Saturday, January 04, 2003

Highway of Peace

Friday, January 3, 2003

The air was crisp and cold, smelling of winter, as we arrived in downtown Jerusalem this morning.

In the square outside the Mashbir department store, political activists of various stripes were flaunting their wares: a young man from the left-wing religious Meimad party was trying to sell voters on the wonders of Labour leader Amram Mitzna, while next to him a secular man in a sandwich board with a huge letter "lamed" on it was singing the praises of right-wing candidate Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party. A young, gormless looking woman in a Tzomet party shirt was hawking her party's rather amorphous platform.

Friday morning is the beginning of the weekend and the eve of the Sabbath, making it the busiest shopping day in Jerusalem. It was a bit cold, but not that cold. There were plenty of pedestrians in the square. No one seemed to take much interest in the campaigners. DH remarked on how lifeless it all seemed compared with previous election years, when passersby would engage the party propagandists in heated debate over the issues of the day.

By the time our errands were finished the clouds were closing in and the rain was falling thick and fast, turning the city's polished stone staircases and squares into treacherous skating rinks. The activists were sheltering under the Mashbir's awning, along with the busker. The Meimad supporter was bopping along to the beat, trying to keep warm.

Turning for home we decided to try a new road, Route 45, opened with rather subdued fanfare this week by a selection of minor dignitaries. So muted was the opening that most of the signs to 45 were still covered over with black plastic sheeting, leading us to wonder whether the new route really was open to traffic.

It was, but the sloppiness about the signs seemed appropriate. Route 45 was a project born out of the heady Oslo years. It was to be the "Highway of Peace", a super modern motorway linking Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and someday, inshallah, Baghdad. It would be the engine of Arab-Israeli friendship, facilitating tourism and trade, a spur for development heralding a new cultural and economic community with open borders along the lines of the European model.

Many in the Modi'in area opposed the route because it was slated to go through Nahal Modi'in, a scenic valley adjacent to an important archaeological site believed by some scholars to encompass the tombs of the Maccabees and ancient Modi'in.

One of the most vociferous opponents was the late Prof. Yair Parag, an esteemed botanist and local resident. I vividly remember a ride with him once from Jerusalem: he spent the entire journey lamenting that in the name of peace the Israeli government would ride roughshod over Israel's ancient Jewish heritage, part of its very raison d'etre. The Oslo architects had their eyes so firmly set on the future it didn't matter if they trampled on the past.

In the end, the Modi'in segment of the road was put on hold and the project was begun from the Jerusalem end, roughly west of Ramallah, linking to the existing Modi'in-Jerusalem highway. This is the section that opened this week, providing a shortcut from central Jerusalem to the Modi'in road, avoiding the bottlenecked north Jerusalem suburb of Ramot.

Route 45 tells the story of the soured Oslo utopia.

Once you leave the brand new Ramot junction for 45, you pass open grassy areas bordering Arab suburbs of Jerusalem. High fences protect the beautiful new road from potential stone throwers. A fenced off dirt shoulder looked to me like a military patrol road.

As the road nears the Palestinian town of Bir Naballah the fences turn to huge fortified concrete walls covered in pastoral murals of green hills and arches. Like the painted walls of the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, these barricades are there to protect Israelis from Palestinian snipers, while the scenic murals are supposed to give at least the illusion of peace.

Beyond the wall, the edge of Bir Naballah is marked by a massive field piled high with hundreds of cars, rusting hulks and fairly new models, tossed about like toys in a messy child's bedroom. Here was another reminder of what the new "economic freedom" and "open borders" of Oslo had actually brought: a massive rise in Palestinian theft of cars from Israel and a consequent roaring Palestinian trade in bootleg auto parts. Palestinian dignitaries were routinely stopped driving stolen Israeli vehicles, which had been relicensed by a complicit Palestinian Authority.

It reminded me of a visit to the Palestinian controlled city of Nablus/Shekhem in 1999. As our group neared the town we passed field after field of cars, auto parts and related junk. The Palestinian guide pointed to the eyesore and joked, "If any of you have had your cars stolen, this is a great place to look..." We smiled as if it was funny.

So much has changed since them. Scepticism about the prospects for peace is no longer limited to an ideological minority. It has become the broad national consensus. Many wonder why the signs of Palestinian ill will, from the rampant car theft to the weapons smuggling to the inflammatory speeches endorsing violence towards Israel, were ignored for so long. Today, few Israelis believe in our politicians' promises of peace and security. No leaders inspire much enthusiasm.

None of the candidates seems likely to bring peace any more than Route 45 is to reach Amman, let alone Baghdad.

Maybe that's why the activists in Mashbir Square were so lonely.

Shabbat shalom.