With Simple Decision on Fence, Sharon Takes Boldest Step of Career
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With Simple Decision on Fence, Sharon Takes Boldest Step of Career

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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision in early October to complete the security fence between Israel and the West Bank may have seemed like a formality. But it may well turn out to be the most important decision of his 30-year political career.

At any rate, Saturday’s deadly suicide bombing in Haifa — which left 19 Israelis dead — showed why Sharon could not have continued procrastinating.

For months, Sharon had avoided making a final decision on the fence. He didn’t want a showdown with the Americans over the route, and he was concerned about the fence’s political implications.

Though he continues to insist that the fence is just a security barrier against Palestinian terrorists, Sharon knows that the monumental construction could have major implications for future political arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians: It could dictate future borders or, at the very least, serve as a starting point for negotiations on their demarcation.

In addition, some analysts believe, the fence could trigger an inexorable process leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the other side, consistent with the vision of the Oslo peace process — even though Sharon does not agree with Oslo’s parameters.

Sharon had been caught on the horns of a dilemma: If he routed the fence along the pre-1967 border, known as the “Green Line,” he risked paving the way for a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That would antagonize the settler movement, cause considerable unrest in Sharon’s own Likud Party and return Israel’s densely populated coastal plain to dimensions so narrow that former Foreign Minister Abba Eban once labeled them “Auschwitz borders.”

On the other hand, if the fence cut deeply into the West Bank to encircle cities such as Ariel, Sharon risked confrontation with the Bush administration and deductions from $9 billion in promised U.S. loan guarantees.

Until his decision in early October, Sharon had been playing for time — but Saturday’s suicide bombing confirmed that that was no longer an option. With no end in sight to Palestinian terrorism, public pressure on Sharon to complete the fence has become overwhelming.

Former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, a former mayor of Haifa, put his finger on the public pulse.

“Sharon is not to blame for the terror,” he declared at the scene of the carnage. “But he is responsible for providing security for Israel’s citizens.”

Sharon’s creative solution was to route the fence around the large settlements but, for the time being, not to join up the parts deep in Palestinian territory with the main fence running more or less along the Green Line. The plan is to erect horseshoe-shaped fences around the settlements and then — unless the Palestinians have had a radical change of heart and abandoned terrorism — link them to the main fence in six months to a year.

Clearly, Sharon hopes the decision to include large Jewish settlements inside the fence will silence the right wing. In addition, the fact that the horseshoe perimeter fences will not immediately be connected to the main fence will buy him some time from the Bush administration.

According to some analysts, Sharon is banking on the American position on the fence route softening over time, the way it did on the Israel Defense Forces’ reoccupation of Palestinian cities after waves of suicide bombings.

“Once, they adamantly opposed the IDF’s incursion into” Palestinian-controlled territories, “and now they accept the reoccupation as a fact of life,” Aluf Benn wrote of the Americans in the Ha’aretz newspaper. “In another six to eight months, when the fence issue will again come up for debate, President Bush will be fighting for his political life in the election campaign and it is doubtful he’ll take the time to pressure Israel.”

Sharon’s longer-term strategy is to use the fence to contain Palestinian terrorism until a Palestinian leadership emerges that is sincerely interested in a peace deal. He also is confident that, when the chips are down, the Americans will back him.

Domestically, the most vehement criticism of the fence route comes from the Israeli left.

Labor legislator Matan Vilnai says that building a fence with gaps left by the unconnected horseshoes is absurd and will leave central Israel vulnerable to terrorism.

Moreover, opposition members charge, the added length of the fence means that more soldiers will be needed to defend it, it will take longer to build and it will cost about four times as much.

There also is the question of Israel’s image. Chemi Shalev of the Ma’ariv newspaper says the longer route will prove to be a huge public relations gaffe, creating an image of Israel “as annexationist, unilateralist, imprisoning thousands of Palestinians behind walls of concrete.”

Worse, Shalev says, the route isolates an estimated 75,000 Palestinians in enclaves on the Israeli side of the fence, and clouds future peace talks with the Palestinians.

“This route is good — on condition that the only negotiations we hold are with ourselves,” Shalev wrote.

It’s ironic, then, that by building the fence — even along the longer route — Sharon’s right-wing government is carrying out the policies of Israel’s left-wing: dividing the Land of Israel along the lines of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s proposals for territorial compromise with the Palestinians, later endorsed in the “Clinton parameters” of December 2000.

Those proposals recommended that Israel annex land belonging to about 80 percent of settlers — in effect, drawing the border to encompass them — and removing Israeli settlements on the other side.

Some analysts go further, predicting that the fence inevitably will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

They paint the following scenario: The fence succeeds as a security barrier, making attacks inside Israel difficult to carry out. The Palestinians turn against the settlers outside the fence, and the Israeli soldiers defending them. Pressure mounts in Israel for the soldiers to be withdrawn and the settlements evacuated, as it did in the last years of Israel’s occupation of its southern Lebanon security zone.

The international community pressures Israel to withdraw, asking what the army is doing in the West Bank now that terrorist attacks on Israel proper have ceased.

Under enormous domestic and international pressure, the IDF redeploys behind the fence, the government dismantles all the settlements on the other side and the Palestinians establish an independent state. The two sides then enter negotiations over residual Palestinian demands.

In other words, according to this scenario, Sharon’s fence could bring the parties back to the parameters of the Oslo process — even though Sharon rejects that deal as a historical blunder.

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