Even as the Israeli cabinet decided Wednesday to approve construction of a security barrier in the heart of the West Bank, it opted to delay voting to connect the barrier to the main security fence for fear of jeopardizing American aid.
The 18-4 vote was widely expected because the compromise allows the government breathing room to work out American objections and yet sends a message to the settlers that they are not being abandoned. The fence is to be east of the large Jewish settlements of Ariel and Kedumim, but will not be continuous in early stages.
The action came at the start of the fourth year of Palestinian violence that has killed 867 Israelis and injured another 5,878 in a total of 18,876 terror attacks.
In the latest attack, at the start of Rosh HaShanah last week, a Palestinian gunman who was released recently from an Israeli jail broke into a West Bank home and fatally shot a 27-year-old man and a 7-month-old girl. The gunman was shot and killed.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said three months remain until the next deadline for the U.S. to make deductions from the $9 billion in American loan guarantees.
“The threat to deduct the cost of the fence from future aid still hangs over us,” he said.
Steinberg said that despite the cabinet vote, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is still “trying to figure out alternative routes and impacts.”
“It is hard for the [Bush] administration to say no to an Israeli defense measure, but it is also a question of whether this constitutes some sort of creeping annexation,” Steinberg observed. “Some see it as a security fence. Others say no, it is a political barrier.”
The cabinet delayed deciding on the final route of the fence just one day after the State Department announced it had put on hold indefinitely a decision on deducting money from the loan guarantees for both the fence and settlement construction.
Pro-Israel activists in Washington viewed the non-decision as a mixed blessing. No one was eager to see news stories about Israel being assessed for settlements, but by delaying the decision the State Department could continue to use the threat of substantial cuts as leverage in trying to alter the route of the fence.
Politics may be a factor as well. With the administration seeking big-ticket contributions from pro-Israel givers, now may not be the most opportune time for slapping Israel with a big fine.
“This has politics written all over it,” said a longtime pro-Israel activist.
A leading Jewish peace group was not pleased with the decision.
“We are disappointed the administration has not met its legal obligation to report to Congress about how much money it will deduct from the loan guarantee package because of settlement spending, “ said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “We hope the administration will use the extra time to give consideration to the report putting the figure at $556 million annually.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the decision not to make immediate deductions was not unexpected.
“The administration has been negotiating with the Israelis, but they wanted to get the money flowing because of the [poor] economic situation in Israel,” he said.
Stephen Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said Palestinian officials are deeply troubled by the fence.
“It is cutting up their lives,” Cohen said, alluding to portions of the fence already erected in the north that divide Palestinian communities and keep Palestinians from their farms.
“It simply convinces them that Israel has no intention of allowing the Palestinians to have a contiguous, coherent state,” he said.
The decision to build the security barrier deep into the West Bank will make things harder for Ahmed Qureia, the incoming Palestinian prime minister who is also known as Abu Ala, Cohen observed.
“It forces Abu Ala’s hand,” he said. “Israel is producing changes on the ground detrimental to Palestinian interests.”
Although Israeli officials were saying last month that they would take a wait-and-see attitude toward Qureia to see whether he cracks down on terrorists, Cohen said the decision about the fence shows Israel is not waiting.
“He is now being faced with a major deterioration of the Palestinian situation on the ground,” said Cohen, who met with Qureia last month. “He has a lot of doubts whether he should take this job, and no doubt this will accentuate those doubts. But I think he most likely will take the job.”
Qureia announced Wednesday that he has formed his cabinet and will present it to the Palestinian Legislative Council on Sunday or Monday. Reports at the beginning of the week said 15 of the 24 members were chosen by Fatah, the political organization founded by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. Later reports said Qureia had pared the cabinet to 12 members. The cabinet of Qureia’s predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, also was dominated by Fatah members.
Cohen said Qureia wants to avoid finding himself in a situation in which he is praised by the Bush administration while failing to deliver to his own people and thus loses their support, which is what happened to Abbas.
“He is not going to allow himself to get into a cozy relationship with the U.S.,” he said of Qureia.
In another development, the Israeli cabinet debated using Egyptian and Jordanian ports to counter a strike by seaport workers that has halted shipping and threatens to cripple the already weak Israeli economy.
“This is a strike that will determine whether Israel will remain a state of the workers like in the 1960s and ’70s, or whether it will march into the modern world by privatizing, having an open economy, making things efficient and allowing competition,” said Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
About 2,500 workers at three seaports — Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat — walked off the job at 6 a.m. Tuesday to protest planned cutbacks and what they said is a government attempt to crush organized labor.
As imports and exports by ship came to a halt, the government considered using Port Said in Egypt and Aqaba in Jordan. With money saved by not paying the striking workers, the finance ministry would then compensate importers and exporters for the extra cost incurred in trucking their merchandise to and from those ports.
The seaport workers strike came one day after 50,000 public sector workers in government ministries and offices staged a work slowdown to protest planned administrative changes in the public service sector. That action caused two-hour delays at Ben-Gurion Airport and led to a scuffle between an irate passenger and an airport employee.
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.