Despite Canadian foreign affairs minister Bill Graham's tough talk with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon over the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, some observers say Canucks may indirectly be helping Israel consolidate its hold on the ground.Canadian politicians applauded a few years back when Toronto-based Canadian Highways Infrastructure Corporation (CHIC), the consortium that built the 407 and has donated thousands of dollars to all three of Ontario's provincial political parties, won the tender to finance, build and operate an ambitious inland toll highway that will stretch from the southern tip of Israel all the way up to its northern border with Lebanon.
The first phase of the Cross-Israel Highway -- 18 kilometres of asphalt that will run just north of Tel Aviv -- is to open later this year, with the rest scheduled to be completed by 2004. So far, the company says, construction hasn't been affected by the second intifada.
Officially, the privately financed $1.6-billion freeway is being built to relieve traffic congestion along the urbanized coast, where most Israelis live. As well, the hope is that the highway will lead to the expansion of eastern towns, eventually easing the overcrowding on the coast.
But some observers say moving the country's arterial spine eastward has a political design.
"It's an attempt to move metropolitan Tel Aviv and a lot of the coastal cities eastward and in that way bring them closer to the (West Bank) border, where the settlements can then expand westward and connect up," says Jeff Halper, who teaches anthropology at Ben Gurion University and is coordinator with the Jerusalem-based Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
Although the highway doesn't run through the West Bank, parts of it do straddle the Green Line. And Halper points out that several junctions are planned to link up to access roads that snake into Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories -- settlements that are now surrounded by Palestinian territory and isolated from Israel.
Harper maintains that the highway system has long been part of Sharon's attempt to "create facts on the ground that, in a sense, are immune to the ups and downs of negotiation.
"This is one of the last holes to plug up in terms officially linking the whole network of highways and settlements in the West Bank integrally into Israel itself," he says. "And once that's done, then a Palestinian state is almost impossible. There's no place where that can develop in all the nooks and crannies of all these highways."
If there is to be any chance for peace, Harper argues, this "matrix of control" must be dismantled.
Professor Rex Brynen, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at McGill University, asserts that despite the "facts on the ground," anything is possible if and when Israel and the Palestinians come to the negotiating table. But he concedes that Israel's expanding network of highways to the east could be problematic.
"What it underscores is that Israeli physical planning presumes that the settlements will remain under Israeli territorial control," says Brynen. "So it shows the extent to which that violation of international law is firmly entrenched in the dynamics of Israeli developments. Anything that reinforces that is not positive."
By and large, Israelis support the highway and have been silent on the potential political route it's taking.
Organized opposition has come largely from Greens concerned about the environmental impact.
While Jeff Aronson, director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, also notes that "the road is one more instrument facilitating Israel's continuing presence in the Occupied Territories," he explains that "it's hard to be opposed to a road that's being built in your own sovereign territory.
"So those people who are opposed are opposed for reasons other than the occupation. And it's a rather sophisticated argument that maybe the road itself is not in the Occupied Territories but it helps consolidate the road network."
Not surprisingly, CHIC, the lead partner in the project with two other large Israeli construction firms, wants to keep Israeli-Palestinian politics off the highway.
At a time when the Israeli military is severely restricting the movement of Palestinians, CHIC spokesperson and former Mike Harris staffer Mitch Patten maintains that "the highway will be open to anybody who wants to take it and pay the toll."
Patten is also quick to downplay the highway as a junction point between Israel proper and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
"There's no doubt that if you were headed to parts of the West Bank from Tel Aviv you could take this highway, and there would be one of these exits where you would get off," he says. "But it would be misleading to say that parts of it serve the West Bank any more than it serves any other part of the country."
The Israeli government is quick to dismiss Halper's position.
"Maybe it will improve access to the settlements," says David Cooper, a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in Ottawa. "But those issues are secondary. It's not the reason the road is being built."
At press time, Canada's foreign affairs department had not returned NOW's call. firstname.lastname@example.org