Israel Urged to Complete Security Fence

With Israel and the Palestinians seemingly on the brink of a new round of terrorism and response, calls for the speedy completion of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank are growing.

Recent Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem and central Israel, along with Israel’s targeted killings of Hamas leaders and its threat to expel Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, have created a sense of renewed urgency on the security fence.

To protect Israeli citizens against future bombers, politicians and pundits are clamoring for completion of the fence’s final and longest sector: from central Israel, through Jerusalem and around the southern part of the West Bank.

Under pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he intends to get the Cabinet to authorize plans for construction of a "large sector" of the fence soon.

But skeptics charge that Sharon is still using a controversy over whether or not the fence should go around the West Bank city of Ariel to delay work on a project he really has no intention of finishing.

Some in Sharon’s Likud Party object to the fence because they fear it will establish a de facto border between a future Palestinian state and Israel, and it will not incorporate many Jewish settlements.

Sharon aides respond to charges that Sharon doesn’t want the fence completed by saying that though the prime minister may have had reservations in the past about the barrier — a combination of fencing, barbed wire and concrete wall — now he is determined to complete it as quickly as possible.

If so, analysts say, a completed barrier will do more than just provide security. It will accelerate a process of separation between Israelis and Palestinians, leading inevitably to the two-state solution the parties so far have failed to reach through negotiation.

The first section of the fence, 77 miles from the Arab village of Salem in the north to Elkana in central Israel, was completed in late July.

Work is proceeding apace on the second northern section, from Salem toward the Jordan River. But no decision has yet been taken on the route, the funding or the work on the remaining 150-mile southern section.

For months, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has been pressing strongly for the inclusion of Ariel, a Jewish city of 13,000 about 12 miles inside the West Bank.

But the American administration remains firmly opposed, arguing that the Ariel route would take in too much West Bank territory.

This week Sharon finally decided to leave Ariel out. But to prevent the impression that he is ready to cede the city, the prime minister suggested leaving a gap in the fence opposite Ariel so it won’t appear to be on the "wrong side."

As for the city’s security, he proposes surrounding it with large no-entry zones.

Still, a formal decision on this last sector of the fence’s route is still pending, and many in Israel are losing patience.

Even President Moshe Katsav, in a rare comment on a political issue, called for acceleration of work on the fence, which he described as "essential for saving Israeli lives."

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Sharon to declare work on the fence "a national project" and complete it within six months.

And despite this week’s across-the-board budget cuts, Netanyahu says he will see to it that whatever money is needed for completing the fence will be made available.

For their part, opposition politicians and pundits have been scathing over the slow progress.

Former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna argues that if the government intends to target Hamas leaders, it should first finish building the fence to protect Israelis against the inevitable terrorist responses.

He reproaches the government for not building it faster and charges that many Israelis have died unnecessarily as a result. In an angry column in Israel’s daily "Ma’ariv" newspaper, veteran pundit Dan Margalit took this argument further, calling for a commission of enquiry into the delay.

The government, he suggested, was guilty of criminal negligence, "because it knew its incompetence would lead to many Israeli deaths."

Despite Sharon’s latest commitment to complete the fence, Uzi Dayan, chairman of the Public Council for a Security Fence for Israel, is skeptical.

He maintains that Sharon doesn’t really intend to finish the job, because he recognizes the likely result: Israel withdrawing unilaterally from the West Bank, which he thinks will be perceived as weakness and invite more terrorism.

But for Dayan and many leading Israeli politicians, unilateral separation from the Palestinians is Israel’s only real political and security option, because, they say, it is now clear that there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side.

Based on that premise, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak says Israel should adopt a three-pronged policy: fight terror, withdraw behind a completed fence and come out with a peace plan of its own to show that the fence is not a final border and that Israel is open to negotiations whenever the Palestinians are ready.

Some analysts go further, contending that with the building of the fence a process has been set in motion that will lead inevitably to separation between Israelis and Palestinians in two adjacent states.

Dan Schueftan, author of the book, "Disengagement: Israel and the Palestinian Entity," is widely regarded as the intellectual father of the separation fence. He is convinced Sharon will eventually realize that unilateral separation is the only option.

"Just as I knew Sharon would go for division of the land of Israel before he said the words ‘Palestinian state’ because of the inner logic, I know today he will go for unilateral disengagement, because it’s clear there won’t be any agreement with the Palestinians and we don’t want to take responsibility for the Palestinians’ everyday life and welfare. I am worried about the pace, but not about the direction," he said.

Close Sharon aides acknowledge that the prime minister may be moving more toward this kind of unilateral approach.

"He was always very skeptical about fences," a senior adviser said. "But I think slowly but surely he’s seeing that this may be the best shot Israel has right now of stabilizing the situation and revisiting negotiations at a later date."

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report.