When a wall becomes a fence

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The veneer of U.S. even-handedness in the Middle East was thin-spun to begin with. It was there more for decoration than substance. And last week it ceased to exist. Straddling the fence with both ears to the ground was not only an ungainly position for a superpower, but also painful for a macho president.

Before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in Washington for his eighth private meeting with President Bush, the White House focused on a major impediment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The $1.2 billion, 360-mile, 25-foot-high wall to be seeded with electronic sensors, now under construction by Israel would, in effect, reduce a Palestinian state to 50 percent of the West Bank. Seventy miles have been completed.

Mr. Bush rightly concluded this wall would be an obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state. It would have to stop, the president told the prime minister. Mr. Sharon made clear it was not negotiable. Construction would continue and It was being built to last. Besides, said the P.M., “Good fences make good neighbors.” No one has bothered to ask yet whether the additional $1 billion Israel requested to its annual $3 billion grant in military aid will go to defraying the cost of fencing in the Palestinians.

Diplomatic stultiloquence quickly changed the wall to a fence. “I would hope in the long term a fence would be irrelevant,” Mr. Bush said hopefully. One of America’s most influential columnists, the incomparable glottologist William Safire set the president straight. Under the headline, “Do fence me in,” he wrote, “Sharon noted that ‘80 percent of Israelis fell in love with the fence, and about the same number don’t trust the Palestinians.’ I suspect Sharon is squarely amidst this majority, as am I.”

No sooner did Mr. Sharon leave Washington than the most powerful man in the House, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, popped up in Jerusalem to lecture his Knesset colleagues. “I’m an Israeli at heart,” he said. As one of the leaders of the Christian Zionist movement, Mr. Delay, an evangelical Christian, is critical of the Bush road map for a Palestinian state by 2005. In his judgment, an independent Palestinian state is bound to be a terrorist state and therefore should not be allowed to emerge. “Israel is not the problem,” Mr. DeLay states, “Israel is the solution.”

Officially, Mr. Sharon’s garden fence is designed to keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israel. But only a dunderpate, who is also irredeemably myopic, could fail to notice its real intent, namely to make sure Palestinians are permanently excluded from statehood.

One of America’s most knowledgeable experts on strategy in general and the Middle East in particular is Anthony H. Cordesman, holder of the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His take on the good neighbors’ picket fence:

c Israel retains strategic control over the entire area between the Mediterranean and Jordan.

• The Arab population in Jordan and Egypt are kept separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by Israeli-controlled territory and settlements.

• Strategic roads, barriers and settlements keep the Palestinians separated from each other, preventing creation of a unified threat.

c Token territorial continuity is established between Palestinian enclaves by a small number of bridges, tunnels and a ring road around Jerusalem.

c The problems these plans and uncertainties create for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and in terms of Arab and Islamic reactions, are obvious. The barriers could effectively create new “borders” that make a serious Palestinian state impossible and that many states will never recognize. They could prolong the present violence indefinitely, and make any Arab and Islamic acceptance of Israel far more difficult.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are 145 enclaves connected by Israeli security roads under Israeli sovereignty. They are islands in a Palestinian sea. Mr. Sharon’s Great Barrier Reef is designed to reconfigure the geopolitical map. Palestinian towns and villages would become islands in an Israeli sea.

By telling Mr. Bush the wall is here for keeps, Mr. Sharon is telling the president to fold his own road map and to think of the barrier as marking the lines where a besieged Israel will soon be confronted by 500 million hostile Arabs. The “soon” is 17 years away. And the wall then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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