Illusions of a Separate Peace

As you read this, a fence is going up to separate Israelis from Palestinians. For now, it is defined as temporary, for defensive purposes only. It encompasses, on its Israeli side, most of the settlements Israel has established in the occupied territories. It is not intended to determine the future border between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"Good fences make good neighbors," wrote the poet Robert Frost. Israel and Palestine are certainly not good neighbors, and there is an urgent need, both in practice and in principle, to establish a border between them. I mean a border with defensive and barrier devices, open only at crossings established by mutual consent. Such a border will protect the two sides from each other, help stabilize their relations and, especially, require them to internalize, once and for all, the concept of a border. It’s a vague, elusive and problematic concept for both, since they’ve lived for the last 100 years without clear boundaries, with constant invasion, each within, on top of, over and under the other.

Yet it is very dangerous to establish such a border fence right now, unilaterally, without a peace agreement. It is yet another precipitate action aimed at giving the Israeli public a temporary illusion of security; its main effect will be to supply Israelis with a counterfeit replacement for a peace process.

There may well come a time — after both sides have attempted another serious and sincere move toward peace — when Israel will conclude that there really is no chance of peace in this generation. In such a case, Israel will have to withdraw from the occupied territories, evacuate almost all the settlements, shut itself behind a thick wall and prepare for an ongoing battle.

From my conversations with Palestinian leaders, however, I am convinced there still is a chance for peace. Most Israelis disagree. "There’s no one to make an agreement with!" they say. "Even Shimon Peres and the leaders of the left say that they are no longer willing to talk with Yasser Arafat, and in the meantime Israel must defend itself against terror somehow!"

But even if we assume that Arafat is not a negotiating partner — by the way, it certainly hasn’t been proved that Ariel Sharon is a partner — we need to examine the practical implications of building a barrier fence without an agreement. It is clear to everyone that such a fence will not prevent, for example, the Palestinians’ firing rockets and mortars from their territory into Israel. The Israeli Army will have to operate beyond the fence, in order to defend isolated Israeli settlements that will remain on the other side. It takes little imagination to realize what military complications this will bring.

The fence will not provide an appropriate military response to the complex situation in Jerusalem, in which Jews and Arabs rub shoulders each day. Quite the opposite. An attempt to detach East Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian territories is liable to turn the Arab city’s inhabitants to the use of terror, which they have mostly resisted so far.

The distress Israelis feel is plain and comprehensible. It derives from the inhuman cruelty of the suicide bombings and from the feeling that there is no way out, given the huge support for terrorism among Palestinians. But this distress cannot overcome my sense that the Israeli infatuation with the fence is the product of a psychological need. It is not a well-considered policy.

In establishing a fence unilaterally, Israel is throwing away the best card it has. It will be discarding this trump without receiving anything in return from the Palestinians. Last month in London, I heard Yasir Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, say in a conversation with Israelis from the peace camp that if Israel withdraws behind a fence, Palestinians will spend a day celebrating that most of the occupation has ended, and the next day will continue the intifada, in order to obtain the rest of their demands.

Those other demands are well known: Israeli withdrawal from 100 percent of the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war; evacuation of all the settlements; Arab Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; and acceptance of the principle of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return within Israel proper.

Yet there is today a good chance of resolving all these issues in negotiations. The Clinton plan proposes solutions for them; it has for all intents and purposes been accepted by both sides, even if neither is able to commence negotiations to put those solutions into practice. But if the demands of Palestinians are not resolved in negotiations, the fighting will continue. In fact, Palestinians may fight more fiercely if they feel their terror has forced Israel into a new ghetto.

Because it is so important, let me say it again: the establishment of a fence without an agreement means Israel will give up most of the occupied territories without the Palestinians giving up the right of return.

The establishment of a fence without peace also means that the fence will have to extend into the West Bank to encompass most of the settlements. But in building the fence to include the settlements, Israel will have to take in many Palestinian towns and villages that lie close to the settlements and to the roads that lead to them. According to some estimates, this will involve about 150,000 Palestinians. If we add the Arabs of East Jerusalem, the number of Palestinians on the Israeli side of the fence may well reach 400,000.

These people will not be Israeli citizens. Israel does not want them. They will have no clear legal status and will not be able to participate in elections. Does anyone seriously believe they will not turn to terrorism? When that happens, they will be inside the fence, not outside it, and they will have unobstructed passage to Israel’s city centers. Or will Israel confine them behind yet another, second fence?

Israel correctly fears giving Palestinians the right of return to within its borders. So it is hard to understand how Israel could be prepared to take in hundreds of thousands of hostile Palestinians by building a fence.

Another question: How will Israel’s Arab citizens feel? They are about one-sixth of the population. Many have ties to families in the Palestinian Authority lands. Will these ties be severed by the fence? Will Israel not be increasing the bitterness and frustration of this one-sixth of the citizenry, and will not this lead Israeli Arabs to adopt even more extreme positions at a time when their connection to their country has been growing more tenuous?

The fence’s major drawing power for most Israelis is that it has never been tried. So it can be believed in, for a while.

But the border between Israel and Palestine can be set only through full agreement by both sides. Such an agreement seems impossible today, but we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of despairing of it. I think it’s better to wait and live for a few more years without this fence of illusions. This wall will declare our absolute despair of reaching a peace agreement in our generation, of integrating a normal Israel into the region around it.

A wall will allow the extremists — who are all too numerous — to argue that there will be no one to talk to in the future. Putting the other out of sight will only make dehumanization easier and justify a more extreme struggle.

Israel must not be tempted by the fiction of security behind a wall. Instead, it must invest its energy in the recommencement of negotiations. If Arafat is unacceptable to Sharon and Bush, let those leaders explain to us how they can create a better situation. Until they can do so, they bear the responsibility — no less weighty than Arafat’s responsibility — for the immobility, the insensibility and the despair on both sides.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman and originally appeared in The New York Times. David Grossman is the author, most recently, of "Be My Knife," a novel.