The security fence took up a major portion of the discussions Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas held in Washington over the weekend, and will presumably do so when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with President Bush and his senior advisers in Washington tomorrow. It was evident from the public statements made by Bush on Friday that he was impressed by the vigorous Palestinian criticism of the proposed fence's route, which is threatening to swallow up relatively broad swaths of the West Bank, annexing some villages and cutting others off from their lands. Bush spoke with demonstrative reservations about "the wall snaking through the West Bank" and called it a problem that Sharon has to solve.
Those difficulties are particularly evident in the Ariel area, where the fence's route winds along 90 kilometers to surround the Jewish town built in the heart of Samaria and the smaller settlements in the area. The invasive route of the fence in its currently planned format, the Palestinian suspicions raised by the route, the discussions in Washington and the administration's reservations, are all turning the fence into a political matter despite Israel's officially stated position that the fence has no political significance and its purpose is purely for security. That is regrettable.
The fence was originally conceived to provide a security solution to the intolerable ease with which terrorists could cross the seam area on their way to committing acts of terror inside Israel. The experience of the Gaza Strip and the northern border were evidence of how a fence, when combined with other, more dynamic measures, can significantly improve security.
According to Ehud Barak, who as prime minister led the military campaign against the intifada in its early months, some 500 of more than 800 Israeli lives lost in the intifada could have been saved if the fence had gone up along the entire seam line.
The Sharon government was tardy in its decision to build the fence, and even after it made the decision in principle to build the fence, the work proceeded lazily, largely because of pressure applied by the settlers and their political allies, who were against the fence, fearing it would cut the settlements off from the state.
The northern section of the fence has been finished, and experts say its positive influence can already be felt on the ground. The winding route planned for the central stretch of fence, from Qalqiliya south, was proposed to appease the settlers. But two dangers have now been created. If the prime minister insists on the proposed route, he risks a confrontation with the administration. Presumably, he will be wise enough to avoid that, deterred by a frontal clash with Washington. But if he does so by putting a halt to the construction of the fence, he will also lose, since the need for a logic behind the fence has not declined in the era of the hudna.
Therefore, the only conclusion is that Sharon must persuade his hosts in Washington of the security need for the fence, along a route that does not swallow up Palestinian territory.