- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

President Bush yesterday expressed concern about Israel’s construction of a security fence in the West Bank, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that the Jewish state would continue to build the barrier, declaring that “good fences make good neighbors.”

In his eighth White House meeting with Mr. Sharon, the president — who just four days before stood in the White House Rose Garden next to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and called the barrier a “problem” — did not repeat the Palestinian leader’s demand that construction be halted.

But he did agree with the Israeli prime minister that the fence is a “sensitive issue.”

“My promise to him is we’ll continue to discuss and to dialogue on how best to make sure that the fence sends the right signal, that not only is security important, but the ability for the Palestinians to live a normal life is important as well,” Mr. Bush said in the Rose Garden after a half-hour meeting with Mr. Sharon in the Oval Office.

In equally oblique language, Mr. Bush also urged the prime minister “to carefully consider all the consequences of Israel’s actions as we move forward on the road to peace.”

Mr. Sharon did not mince words as he discussed the barrier — a cement wall in some places, an electrified razor-wire fence in others — to cut off the whole city of Jerusalem from Palestinian areas to the north and south.

About 70 miles of the 300-mile fence have been constructed.

“The security fence will continue to be built with every effort to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population,” Mr. Sharon said, adding that Israel has been “forced to construct in order to defend our citizens against terror activities.”

The barrier — which Israelis call “the fence” and Palestinians call “the wall” — is intended to stop suicide bombing and other terrorism, but is becoming a sore point in negotiations over the U.S.-backed peace plan, known as the “road map,” which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Mr. Abbas has called repeatedly for a freeze on construction, but Mr. Sharon has vowed to complete the barrier as a means of extending the phase of relative peace.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Mr. Sharon, as quoted by a senior Israeli official, told Mr. Bush.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, whom the Bush administration has snubbed in favor of Mr. Abbas, says the barrier is a new “Berlin Wall” that will divide Palestinian areas into ghettos.

Seeking to mute the barrier’s importance, Mr. Bush said, “I would hope in the long term a fence would be irrelevant.”

The president said defeating terrorist regimes is paramount for ending violence in the Middle East, and that Palestinian efforts have been insufficient in repressing groups that call for the destruction of Israel.

“The Palestinian Authority must undertake sustained, targeted and effective operations to confront those engaged in terror and to dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure,” Mr. Bush said. “The most effective way to fight terror is to dismantle terrorist organizations.

“I fully understand that the most effective campaign to enhance the security of Israel, as well as the security of peace-loving people in the Palestinian territories, is to get after organizations such as Hamas, the terrorist organizations that create the conditions where peace won’t exist,” he said.

Mr. Sharon was equally critical of Palestinian efforts to root out terrorists.

“We are concerned that this welcome quiet will be shattered any minute as a result of the continued existence of terror organizations which the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to eliminate or dismantle,” said Mr. Sharon, speaking in English.

A senior Israeli official said yesterday that Israel has shared intelligence with the Abbas government about militant efforts to regroup during the cease-fire, but the Palestinians have done nothing about it.

“Not only Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but [others] are using this quiet time to regroup, to arm themselves by smuggling weapons, to build new kinds of rockets to reach cities in the south, and already there are rocket experiments in Gaza, and this is because nothing is being done to dismantle the groups,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He said Israel has not stopped the efforts because it is “giving the process a chance instead of storming in there. Since we’re on a talking basis, we want to let them know and let them take care of it.”

But, he warned, “If the terror continues and restarts, Israel will be forced to act.”

At the White House, Mr. Sharon said as Mr. Bush nodded: “Mr. President, I am confident that you, as the leader of the free world in its war against terror, will act to ensure that the Palestinians put a complete stop to the threat of Palestinian terrorism, so that it will never rear its head again.”

During a trilateral meeting last month in Aqaba, Jordan, Mr. Sharon, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Bush agreed that the best course to peace was an end to Palestinian terrorism and to Israel’s retaliatory military strikes.

Although he was critical of the lack of Palestinian progress, Mr. Bush praised Mr. Abbas for making a start.

“We’re determined to help Prime Minister Abbas as he works to end terror and establish the rule of law that will protect Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the president said.

Mr. Sharon said Israel was moving “to accommodate the Palestinians” by agreeing to transfer two West Bank cities to Palestinian control, shutting down roadblocks in the West Bank and releasing 540 Palestinian prisoners.

“If calm prevails and we witness the dismantlement of terror organizations, Israel will be able to take additional steps,” he said.

Mr. Abbas, during his White House meeting, demanded that Israel release most of the 7,000 Palestinian inmates in Israeli jails, but Mr. Bush was firm in his resistance.

“I said very clearly at the press conference with Prime Minister Abbas, I don’t expect anybody to release somebody from prison who’ll go kill somebody,” Mr. Bush said.

“That doesn’t make any sense. I mean, if we’re trying to fight off terror and we’re interested in a peaceful settlement, it doesn’t make any sense to release somebody who’s going to get out of prison and start killing,” he said.

The road map requires Israel to halt activity at nearly 150 older Jewish settlements and to remove small, “unauthorized” outposts built since March 2001.

“Unauthorized outposts will be removed as required in a law-abiding country,” Mr. Sharon said.

The senior Israeli official said the process is being delayed by Israeli settlers using their nation’s independent judiciary to obstruct the government’s attempts to end the outposts.

Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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