The Bush administration is frustrated with what it sees as increasingly bold Israeli actions to assert sovereignty in the West Bank, administration and Jewish officials say — but it will not take action until the Palestinians rein in terrorism.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed last week that Israel is considering building a security fence in the Jordan Valley, though he emphasized that the plan has not yet been approved.
Administration officials clearly were irked by the announcement. President Bush has been moved by Palestinian presentations that suggest a Jordan Valley fence will be the basis for a permanent border that would cut off a future Palestinian state from Jordan and leave it wholly surrounded by Israel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Jordan Valley plan made the problem worse, not better.
“As the fence goes deeply into Palestinian areas and starts to put more and more Palestinians outside of their normal traffic patterns and being able to get to their fields and farms and workplaces, and as it seems to prejudge what a future Palestinian state might look like, then that’s troublesome to us,” Powell told CNN on Sunday.
Over the weekend, two senior Washington Post columnists also weighed in, with Jim Hoagland advising Bush to tell Sharon, “Enough.”
U.S. officials have suggested that one way of dealing with their dissatisfaction with the fence would be to transfer administration of the “road map” peace plan to the U.N. Security Council, something Israel vehemently opposes because of what it considers the United Nation’s pro-Palestinian bias.
The United States currently takes the lead on the road map, but a Russian initiative announced this week — to have the Security Council formally sanction the plan — could open the door to a leading U.N. role.
Israeli officials are closely watching the Russian effort but say they’re not overly worried that the United States will cede control to a body Bush profoundly distrusts.
In any case, Israel says the fence is not necessarily permanent and accuses the Palestinians of overreacting to it.
“We tore down more cement in Sinai than will ever go up with this fence,” said Mark Regev, the Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington, referring to Israel’s 1982 withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula as part of its peace agreement with Egypt.
Such assurances have done little to assuage Bush administration officials, who know that Sharon — like most Israeli leaders — long has regarded the Jordan Valley as a vital strategic asset.
President Bush was especially blunt when asked about the barrier Tuesday at one of his rare news conferences, the 10th of his administration.
“I have said the fence is a problem to the extent that the fence is an opportunity to make it difficult for a Palestinian state to emerge,” he said. “There is a difference between security and land acquisition. And we have made our views clear on that issue.”
U.S.-Israel tensions have been exacerbated by major appropriations for the settlements this week in the Knesset — as well as reports of plans to build new apartments in some Jewish West Bank cities and to hook eight illegal settlement outposts to Israel’s national electric grid.
“Israel needs to live up to the commitments it made to President Bush as referred to in the road map,” a Bush administration official said. “That means an end to all settlement activity, including natural growth.”
Bush mentioned the settlements as well.
“The reason that we have expressed concern about settlement activities is because we want the conditions for a Palestinian state on the ground to be positive,” Bush said.
The president made clear, however, that combating terrorism was the prerequisite for progress on the road map.
“In order to achieve a two-state solution, there needs to be a focused effort by all concerned parties to fight off terror,” Bush said. The Palestinian “Old Guard” lacks that commitment, he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s successful efforts to marginalize more moderate leaders.
Bush’s emphasis on ending terrorism is key to understanding why, despite his frustrations with Sharon’s recent policy, the administration won’t press Israel hard, according to Jewish officials who have discussed the issue with the administration.
Bush may oppose building the fence beyond the “Green Line,” Israel’s pre-1967 border with the West Bank, but he understands that the need to stop terrorists from entering Israel is driving Israeli public support for the fence.
“It’s hard for the United States to argue the issue of the fence as long as the Palestinians are not dealing with terrorism,” said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who met with administration officials this week.
Edward Abington, once the top U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem and now a senior adviser to the Palestinian Authority, agreed.
“The suicide bombers certainly give a rationale for building the fence and lessen the willingness of Bush” to speak out against it, Abington said. Abington said he believes Sharon wants the barrier to mark a permanent border for a Palestinian state, which Abington says is potentially catastrophic for Israel.
“In 10 years you’re going to have a hotbed of radicalism” if the border makes it difficult for the Palestinians to have an economically viable state, he said.
Israel has destroyed much of the P.A.’s terror-fighting capability in the three years of the intifada, but the Palestinian Authority has undermined its own case by not making a credible effort to stop the terrorists, Abington said.
“What the administration has requested the Palestinian Authority to do is to start building up a capacity to stop the suicide bombers,” he said. “When you don’t even make the effort, it’s hard to come and argue against the fence.”
Israeli officials insist they will proceed slowly with the fence, consulting with the United States every step of the way.
Some think a leisurely pace may help Israel extract concessions from a U.S. administration eager to get the fence issue out of the way, but peace advocates believe it could eventually backfire on the Sharon government.
Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said the fence might already have been finished had Sharon hewed to the Green Line. Further delays might increase popular pressure on Israel’s government to back off plans to run the barrier into the West Bank, in favor of building it quickly along the Green Line.
“It puts his government in a dangerous position vis-a-vis its own security interests,” Roth said. “When you have a project that could have been completed years ago cheaper and more efficiently, it’s a clear dereliction of duty.”
Embassy spokesman Regev responded that there is “broad national consensus” in Israel for the fence as currently plotted.