive trees were uprooted from the land stolen from a gentile living in the nearby village of Beit Amin. The letter further relates that after a group of residents appealed to the attorney general and the interior ministry, the official in the Attorney General's Office responsible for Judea and Samaria sent a special investigator to look into the complaint.
The responses of the chairman of the local council, Gidon Idan, and the council's director general, Haimon Blumenfeld, to the investigation's findings were also attached to the letter sent by the "veteran residents of the community." The two confirmed the investigator's determination that the land on which the synagogue had been built was "Arab-owned land and is located inside the settlement's fence," but noted "there is a possibility that, in the future, the land will be released for construction there, and then the synagogue area will be taken as an appropriation for public needs."
This coming Yom Kippur, they will surely invite their neighbors from Beit Amin to the Kol Nidrei service and ask for the landowner's forgiveness.
Blumenfeld was convinced yesterday that the people behind the letter were not saints whose only concern was the poor Palestinian's lamb, but rather political rivals who have their eye on his job.
And to get to the point, Blumenfeld vehemently denies any claim of damage to olive trees and explains that the synagogue building is a prefab structure (a caravan), which is not a problem to move elsewhere. And how long has the "temporary prefab building" been sitting on stolen land? "Two years," responds the director general.
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