Reviving an idea that had been dismissed as a pipe dream, Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has proposed building a 30-mile-long "bridge on pillars" that would soar above Israel and link the two main chunks of Palestinian-populated territory, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The notion of connecting and unifying the two areas under Palestinian control has been a major bone of contention between the two sides, who have been unable to solve security and other problems associated with it. As part of a peace deal mediated by President Clinton last fall, negotiators agreed to allow "free passage" on roads crossing Israel for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza, but the accord has not been implemented.
The result is that except for a relatively small number of people with special passes, it is all but impossible for most Palestinians who live in Gaza to move through Israel to shop, study or visit friends and relatives in the West Bank, and vice versa.
But Barak seemed practically to decree that the issue be resolved by constructing "a kind of highway on pillars for 47 kilometers [30 miles] with four lanes, a railway line, a water pipe, a communications cable -- that's about what is needed."
He said the elevated highway would run from Beit Hanoun, in the northeast corner of the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip, due east to Dura, a Palestinian village near the city of Hebron in the West Bank.
Asked by the interviewer if such a bridge would nudge the cause of a Palestinian state one step closer, Barak declined to answer directly. But of the elevated highway, he said: "It will happen."
Barak was elected prime minister a month ago and is expected to take office once he can cobble together a coalition government.
Since his landslide victory over Binyamin Netanyahu, he has made few public pronouncements, and his "bridge on pillars" proposal today startled both Israeli and Palestinian analysts.
Although the prime minister-elect said the project would cost about $200 million, Shlomo Dror, an Israeli official who studied the project in 1996, said a more realistic figure would be closer to $1 billion -- most or all of which would have to come from international donors.
Barak said in the interview he had seen such an elevated highway in Miami -- perhaps a reference to the Seven Mile Bridge connecting the Florida Keys above the coastal waters southeast of Miami. But to build such a highway here, engineers would be faced with the challenge of connecting the Gaza Strip, at about sea level, with a part of the West Bank that rises hundreds of yards above sea level.
Moreover, the plan could encounter stiff resistance in Israel.
Still, some Israeli analysts were hopeful. "It's certainly better than anything else one can imagine to ensure unification of the two parts [of Palestinian-ruled territory] with a minimum of friction with Israel," said Yossi Alpher, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee.
Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament who has advised Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the idea is a welcome long-term proposal. "But what meanwhile shall we do during one, two, three, four years? We need safe passage between the two areas immediately."