On the Fence

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When word reached the Israeli government last week that the U.S. might withhold portions of its $9 billion in annual loan guarantees unless Israel rethought its West Bank wall, a panicky Ariel Sharon dispatched a delegation to Washington to see if the two sides couldn’t work something out. The delegates ended their meeting without any promises, but a lot more than loan guarantees is at stake here.

During Monday’s talks, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice told Dov Weisglass, a senior member of the Sharon administration, that Israel’s separation barrier is sharply at odds with American interests. The separation barrier being built around and inside the occupied West Bank, which Israelis commonly call the “security fence,” and Palestinians the “apartheid wall,” has been a source of major international conflict since construction began in June 2002. Rice’s statements came as the United States, unusually, has been stepping up pressure on the Sharon administration.

“[The barrier] is not really consistent with our view of what the Middle East will one day have to look like — two states living side by side in peace. “It is extremely important, if it is going to be built, that it, as much as possible… not intrude on the lives of the Palestinians, and, most importantly, that it not look as if it’s trying to pre-judge the outcome of a peace agreement.”

Even so, she said the White House hadn’t decided whether to withhold portions of loan guarantees. Instead, said Rice, the administration will hold off on a decision until the Israeli security cabinet signs off on the wall’s route.

This latest flare-up in the wall controversy comes as Israel prepares to decide whether the barrier will cut deep into the West Bank to encompass Ariel, a settlement bloc of some 20,000 people, 15 miles east of the green line. Annexing Ariel to the Israeli side would mean confiscating yet more Palestinian land and further separating northern Palestinian communities from bustling Ramallah, the de facto political and economic center of the West Bank.

The White House has hinted that if the security cabinet rules to run the barrier around Ariel, the sum allocated for its construction will be withheld from Israel’s future guarantees. This year’s loan guarantee agreement came after prolonged negotiations, wherein the U.S. told Israel it would deduct matching funds for every dollar Israel spends in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Both former president George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton reduced Israel’s loan guarantees as a penalty for ongoing settlement contruction in the occupied territories.

The Sharon administration is essentially being forced to choose between the loan guarantees — which are especially important now, with the Israeli on the skids — and its loyalty to Israel’s powerful settlement lobby. On Friday, Prime Minister Sharon lent his support for a plan that would suspend construction of the barrier in the Ariel region, instead beefing up Israel’s military presence there. But while Sharon might be leaning toward compromise, other members of his coalition have vowed to fight hard for the annexation of Ariel.

The Bush administration seems to be playing good cop/bad cop with the Israelis. While Rice sent a veiled warning to the Israelis to lay off Ariel, Colin Powell empathized with Sharon’s position. In a Monday appearance on the Charlie Rose Show, Powell explained that the Israeli public won’t like it if Sharon appears to be pushed around by White House officials.

“It is very difficult if not impossible for the prime minister of Israel or any other nation in the face of activity [terrorism] that seems to be tolerated by the governmental authorities on the other side…to say to his people that he is yielding to pressure from the Americans or anyone else.”

Powell went on to say he didn’t expect the Israeli government to respond to American settlement concerns until the Palestinian Authority starts “doing something” about terrorism.

Meanwhile the pro-barrier forces, both in the United States and Israel, have been in busy preparing for a political showdown. Akiva Eldar of Ha’aretz explains that Washington’s pro-Israeli lobby is preparing for the worst.

“While the prime minister’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, and the Defense Ministry’s director-general, Amos Yaron, were stepping into Rice’s office to discuss the future route of the fence, not far away, on Capitol Hill, Jewish activists were running from congressman to congressman, forming a bipartisan front to rebuff any administration effort to fulfill its official policy, which says that those who want the fence should put it up on their land, not their neighbors’.

About 100 congressmen visited Israel during the summer as guests of pro-Israel lobbies, becoming loyal ambassadors for the fence. For most, its precise location – east or west of Ariel – is at most a matter of nuance, just as long as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC is pleased.”

Israel’s security cabinet is expected to finalize the route of the barrier in the coming days as the public debates the pros and cons of playing hardball with Washington. The center-right Jerusalem Post editorializes that Washington should, instead of criticizing the Israeli security wall, put more pressure on the Palestinian leadership to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis.

“The U.S. should be saying to the Palestinians: If you don’t like the fence, stop building it with your attacks against Israel. Bush should also be categorical that terrorism will not succeed in moving him to the left of Clinton, that is, to undermining the settlement blocs that even Clinton recognized must be annexed to Israel as part of any conceivable territorial compromise.

Sharon, for his part, should consider that it is not healthy for Israel’s relationship with the U.S. to be built mainly on acquiescing to American requests, but should also include the ability to persuade or to say no.”

Alan D. Abbey, also in the Post, notes that political observers in Israel are starting to wonder if Sharon has his priorities out of whack, putting Israel’s close relationship with Washington before the security of Ariel’s residents.

But for some the issue comes down to Israel’s ultimate intentions in the West Bank. Former president Jimmy Carter writes in Tuesday’s Washington Post, that Israel has to make a choice.

“Confident that our support is unshakable, Israeli leaders eventually began to assert their independence, and real American influence has reached its lowest ebb in 50 years. In the face of certain rebuffs, why would any American president become deeply involved in a balanced mediating role?

No matter what leaders the Palestinians might choose, how fervent American interest might be or how great the hatred and bloodshed might become, there remains one basic choice, and only the Israelis can make it:

Do we want permanent peace with all our neighbors, or do we want to retain our settlements in the occupied territories of the Palestinians?

America’s worst betrayal of Israel would be to support the second choice.”

The Bush administration’s decision on the loan guarantees is expected in the coming weeks, once the Israeli security cabinet has made a final decision on the route of the wall. A lot more than money is riding on both decisions.


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