Thursday, July 24, 2003

The much-ballyhooed road map to peace in the Middle East omitted to warn drivers about a dead-end. It was hard to miss. Yet the road map’s detailed, phased approach to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 did not even mention the construction of an Israeli “fence,” which in reality is a wall, designed to cram the new state into 40 percent of today’s West Bank. It is a huge undertaking, ostensibly designed to keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israel. If all goes according to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan, the 25-foot-high barrier would effectively stonewall a viable Palestinian state.

The 600-kilometer- (360-mile-) long fence snakes in and out of the West Bank to encompass some of the larger Israeli settlements. Twenty-two contractors are engaged in this colossal undertaking whose first phase, almost 50 kilometers (30 miles), from the Arab village of Kfar Salem to the Israeli settlement of Elkana, has been turned over to the army for early warning electronics. Stage 2, or 42 kilometers, is scheduled for completion by year’s end. Stage 3, to commence in September, runs 210 kilometers from Elkana to the Israeli military compound at Ofer outside Ramallah.

From Jerusalem to Arad in the south, the wall will course about 120 kilometers and then another 100-plus kilometers alongside the Jordan River. The balance will coil around some Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Contractors have agreed that each kilometer will cost the Israeli government $2 million for a grand total of $1.2 billion.

In Kalkiliya, a center of market gardening that is home to 40,000 Palestinians, some 600 hectares of municipal land, arable fields, greenhouses, wells and pumps have been swallowed up by the wall’s building site, or made inaccessible by the security belt the Israelis have set up around the town. Deprived of resources, several thousand Palestinians have left town. Palestinian villages and farms are being divided and more land expropriated.

Originally proposed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the wall enjoys support across the Israeli political spectrum. Mr. Barak’s only complaint is that it wasn’t built sooner or faster. He reckons that some 500 Israeli lives (out of the 780 so far killed by Palestinian suicide-bombers) could have been saved.

Mr. Sharon’s idea is not precisely what Mr. Barak had in mind. Plan B is to acquire more Palestinian land as slowly and as unnoticeably as possible. Palestinian squawks over each sliver annexed by the wall will grow gradually fainter. At least that’s the moxie hope. Forlorn hope is more likely. In time, the wall will become a bigger stumbling block than East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future administrative capital.

As long as Israel conducts annexation-by-wall-building, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will be up against the same wall in his campaign to suppress militant Palestinian resistance groups. When the three-month cease-fire expires, most of the West Bank will still be under tight Israeli control. Mr. Sharon ordered eight “illegal” hilltop settler outposts dismantled. Eleven new ones went up in their place. This week, Israeli lawmakers voted 47-to-27 to back Mr. Sharon’s decision to take down illegal outposts, not settlements, created during the past two years, as required by the road map.

But no peace is possible until Israel agrees to dismantle most of the 145 settlements that have been erected in the West Bank and Gaza since the Six-Day War in 1967, and which have given Israelis title to 60 percent of the land they conquered. Either the 240,000 Israeli settlers return to Israel proper — or they agree to stay put under Palestinian authority and sovereignty. Neither course is likely. The monthly Outpost, published by “Americans For A Safe Israel,” says, if the “Road Map is implemented … it won’t be long before Tel Aviv and Haifa will be on some future Road Map as ‘settlements’ and ‘occupied territory.’ ”

President Bush is attempting to persuade both sides to stick to the road map, but each side knows the other cannot bring down the wall that makes a final peace settlement unreachable. For Mr. Sharon to abandon a billion-dollar-plus project that seals in a lifelong dream of a greater Israel would be to concede defeat. Mr. Sharon’s entire military and government career has been devoted to encouraging Jewish settlement in the West Bank. He could hardly be expected to forcibly remove these settlements at the end of his political life. And for Mr. Abbas to accept such a wall would be tantamount to declaring himself irrelevant. Israel is prepared to pull out of most of the Palestinian cities it reoccupied if Mr. Abbas can muzzle Palestinian militants. No one believes he can do that for any length of time.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian terrorist groups are limbering up for what they see as an inevitable impasse at summer’s end, notwithstanding Mr. Bush’s best efforts with Mr. Abbas this week and in his eighth tete-a-tete with Mr. Sharon next week. As long as the Iraqi underground is resisting the U.S. occupation one country away, the Palestinian underground cannot be seen to give up the fight against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. There is a new symmetry of death in the region.

We keep forgetting how Americans are perceived in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The occupation of Iraq has generated more hatred. The overwhelming majority of Arab newspapers condemn the U.S. occupation of Iraq and praise the “free sons of Iraq who are resisting colonization and subjugation,” as Egypt’s Al-Gumhuriya put it. In the Middle East, American “democratic imperialism” and Israeli strategy is a distinction without a difference. This perception won’t change until the U.S. can demonstrate in Iraq that there is no incompatibility between an Arab country and democracy. But that’s still several years away.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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