Border Control / $2.5 Billion Seeks Government Minister

After Shimon Peres was appointed president, his Peace Conduit project - channeling water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea for the mutual benefit of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians - was for all intents and purposes orphaned. So it will remain until Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decides which minister will assume responsibility for it - Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon, Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon or Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer. The head of the project administration, Colonel (res.) Erez Ron, is about to join three colleagues who have already resigned.

Sooner or later, at the Annapolis summit or during talks over core issues (set to begin immediately after the summit), Olmert will have to make a number of important decisions.

If the prime minister means every one of the lofty remarks he has made of late, he will have to decide soon on withdrawing from most of the West Bank, partitioning Jerusalem and a compromise of some sort with respect to the Palestinian refugees.

Olmert will have to choose between his diplomatic partner, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and his political partner, Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman. Olmert's new left-wing disciples should hope that his ability to navigate the Palestinian issue will not resemble his approach to far-easier topics. For example, to whom to entrust the Peace Conduit - Ramon or Ayalon. Or perhaps Ben-Eliezer will take on the project.

The ambitious initiative was left high and dry five months ago when Peres was elected president. Three weeks later, at the beginning of July, in the midst of a general round of portfolio reshuffling, the project and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee were given to Jacob Edery as a consolation prize. In fact, it wasn't exactly a prize. Olmert asked his colleague from the Kadima faction to manage the portfolio temporarily until the prime minister could decide on a permanent landlord. The decision has yet to be made and meanwhile everything is at a standstill. The Jordanians are losing faith in the sophisticated plans and the donors who wanted to develop the project are disappearing. Leaders, among them former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister John Major, who said they would try to further the initiative, have vanished, and the project's management is crumbling.

The eventual tapping of a project manager will likely anger those who were forced to concede the expensive toy. The prime minister no doubt remembers the international contretemps in the last round in the battle for the canal, last November. Jordan, the PA, the donor countries and the World Bank witnessed the clash between the Ben-Eliezer and Edery over conducting a feasibility study for the initiative. Ben-Eliezer claimed the matter fell in his ministry's jurisdiction and did not understand why Peres was sticking his nose in it. He flew to Jordan, in defiance of then vice premier Peres, to sign an agreement about the feasibility study. At the time, the Prime Minister's Bureau issued a statement assigning responsibility for the project to Peres but allowing Ben-Eliezer, who had begun dealing with the project during Ariel Sharon's term, to sign the agreement.

A few weeks later, Olmert announced at a government meeting that responsibility for the initiative had been entrusted to Peres. Ben-Eliezer reacted angrily: "Olmert is acting like he's in a banana republic." Ben-Eliezer, who has already inserted a foot in the canal corridor, is counting on his Labor party chairman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, not to let Olmert damage his vote-contracting machine.

Peres, however, is urging the prime minister to give his baby to a more suitable minister, like Ramon or Ayalon. Edery said yesterday he was imploring the prime minister to decide what the fate of his adopted child. He would be very happy if Olmert were to tell him to maneuver among the many government ministries that touch upon the joint economic initiatives with the Jordanians and the Palestinians, among them the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, The National Infrastructures Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry, the Transportation Ministry, the Tourism Ministry and the Health Ministry. "It goes without saying that it is impossible to take responsibility without receiving authority," says Edery, confirming that the ministerial committee had not even met once since Peres moved from Beit Amot Hamishpat in Tel Aviv to President Street in Jerusalem. If no decision is taken until then, Edery will convene a meeting in 10 days to tackle the matter.

Tenders, contractors and ribbons

The project, which is officially called the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, or the Peace Conduit, is considered one of the most ambitious ever proposed in the Middle East. It entails the excavation of a canal 180 kilometers long from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to take advantage of the differences in sea elevation. Each year, 650 million cubic feet of water would flow through the canal to balance the drop in the Dead Sea's water level, which is the result of evaporation caused by excavation of mines. Also featured in the plan are two artificial lakes in the Arava with hotels and tourist attractions. The cost of the project is estimated at $2.5-5 billion.

Politicians are in no hurry to relinquish this kind of bonanza like this of tenders, contractors, subcontractors and ribbon-cuttings. Peres has declared at every opportunity that the project should be given to private entrepreneurs and completed within two years. Ben-Eliezer would rather that the government, that is to say the National Infrastructures Ministry, pull the strings.

Last week, the World Bank convened representatives of the countries that are supposed to participate in the project and announced it had decided to invest $15 million in the feasibility study. The study, which is slated to focus on environmental aspects, is likely to postpone work on the canal until the beginning of 2010. On the Israeli side, the Water Commission will participate. And who is the minister in charge of the Water Commission? Ben-Eliezer, of course.

Before he decided to embark on a new career, Peres managed to establish the Peace Conduit administration and appointed Colonel (res.) Erez Ron to head it. Ron, until recently, commanded an Israel Air Force base. With Peres' election to the presidency and the transfer of the ministry to Edery as a temporary deposit, Ron was left without a minister. He is about to resign, joining three of seven colleagues who left after it became clear that Ben-Eliezer was exploiting the vacuum and annexing the project.

The plan for the joint Israeli-Jordanian airport on the Eilat-Aqaba border is also fading fast. In Peres' absence, no one is going to compel Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz to stand up to the Tourism Ministry and Eilat Municipality, which are less than eager to share the tourism bounty with our neighbors. A similar fate may befall peace initiatives like Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones along the seam-line and the opening of additional border crossing points to strengthen economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian state-to-be. Such challenges are not top priorities for Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai. Nor are the plans of Turkish millionaire Ali Dogramaci for a medical-treatment zone near the Jalame crossing. This project would see Israeli doctors and nurses providing medical services to Palestinians. If the plan worked, Dogramaci said he would initiate similar centers at other locations along the Green Line (pre-1967 Six-Day War border). Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked Olmert to help the Turkish businessman. About a month ago, Dogramaci met, at his own initiative, with Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu. Prior to investing $350 million in infrastructures, he insisted that the leader of the opposition ensure his project not be shot down if the government changed. Without the president's leadership, it is unlikely these projects will get the push they require. Will Peres whip out his Judgment Day weapon on Olmert - a tail wind from the President's Residence in Jerusalem for "painful concessions" to the president's residence in Ramallah?

The response from the Prime Minister's Bureau is Olmert is aware of the situation and it is his intention to appoint a minister to deal with the project.