Israel Says Fence Building Will Go On
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Tuesday to continue building a fence between Jewish and Palestinian communities in the West Bank, just four days after President Bush described the security barrier as a problem that jeopardizes progress toward Middle East peace.
Standing at the president’s side in the White House Rose Garden, Sharon appeared to defy Bush’s appeals on the subject, although he pledged that Israel would take steps to reduce the impact on Palestinians.
“The security fence will continue to be built with every effort to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population,” Sharon said.
The Oval Office meeting follows Bush’s talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. The two meetings were meant to maintain momentum in a fragile peace effort threatened in recent weeks by lingering violence and accusations of bad faith on both sides. Bush in effect finds himself playing referee between two leaders, each of whom says he can make no further concessions without gestures from the other.
Complicating Bush’s task is the emergence of Israel’s “separation fence” as a major point of contention. Building began a year ago, but it is only in recent weeks that Palestinians have demanded that the fence’s construction be halted, as the extent to which it would penetrate Palestinian territory became clear.
Israelis say construction of the barrier, built deep inside the West Bank in some areas, is a security measure designed to keep out suicide bombers and other attackers. Palestinians have dubbed it the “Berlin Wall.” They say that erecting it amounts to a land grab by Israel, keeping Jewish settlements on the Israeli-controlled side, while cutting off many Palestinian villages from their traditional farmland and from one another.
Abbas showed Bush a map Friday and argued that construction of the fence would make it difficult for the Palestinians to have a geographically viable state. Bush pledged to press Sharon on the issue.
But Tuesday, Bush appeared less confrontational, at least in public. He did not mention the issue in his opening statement, and he responded to a question about it from an Israeli reporter by echoing the Israeli position -- that Israeli security is the paramount concern. Once Israel is secure, he said, such a barrier should become “irrelevant.”
“The most effective campaign to enhance the security of Israel, as well as the security of peace-loving people in the Palestinian territories, is to get after organizations such as Hamas, the terrorist organizations that create the conditions where peace won’t exist. And therefore, I would hope, in the long-term a fence would be irrelevant,” Bush said.
But there were indications that Bush had been more forceful with Sharon in private.
“The U.S. did not see eye to eye with Israel, neither on the fence, neither on the settlements,” a senior Israeli official acknowledged afterward.
The U.S.-backed “road map” to peace has called for a freeze on the settlements, but Israel and the United States define “freeze” differently -- Israel says “natural growth” is permitted, but the U.S. does not.
In his most pointed remark, Bush warned Sharon publicly to “carefully consider all the consequences of Israel’s actions as we move forward on the road to peace.”
Sharon said he and Bush did not discuss the route the fence would take through Palestinian territory, and the senior Israeli official declined to say whether Bush had pressed for a halt in construction.
However, the official said that not all sections had been mapped, and hinted that if all goes well with the peace process, some sections might not be built -- a suggestion that echoed Bush’s statement.
So far, Israel has completed about 50 miles, or about half the planned length. The senior Israeli official said construction was expected to continue for at least another year.
The official said Israel was open to modifications, such as increasing the numbers of gates through which Palestinians could reach the Israeli-controlled side.
“Israel is doing [this] out of security reasons,” he said. “Construction of the fence will continue.”
Palestinian officials expressed dismay at the outcome of the White House meeting, saying there was little sign of movement in Sharon’s views.
“We expected Sharon to say something more positive, but he was a disappointment to us, and what he said undermined our moderate views,” said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan bristled at the suggestion that Bush had “backed down” from his earlier criticism.
“I don’t think he did at all. He continues to express his concerns about [the fence]. In fact, he said that one day, when we can end terrorism and dismantle terrorist organizations, there won’t even be a need for a security fence,” McClellan said.
Sharon said Israel was “thankful for every hour of increased quiet and less terrorism and for every drop of blood that is spared” during the cease-fire by Palestinian militant groups. But he accused the Palestinian Authority leadership of “doing nothing to eliminate or dismantle” organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“I wish to move forward with a political process with our Palestinian neighbors,” Sharon said. “And the right way to do that is only after a complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement, full dismantlement of terror organizations, and completion of the reform process in the Palestinian Authority.”
Afterward, the senior Israeli official acknowledged that it was an overstatement to say the Palestinians were “doing nothing” to stop terrorism, but he noted that they aren’t doing enough.
“We are not saying they are doing nothing about day-to-day incitement. But they are doing nothing to dismantle the infrastructure of terror.... When we see our counterpart do more to dismantle the infrastructure, it will make it easier for us to be generous about prisoner releases and other issues,” the official said.
The official said the Israeli government has intelligence suggesting that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are using the lull to smuggle money, stockpile weapons and build longer-range rockets that could strike southern Israel. He said that the Israeli government has shared the intelligence with Palestinian authorities, including the location of some rocket workshops, but that the Palestinians have not acted to shut them down.
Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.