Border Control / How Fuad Conquered the Peace Canal

The national infrastructures minister beat Peres in the latest round of the fight over the project, and its billion-dollar budget.

This announcement is liable to spoil President Shimon Peres' day. If not more. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has placed his baby, the Peace Canal, also known as the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal, into the hands of Infrastructures Minister Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer. This bitter news came in an official letter the Prime Minister's Office sent to MK Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu), who heads the lobby for saving the Dead Sea.

This is the latest round in the cockfight the two veteran politicians have been waging over the project, which seems to be getting more and more cockamamie. In the last round, a year ago, Olmert ruled in Peres' favor after much thought, despite pressure from Ben-Eliezer. The infrastructures minister did not conceal his wrath and crowned Olmert "the prime minister of a banana republic," and wrote to Olmert that he had "reshuffled the cards on the future of the Peace Canal, which I believe now has been condemned to fail."

Ben-Eliezer complained, "Despite the agreements, it appears to us that the vice premier (Peres), to whom you have transferred responsibility for the project, is seeking to abandon the high road and find a shortcut, building the Peace Canal within two years with the help of a ridiculous consortium of people from Israel and abroad."

Fuad insisted that first, a comprehensive feasibility survey had to be conducted in order to examine other alternatives, first and foremost a canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea (which Jordan opposes for political reasons).

Peres' election as president was supposed to have given Fuad a clear shot at the project, which involves control of vast sums ($2.5 billion to $5 billion). But Peres continued to pull the strings. He maintained close ties with Colonel (res.) Erez Ron, whom he had appointed to head the Peace Canal Administration, and tried his best to persuade Olmert to give the project to Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon, who also is not suffering from excess employment. More than Peres was concerned about the two men's livelihoods, he was concerned that Olmert might roll his unhatched egg back into Ben-Eliezer's hands.

But with all due respect to the president and Ayalon, the last thing that the prime minister needs now, on the eve of the publication of the final Winograd report, is to fall victim to Ben-Eliezer's big mouth. Admiral Ayalon would have been happy to jump into the canal, but it appears that he has not yet learned that in politics, one does not wait quietly in line to be given something. Politicians take.

In the meantime, Fuad has arm-wrestled Olmert with one hand and neutralized Ehud Barak with the other, and now the canal is back in his hands. And as if that were not enough, the Prime Minister's Bureau has informed Tartman that as part of the feasibility study, a joint steering committee including representatives of Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the World Bank will focus not only on Peres' Peace Canal, but also on "all aspects of building the canal, including the alternatives for saving the Dead Sea."

Erez Ron, who managed for half a year without a daddy, is going home. Only one of his advisors remains. In addition to the Peace Canal, Ron also controlled a series of international initiatives along the Israel-Palestine-Jordan border. Immigrant Absorption Minister Jacob Edery, who has been temporarily appointed minister for development of the Negev and the Galilee, is not evincing much interest in these issues.

Ron says that a temporary minister, who lacks authority, will have a hard time advancing issues like opening more commercial crossing points and building industrial zones along the Green Line. This also applies to efforts to advance a plan to eliminate the convoluted bureaucracy entailed in issuing visas for Jordanian businesspeople and other civilians seeking to maintain close ties with Israel.

"I left with great regret," Ron says. "Those projects are very dear to my heart."

Senior representatives of countries including Japan, Turkey, the United States and Germany, which have allotted money for joint development projects - and also consider these projects dear to their hearts - must settle for meetings with government officials of meager authority. Their frustration was audible at a workshop on Palestinian economic development, held last weekend in Herzliya. Participants included Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Trade Minister Kamal Hassouneh and Planning Minister Samir Abdullah. Nearly all of the discussions touched on how the lack of Israeli ministerial address is making it difficult to advance major economic issues, whose importance to improving the relations between Israel and its neighbors to the east is impossible to overstate.

The Prime Minister's Bureau did not issue a response.

Our lady of the tunnels

On a hot August day in 2006, Amal Tafash, a Palestinian woman from Hebron, bid farewell to her husband, Iyad al-Malahi. She took four of their children, the youngest of whom was 5, to visit her family in the Gaza Strip, which was under siege. The two eldest children remained with their father in Hebron.

Because of the closure Israel had imposed on the Gaza Strip, what should have been a 90-minute trip became a journey through the Middle East. The five passed through West Bank roadblocks and waited patiently at the Hussein Bridge security checks. They crossed into the Kingdom of Jordan on the way to Egypt, traversed Sinai's parched landscape, and passed through the Rafah crossing, into Gaza and into the bosom of their loving family.

Then, summer vacation came to an end, father Iyad and the two older children began to miss their mother and siblings, and the school year was about to start.

Tafash, as is customary, applied to the Israeli authorities by means of the Palestinian Civil Committee, and requested permission to return to her family. The application was rejected, the school year passed, summer 2007 came, and the five were still stuck in Gaza. In the middle of October, al-Malahi decided to try his luck and submitted an application to the Coordination and Liaison Office in Hebron. He occasionally returned to the office to check up on his request to bring his family home, and was sent away with the familiar promise: "The application is being processed."

On one of these visits at the beginning of November, N., a female officer, informed him that residents of the territories must leave Gaza the same way they had entered. This meant that the woman and her children had to return to Hebron via the Rafah crossing. Al-Malahi reminded her that the Rafah crossing had been closed for several months. "If that's the case," replied N., "let her come through the tunnels."

Al-Malahi stood there gaping, and the officer clarified: "Let her come through the tunnels underground!" and burst out in hearty laughter. Another soldier who was in the room joined the fun.

After he recovered, al-Malahi demanded N. give him her reply in writing, because he intended to file a complaint against her for treating him disrespectfully. "I'm just kidding," the officer replied, and gave al-Malahi a form stating his application was denied because "the above-named left via Rafah and therefore must return that way."

The happy ending to this sorry story signals there is a light at the end of the tunnel of occupation. Perhaps, after learning to see Palestinians as the enemy, or at best human dust, for seven years, officers and soldiers will learn from this story that they can indeed change the approach. And hopefully, Palestinians will learn from al-Malahi that they can stand up for their rights and that Israel has good people who do not disregard their neighbors' honor.

A few weeks ago, al-Malahi asked HaMoked - The Center for the Defense of the Individual to take his case. On December 10, attorney Ido Blum sent an urgent letter to the commander of the Coordination and Liaison Office in Hebron, Brigadier General Yoav (Poli) Mordecai. The next day, Mordecai's bureau called and asked for more details. The day after that, it issued an order to allow the family to reunite immediately. On December 13, the five reached the Erez crossing and headed home to Hebron.

"As for the treatment Mr. al-Malahi received at the Hebron Coordination and Liaison Office, and the things the officer said to him," wrote Mordecai on December 24, "these matters have been investigated with the proper seriousness, and the necessary lessons have been learned in order to prevent such incidents from recurring. With regard to the officer involved, the examination found fault in how she conducted herself and expressed herself vis-a-vis the applicant."

The senior officer did not stop there. He wrote that he had ordered the head of the Hebron Coordination and Liaison Office to invite al-Malahi for an apology over how his application had been handled. Mordecai also summoned officer N. to tell her he views the incident "as a failure in values and professionalism," and that our lady of the tunnels would no longer be needed at the Hebron Liaison and Coordination Office.