The Good Fence

Secretary of State Colin Powell spent a week in the Middle East and managed to extract from Israeli and Arab leaders concessions that were promising and far-reaching — for 1991.

That was when another Republican secretary of state, James Baker, flexed the muscle that another President Bush had built up in waging a war against Arabs, and convened a Middle East peace conference in Madrid.

Is this a case of, as our friends the French would have it, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, or is it more like a bad meal coming back up on you?

While Powell was finessing "progress" toward a solution, the Israeli body politic, according to polls, had already decided on one.

It’s called a fence.

According to a recent poll published by Ma’ariv, over 70 percent of Israelis support putting up a fortified electronic barrier between the West Bank and Israel. The fence would follow the contours of borders largely agreed to by both sides in previous negotiations.

The Israelis would be on one side of the fence, Palestinians on the other. That means Israel would have to evacuate Jewish settlements that are not largely contiguous with the Green Line — meaning about 40,000-60,000 settlers.

It also means Palestinians could do what they want on their side. They could declare a state and organize it and eventually negotiate with their neighbor. Or they could declare holy war and hit targets outside Israel, risking more retaliation. Given Yasser Arafat’s track record, he might just choose to do both simultaneously.

Supporters say the fence would put an end to the suicide attacks that have debilitated Israel’s economy and morale.

There is just such a fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, and since it was erected not a single suicide bomber has passed over the border from Gaza. To most Israelis, that alone is a winning argument.

Hundreds of former Israeli army officers have signed a resolution in support of the fence. From a security standpoint, they say, the fence is the best interim solution, until the sides can reach a political settlement.

Who opposes the idea? The hard right and the far left — which may be as good an indication as any of the plan’s quality.

The right doesn’t want to give up on settlements. Its view is that Jews have a right, going back to the Bible, to the lands of Judea and Samaria. But the cold facts are that the only way Israel can retain Gaza, Judea and Samaria and remain a Jewish state, is to banish the 3 million Palestinians who live there, or create an apartheid-like regime.

The right also says that Israel without Judea and Samaria would create a fragile, narrow-waisted country. A Palestinian army with Iranian-supplied weapons could muster in Tulkaram, some 7 miles from Netanya. This is correct, but it’s also true that Israeli forces would destroy that army long before the threat became a reality.

The generals who signed on to the fence idea know it is much easier to protect a country contained within secure borders than one spread out on both sides of a porous border.

The far left sees the fence as a barbed wire garrote around the Oslo dove. It would indicate that, at least for now, Shimon Peres’ new Middle East vision of regional trade and travel is a pipe dream.

True, as both Peres and Ariel Sharon point out, you can’t build a fence high enough to keep out mortars or Scuds. But that is what Merkava tanks and F-16s are designed to do. What they can’t do is keep 16-year-old Palestinians girls with backpacks full of explosives out of Israel. A fence can do that.

The most convincing argument against a fence is that the Palestinians would see any pullback, even of settlements that never should have been built in the first place, as a sign of weakness. Emboldened by this "victory," the Palestinians would press their terror campaign even harder.

Proponents of the fence argue that the terror campaign would come to a full stop at the new border. The separation could lead to a nasty divorce or a good-faith mediation, but at least it would be a separation.

It may not be the perfect answer, it may not be the only one, but it is worth serious exploration. As we rally for Israel on April 21 at Woodley Park, let’s hope the Israeli government spokesmen who address us there go beyond vague calls for support, and speak to the specifics of this promising first step.