- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

As early as 1994, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke of the need to separate Israelis and Palestinians by erecting a physical barrier, not only to stop violent attacks against Israel but also to reduce the Palestinians’ economic dependence on Israel. But the idea of the fence was rejected by Shimon Peres, Mr. Rabin’s successor, who believed in economic integration rather than separation, especially in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the prospect of a two-state solution. The next prime minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, initially rejected the fence on ideological grounds, but later supported separation. Mr. Netanyahu wasfollowedbyEhud Barak, a proponent of the fence even before he became prime minister.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who initially opposed the fence, finally succumbed to public pressure. His change of mind was occasioned by the necessity of preventing violent attacks, particularly the suicide bombings that claimed the lives of nearly 900 Israelis since the eruption of the second intifadah in September 2000. The decision to go ahead with the fence has been solidified by the conviction that the Palestinians are unlikely to enforce any security arrangements, even if the Israelis offer maximum concessions, as they did to no avail during the failed Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000.

Gaza, in fact, has been surrounded by a fence since 1994. And there the fence has proven to be very effective, even if it has not hermetically sealed the border. The lesson drawn from the Gaza fence was that about 95 percent of suicide attacks can be averted because of a fence. That translates into a lot of saved lives. But the situation in the West Bank is different. In deciding whether to build a fence along it, Mr. Sharon had to find a way to deal with the Israeli settlements that would be left behind. And, obviously, he had to consider the fence’s effect on the peace process and also to take into account the U.S. position on it.

To deal with these issues, Mr. Sharon decided to incorporate as many settlements as possible into Israel proper, bearing in mind security, demographics and domestic politics. In the process, he created the initial outlines of a future political border, allowing for some minor modifications, should peace negotiations resume. What Mr. Sharon did was to extend the fence in various places into the West Bank beyond the 1967 lines.

Of course, had Mr. Sharon decided to build the fence along the 1967 lines, there would have been little resistance by the Palestinians or the international community. But because the fence would incorporate a little more than 15 percent of the West Bank into Israel, it is, and will continue to be, a source of friction and violence between the two sides, and thus an obstacle to peace.

Naturally, the Palestinians have legitimate reasons to fear that the fence is a means by which Mr. Sharon will annex more territory and precious water resources. And they may well equally fear that it will displace more Palestinians, causing tremendous economic, dislocation and daily hardships, as has already occurred in several places.

The only way the Palestinian Authority (PA) can make the fence obsolete, however, is if it stops the violence while continuing to press for an end to the occupation through political negotiation. The PA must realize that if Mr. Sharon had a choice he would not be supporting the fence because he never contemplated in earnest a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Security remains the critical factor, albeit not the only factor, behind the fence, a fact that has forced Mr. Sharon to rethink his earlier position.

The Palestinian leadership must stop kidding itself by denying that security is Mr. Sharon’s main motivation in this situation. They must not allow their instincts to suspect everything Mr. Sharon does is to betray their ultimate national interests. In the end, the Palestinian leadership must come to grips with the problem of violence and in so doing take away the reason for the fence’s existence.

The Bush administration is likely to support the fence as long as it does not interfere with the key goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The United States, however, must reject the building of a fence if it becomes something other than a security structure. Furthermore, the Bush administration must examine closely the demographic implications — whether the fence makes impossible the contiguous land mass necessary for a viable Palestinian state.

In the same vein, the United States must not allow Mr. Sharon to erect a fence east of the West Bank and thereby box the Palestinians into parcels of land and prevent the creation of a contiguous land mass. Mr. Sharon himself is very keen on coordinating his strategy with that of the United States. He views such cooperation as essential to the health of the critically important relationship between the two nations.

Although the building of the fence is a tragic admission of failure, something good may come out of it if the Palestinian leadership decides to press Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade to forsake violence for the sake of all Palestinians. Only such an approach, one built on a sustained commitment to end violence, will mobilize the Israelis to tear the fence down and so restore the shattered dream of a peaceful coexistence.

Alon Ben-Meir is the Middle East Project director at the World Policy Institute. He is also a professor of international relations at New York University.

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