Akiva Eldar
Haaretz (Opinion)
January 8, 2008 - 6:16pm

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's aides are not hiding their mission to get U.S. President George W. Bush to help rescue Olmert from the claws of the Winograd Committee. If it were up to them, Olmert would follow Bush even into the bedroom. In preparatory talks with the U.S. rescue team, the prime minister'srepresentatives suggested Olmert accompany Bush on a visit to the Mount of Beatitudes, where according to the New Testament, Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount and the 12 apostles were chosen.The Americans politely responded that Bush would prefer to conduct the religious part of his visit in a private forum.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also did not get everything he wanted from Bush. Bush's representatives informed the Palestinian team that Bush would forgo the pleasure of placing a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat, on his way to a meeting with the new rais (leader) in the Muqata in Ramallah.

Yitzhak Eldan, the Foreign Ministry's chief of protocol, had to bend over backwards to maneuver between Olmert's political need to squeeze out the little that remained of the American lemon, and President Shimon Peres' sensitivity about the dignity of the presidency. (The event is being called "a work visit" rather than an "official state visit.") Bush is ostensibly coming to repair the puncture in Annapolis' wheels and to get the peace process back on track. But he won't be the one to appoint the Israeli peace administration, nor will he instruct which outpost should be evacuated first.

In order to save something for Peres, the Prime Minister's Bureau and the U.S. Embassy adopted Eldan's idea of adding to the "a work visit" the additional "aspects of a state visit." Bush promises to pay the official state visit, without the "aspects," on Israel's Independence Day. There are people, including some very senior officials, who would be willing to pay any price to be among the 50 people invited to shake Bush's hand and to smile back. And there are those, such as Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fisher, Jewish Agency Chair Zeev Bielski, and Mayor Ilan Harari of Lod, who have foregone the honor. They apologized, saying previous commitments did not permit them to report at the edges of the red carpet. Maybe the time has really come to give up the custom of dragging public figures from their offices to attend archaic ceremonies.

Olmert knows that after Bush waves goodbye from the Air Force 1 jetway, he, the prime minister, will be left with the Winograd Report, with the angry reservists, with the mourning David Grossman and the rebels in the Labor Party, and perhaps in Kadima as well. The last thing Olmert needs is for Peres, who stood by his side during the first round of the report, to change his mind now.

Since discovering last week in Haaretz that the Prime Minister's Bureau had informed MK Esterina Tartman, the head of the lobby to save the Dead Sea, that Olmert had handed the 'Peace Conduit' project to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Peres has been walking around with a grudge against Olmert. He will not give up his baby so easily. Peres will try to get Bush to retrieve the canal project from Ben-Eliezer's hands. The Israeli president intends to devote a substantial part of his meeting with Bush to the project, to wield a personal promise from the president to support his vision of peace.

Hitting the highway

The notice by the State Prosecutor's Office to the High Court of Justice on the issue of Highway 443 (which connects the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Jerusalem) is reminiscent of the famous story about Bernard Shaw and the righteous woman. The defense minister and the IDF leadership apparently believe that as a matter of principle every Palestinian can be bought, and it's only a matter of haggling over the price. The first attempt to buy the residents of the Palestinian villages adjacent to the highway came in the summer of 2006, a few weeks after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed a petition in their name against their expulsion from the highway built on their land. The members of the Israeli Civil Administration officials came to the village of Beit Sira and unofficially told council head Ali Abu Safa he could grant transit permits to a small number of taxi drivers from the village. Abu Safa sent them away disdainfully and asked ACRI attorney Limor Yehuda to continue the legal battle.

The thousands of drivers who race by on the highway designated for Israelis only, which is known as the "apartheid highway," have become accustomed to the sight of the yellow minibuses that wait behind the cement blocks for the workers who return home from work by foot. Highway 443 is the main access road connecting the residents of the six villages located on both its sides - Beit Sira, Beit Likia, Beit 'Ur al Tahta, Beit 'Ur al Fuqa, Hirbet al Masbah and Tsaffeh - to the district city of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, and serves as an access road among them.

Shortly after the outbreak of the intifada, in the wake of attacks on Israeli vehicles, the IDF closed the highway to Palestinian traffic, without issuing an injunction as required in the regulations. MK Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defense minister at the time, said in the film "A Million Bullets in October," which was recent screened, that this was done without the approval of the political leadership. Only last August, prior to the discussion in the court, did the army remember to issue an injunction.

Now it's official. In response to the petition, the State Prosecutor's Office declared that "at the conclusion of the staff work ... it has been decided to allow the movement of Palestinian vehicles along Highway 443 in a manner that would balance between the security need to prevent terror incidents along the highway and the interest in improving the fabric of life and the daily routine of the residents living in the petitioning villages. The decision has been approved by the chief of staff and the defense minister, and has been anchored in a temporary injunction signed by the head of the army command. The decision was made with a heavy heart and after much deliberation, because in the opinion of the military commander, it involves a genuine risk to the security of the Israeli citizens who drive on Highway 443 and to the home front of the State of Israel."

And what is that "balance" that guarantees an improvement in the quality of life of the village adjacent to the highway and to the daily routine of the residents of the entire area? "Considering the genuine security risk that exists, even now, in allowing Palestinian vehicles to travel on Highway 443," said the reply, "it has been decided to allow about 80 regular vehicles, whose identity will be determined in coordination with the petitioning villages, to travel along the road." What generosity! Eighty vehicles for over 80,000 people - men and women, the elderly and children, most of whose lives, livelihood, health and education revolve around this artery. And that's not all, the state declared it was not opposed to allowing the Palestinians to walk along the road on foot, and even to cross it. Carefully.

This formulation looks more like a desperate attempt to placate the High Court and at the last minute prevent a High Court ruling that would turn one of the busiest highways in the country (according to the defense establishment, about 40,000 cars a day) from a uni-national to a binational highway. The security leadership and the State Prosecutor's Office are very familiar with the 1982 High Court ruling regarding the petition of a Palestinian whose land was confiscated in order to pave Highway 443. The justices ruled at the time "the Military Administration is not permitted to plan and implement a network of highways in an area being held in a belligerent occupation, if the purpose of this planning and of this implementation is only to constitute a 'service road' to its own country."

The petition was rejected after the State Prosecutor's Office promised that the highway would serve all the travelers, regardless of religion or nationality.

And this is not the only highway in the West Bank where Palestinian traffic is restricted. According to B'Tselem, on about 300 kilometers of roads and sections of roads in the West Bank, Palestinian traffic is barred or restricted.

A few weeks ago, the head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, invited the village heads to inform them of the exciting news. The visitors listened politely, and several days later informed the senior officer that they would meet in court. According to the CA spokesman, up until yesterday no Palestinian had turned to them with a request for a permit. Abu Safa promises that this is not a protest directed from above, but a natural response of people who believe that justice is on their side and that a democratic country does not confiscate lands to build a road everyone except them can travel on. Ahead of the High Court decision, left-wing activists and Palestinians have begun to demonstrate in the area.

But whether it is organized, Palestinian refusal has a price. In a reply to the response of the state, the ACRI claims that since the filing of the petition the residents reported a new phenomenon: frequent army raids into the petitioning villages, mainly after dark. The soldiers fire flares, tear gas, stun grenades and even rubber bullets, occasionally even live bullets. The IDF spokesman said that this is routine operational activity, in response to stone throwing at vehicles driving along Highway 443.

The State Prosecutor's Office claims that a sweeping removal of the restriction on Palestinian vehicles on Highway 443 would "constitute a significant risk to the lives of citizens who drive on the highway and citizens on the home front of the State of Israel, since it will increase the threats of terror and a potential for terrorist activities along the road and on the home front of the State of Israel." The security experts believe that 80 vehicles would not constitute a "significant risk" to Israeli drivers who want to bypass the traffic jams on the main road to Jerusalem. But 100 vehicles bearing yellow license plates would constitute a "significant risk," and maybe 50 are actually enough.


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