Gaza-West Bank road link planned

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EHUD BARAK, Israel's Prime Minister elect, says he will build a road bridge linking the two main Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank. One of the main Palestinian demands is to be allowed free passage between the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

Mr Barak says the road bridge will be "a kind of highway on pillars for 47 kilometres, with four lanes, a railway line, a water pipe and a communications cable - that is about what is needed." The one million Palestinians in Gaza have been effectively sealed off from the outside world for the last five years, crippling the local economy.

Mr Barak, who is still in the middle of establishing a coalition government, told the daily Haaretz that the project will go ahead at a cost of $200m (pounds 125m). He said: "There is no more to be said, it will happen. It's not pie in the sky, these are the necessities of life. Will I do it? For sure." Palestinians reacted warily to Mr Barak's plan because they are worried that it might delay implementation of an agreement already signed by Israel at the Wye Plantation in Maryland last year under which Israel promised free passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

Hassan Asfour, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said: "An effort should be made to solve all the remaining issues and not start looking for political matters here and there." Palestinian leaders and the US want Israel to implement Wye immediately, while Mr Barak wants to push on to negotiate final status issues such as Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and territorial borders. Mr Barak said he proposed the idea of the 30-mile road bridge to Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli Prime Minister, as early as the Oslo Accords in 1993. He says: "Rabin didn't do it because he was preoccupied with hundreds of other matters in the negotiations." Although Mr Barak has so far taken a tough line on territorial concessions to the Palestinians, he is adopting a much warmer tone than his predecessor. He says he told Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader: "Look, I intend to pursue the Rabin heritage. We will have disagreements, sometimes serious ones, but the two of us will be on the same side of the table to resolve the problems."

Mr Barak said there was a historic opportunity to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. He said the Palestinians posed "no military threat of any kind to Israel". This was in contrast with Syria which has 700 planes, 4,000 tanks, and 2,500 artillery pieces. Mr Barak said he saw the Palestinians as providing "the legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict" with the Arab world. He added that leaders and countries, which failed to take real opportunities to end such conflicts, could end up like Ireland or Kosovo.