Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made a rare visit to the West Bank today to officially open a controversial Israeli-built road bisecting the Samarian hills and to pledge that more such roads will be built to link Jewish civilian settlements in the occupied territory.
"Future generations of Jews and Arabs will travel this road in peace and coexistence in this country of ours," Begin said at a ceremony opening a key portion of the strategic Allon Road, named after the late Yigael Allon, foreign minister under the previous Labor Party government. About 150 jews from the nearby Maaleh Adumim settlement attended.
The 28-mile-long completed section of the road follows the ridge line of the Samarian hills from the Jerusalem-to-Jericho highway north to Maaleh Efraim, a Jewish settlement southeast of the Arab city of Nablus. Soon, Begin said, it will be expanded to run from Beit Shean, in Lower Galilee, all the way south to Arad, in the Negev.
The Allon Road is part of a network of at major roads being built by Israel through or into the West Bank. An Israeli Army corps of engineers officer said that in addition to linking the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the network will enable the Army to quickly move troops and equipment to strategic positions in the West Bank in the event of hostilities.
Palestinian sources, however, have complained that the network is designed to fragment the West Bank into easily controllable segments, while at the same time foreclosing any possibility of a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory.
An aide to Begin said the highway including the $10 million portion opened today has been officially named the Allon Road as "a symbol of the national consensus here on the question of settlements." The aide noted that the original authorization for the road, which was began in 1975, was signed by Shimon Peres, then defense minister. Peres, head of the Labor Party, will oppose Begin in Israel's June 30 election.
Also speaking today was Israel Galili, who was foreign affairs adviser to the Labor government. He noted that the road had been conceived by Allon, who originated a Labor Party plan of territorial compromise in which most the West Bank would be returned to Jordan except for strategic settlements in the Jordan Valley and along the ridgeline.
There have been strong indications from Begin's strategists that the prime minister intends to make security and the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip prime issues in the coming election campaign and that he will attempt to corner the Labor Party into a position of either advocating Israeli withdrawal from the occupied areas or supporting current policies.
The West Bank military governor had just completed a 14-mile segment of another strategic road, called the Trans-Judean Highway, which connects the Arab city of Hebron to the Mediterranean coastal plain. Eventually, it will extend through the West Bank to the Dead Sea.
A second east-west highway, called the Trans-Samarian Road, is under construction south of Nablus, and the master plan for the West Bank strategic highway network calls for the widening of an Arab-built east-west road just north of Nablus.