Quartet: Israel Has Asked for Halt to Study of Gaza-West Bank Link

PMO says no official Israeli representative has asked World Bank or USAID to halt transit study.

Israel has asked the World Bank and the U.S. government's development agency, USAID, to stop a study aimed at determining the best method of creating a transportation link between Gaza and the West Bank, according to James Wolfensohn, the Quartet's envoy for the disengagement.

Wolfensohn made the charge in an October 16 letter to the foreign ministers of the Quartet, which is comprised of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

But the Prime Minister's Office denied this accusation, telling Haaretz that no official Israeli representative has made such a request.

In his letter, Wolfensohn noted that Israel had agreed to a sunken road linking the West Bank and Gaza in 2001, but in 2004 (under a different government), it announced that it would prefer a railroad. A senior Palestinian official told Haaretz that the Palestinians prefer a sunken road, since that would provide greater freedom of movement and also make it easier to move cargo. Wolfensohn and the World Bank also prefer a road, the official said; The latter argues that a road is cheaper to build and operate than a railroad.

In deference to Israel's views, however, the World Bank agreed to conduct research on the relative costs and benefits of the two proposals, and the U.S. government agreed to finance the study, on condition that Israel and the Palestinian Authority both consent. Both Wolfensohn and World Bank officials received the impression that Israel had no objections to the study, and therefore set it in motion. But Haaretz has learned that in early October, after the World Bank sent the study's terms of reference to Israel, a Defense Ministry official sent a letter to the World Bank demanding that the study be halted, and the bank complied.

The Defense Ministry declined to respond, referring questions to the Prime Minister's Office. The PMO said: "No official Israeli representative asked the World Bank to submit or prepare research on a transportation link between Gaza and the West Bank, and therefore it also did not request the cessation of such research." However, it added, USAID recently informed Israel that it has commissioned a study on the subject, and Israel is currently drafting a list of the issues it would like such a study to examine.

Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the minister who is handling the West Bank-Gaza link, will discuss the study's continuation with World Bank and USAID representatives.