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He Said, She Said: White House Gets an Earful About Israeli Security Fence

In Washington this week to discuss the security fence Israel is building, Israeli and Palestinian lawyers spoke forcefully about money, property, final settlements and each side’s sense that the opposing side is just not interested in its needs.

Bush administration officials could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into divorce court.

Israel is eager to keep separate any disagreements it may have with the United States about the fence from the $9 billion in loan guarantees the United States has promised.

Palestinians argue that the fence is not a security guarantor but a land grab — an argument that, if accepted, could lead the United States to deduct some $1.2 billion from the loan guarantees.

“We want to reach understandings with the Americans. We don’t want the fence to be a problem,” said an Israeli official involved in representations made Monday by Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, and Amos Yaron, director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry.

Israel says the fence is purely a security measure that will keep out terrorists who have killed hundreds of Israelis since the Palestinian intifada was launched in September 2000.

The Israeli official said Monday’s meetings were a success because U.S. officials — including the White House’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice — never raised the loan guarantee issue, though they still have problems with the fence.

Rice seemed pleased with what she heard.

“We have been talking to the Israelis, it’s been in a friendly spirit, and we had good meetings today,” she told reporters after meeting with Weisglass and Yaron. “The Israelis have some things that they want to go back and look at, and I think we’ll probably get together again.”

Israelis are worried because an earlier Palestinian presentation in Washington — which depicted the fence as slicing any future Palestinian state into untenable cantons — had a profound impact in the U.S. capital.

When Rice saw the slick PowerPoint presentation in July, she was moved to make it the central theme of her talk the following day with Sharon.

Shown similar maps by former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush tossed them across the room in anger, according to Palestinians present at the meeting, and swore that Israel would not be allowed to build the fence as depicted by the Palestinians.

The new presentation, which the Palestinians half-jokingly call “The Fence, Part II” focuses on alleged building around Jerusalem. Its advocates hope the presentation has a similar effect.

“It’s a land grab,” said Anwar al Darkazally, a young Briton who is one of two PLO lawyers making their presentation this week to State Department officials, including John Wolf, the top U.S. envoy to the region. “The Israeli mantra is ‘Leave the people, take the land.’ “

Al Darkazally’s map — based on a review of Israeli land confiscation orders, interviews with Palestinian farmers and field trips to what appear to be construction sites — describes a West Bank sliced into northern and southern sections and shows the fence creeping through the Jordan Valley.

A Jordan Valley fence, which Israel says may be needed to protect settlements there and prevent terrorists and arms from infiltrating from the east, would keep a large chunk of the West Bank in Israeli hands and cut the Palestinians off from Jordan.

Al Darkazally also argues that the fence will run up against Palestinian homes, cutting farmers off from their land and laying the groundwork for future expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians have made that case to U.S. diplomats in Jerusalem, showing them where they believe the fence will run.

Israelis say the Palestinian presentation is based more on speculation than evidence and that the fence’s primary function is security. In addition, they note, the fence can always be moved later, whatever the cost.

“The problematic areas the Americans are worried about are within the framework of discussion,” the Israeli official said. “We want minimum impact” on Palestinian lives.

The Israeli arguments appear to have had an effect. Bush administration officials still clearly are unhappy about the fence, but also expressed understanding for Israel’s security concerns.

“This wall does not really — 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,” Rice said. “We understand that they have some security concerns and that it is extremely important, if it is going to be built, that it not intrude — that as much as possible, that it not intrude on the lives of the Palestinians, and most importantly, that it not look as if it’s trying to prejudge the outcome of a peace agreement.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell described the fence as a “real problem,” but said Israel is listening to American concerns.

He suggested on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” program that Israel might slow down its building of the fence “when it can be demonstrated that the Palestinian side is doing something about the bombings, the terror.”

The Palestinians say they hope to gain ground by connecting emotionally with officials.

“Emotionally, Bush got it” in July, said Amjad Atallah, the other PLO negotiator. “That might have led us to decrease pressure. That was a mistake.”

The presentation kicks off with a quote from Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Patriarch and the top Christian official in the region: “This wall is a new evil in this Holy Land.”

It describes the potential suffering of Palestinians who may be cut off from hospitals in eastern Jerusalem, including the only dialysis machine in an Arab-run hospital.

Pro-Israel groups have anticipated such appeals, and claim that the fence addresses Palestinian humanitarian concerns.

“The security fence is a less punitive and non-lethal way for Israel to protect its citizens while significantly lessening the hardships on Palestinian civilians by reducing the number of Israeli soldiers within Palestinian areas and minimizing curfews and other security measures,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee says in a leaflet.

As much as building the fence represents a low in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, its existence could bring the calm needed to get the sides back to the negotiating table, according to David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Depending on how it goes, if it truly is a buffer, it could save lives and stabilize the situation,” Makovsky said.

Another analyst said any unilateral action is bound to make things worse.

“I don’t think it’s intended to be a land grab, just like the security settlements were not intended to be a land grab,” said Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to outposts set up decades ago in the Jordan Valley as an early warning system. “But in the end this dispute is about land, and everything turns out to be a land grab.”

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