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Real estate mogul Yitzhak Tshuva will go ahead with his plans to build a massive industrial zone in the Arava Desert irrespective of the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal, Haaretz has learned. The canal, which would connect the Gulf of Eilat and the Dead Sea, has drawn harsh criticism from environmental groups.

If the canal is finally built, it will come after the industrial complexes and will be on Jordanian land, Tshuva's associates said. The plan is to be brought before the Knesset for approval in the coming days, they added.

With or without the canal - which was brought up as a means of refilling the shrinking Dead Sea - Tshuva plans to bring no less than 3 million Israelis to live in the Arava by 2050.

A team headed by Moshe Tari, former CEO of the Israel Securities Authority, and Erez Ron, the government's project manager for the Peace Canal Administration, is planning toward that goal.

The team is already outlining areas where whole cities could be built, including industrial and tourist zones, as well as transportation networks and water sources, in the narrow strip of desert south of the Dead Sea.

Although the plan is to use primarily private capital, Tshuva's planners say they expect the state to assist by offering tax concessions and other benefits to Israelis who move there or open businesses there.

The plan is based on cooperation with Jordan, which is supposed to promote a similar program on its side of the border, including a large desalinization plant near Aqaba that would serve both Jordanians and Israelis. In its initial stages of operation, the plant would run on natural gas from Egypt or Saudia Arabia.

Israeli towns would receive water from the plant via the Arava Stream, currently a dry wadi whose only moisture comes from the occasional flood. The Arava Stream would fill man-made lakes in the center of the Arava Desert, where Tshuva's team hopes to see new hotels and resorts.

In an effort to allay environmental fears of mass construction in the Arava, the planning team has drafted a "green" code that states that the construction will not infringe on nature reserves or national parks, and will maintain ecological corridors to let wildlife move between unbuilt areas.

Another ecological stipulation states that all the buildings will use renewable energy sources, such as solar power and hydroelectricity, and that factories will have to meet stringent emission quotas and regulations.

Tshuva recently announced that many businesspeople had expressed interest in joining the project, including Bank Hapoalim owner Shari Arison, diamond and mining magnate Benny Steinmetz, tycoon Nochi Dankner and industry bigwig Stef Wertheimer and others.