On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that Israel’s separation barrier — known as the wall or fence — will detour 15 miles into the heart of the occupied West Bank to annex the Ariel settlement bloc, taking out a large swath of Palestinian land as it goes. After America’s tough words last week threatening to cut a portion of America’s $9 billion loan guarantees to Israel should the barrier encompass Ariel, the administration’s decision to make no immediate reductions marks a curious shift in the White House position.
Last week the Sharon administration sent some of its top negotiators to Washington to meet with national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. In a meeting with Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s chief of staff, Rice explained that the separation barrier was “inconsistent” with her administration’s vision of the future Middle East.
While the White House threat seemed to alarm PM Sharon, he now seems content to wait and see. On Tuesday Sharon announced that he’ll deal with any American complaints later: ” The separation fence will be built east of Ariel and east of Kedumim [settlements] If we reach a point where the matter once again creates a dispute, we will sit with the Americans again.”
With the U.S. fiscal year ending at midnight Tuesday, the State Department was required to tell Congress whether it intended to cut any of its loan guarantees to Israel. Richard Boucher, the department’s spokesmen, told reporters that some sort of reductions are likely in the next two fiscal years, but not now.
Since construction on the barrier began in June 2002, the Sharon administration has insisted that its location — which often meanders from the 1967 armistice line to scoop up illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank — does not constitute a political border. The barrier — which Israelis call the “security fence” and Palestinians call the “Apartheid wall” — is seen a de facto political border by many Israelis, Palestinians and even the American government. Many Palestinians see the wall as a “land grab” tactic for Israel to control more Palestinian territory as collateral in future peace negotiations.
Israel’s loan guarantees were promised to help Israel bear economic hardships partially caused by the U.S. war in Iraq. The guarantees are in addition to the $3 billion direct military and economic aid Israel is allotted this year. (U.S. law prohibits the use of the guaranteed funds in the West Bank and Gaza.) Bottom line: the threat of withholding loan guarantees is a strong point of leverage over Israel for the U.S. Israel would feel the pain.
What caused the Bush administration to back off its threat?
Last week’s White House criticism of the barrier, not to mention of Israel’s continued settlement construction, which violates the U.S.-brokered roadmap, wasn’t unprecedented. It’s written into the relevant law that the administration can subtract an amount equal to what Israel spends constructing in the occupied territories. The first Bush administration cut $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in 1992 due to settlement construction. A congressional aid told Reuters that $200 million to $250 million could be deducted for settlement-related activities.
Some in Israel are worried that Sharon’s decision to annex more West Bank land might hurt the state’s close relationship with the U.S. Others see the relationship is too important, to both sides, to jeopardize over this. Abraham Ben-Zvi, the head of the security studies program at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, writes in the Jerusalem Post that the history of Israel’s relationship with the U.S. marginalizes seemingly small disagreements like the location of the separation barrier. (Palestinians, of course, don’t think it’s a small matter.)
“In view of this durable vision of Israel as a reliable bulwark in the omnivorous struggle against the regional forces of militancy, radicalism and recalcitrance (which has remained largely intact in the course of the last four decades), occasional misunderstandings and sources of friction between the two allies have been almost invariably subordinated to, and outweighed by, these broader concerns, priorities and perceptions of the regional landscape.
More specifically, the parties will continuously attempt to jointly manage and defuse sources of friction and dispute long before they threaten to escalate and overshadow the congruent and cooperative infrastructure of the American-Israeli framework. Even in the absence of an early and complete agreement on such issues as the demarcation line of the security fence, they will resort to such tactics as procrastination, obfuscation, segmentation and incrementalism in the hope that the matter in dispute will eventually subside into the background without damaging even the margins of the relationship.”
Regardless of whether the Bush administration approves or disapproves of the barrier, some Israelis think Sharon needs to think of Israeli security first. In his Ha’aretz Op-Ed, Moshe Arens writes that Israel should not give in.
“It may very well be that the fence’s location will affect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, when and if they take place. But the protection of Israel’s citizens at this time must take priority over such considerations. Even Condoleezza Rice will understand that. Leaving the residents of Israel unprotected is not an option that Israe’s [sic] friends should urge on the Israeli government.
But even if the location of the fence remains a source of disagreement between Israel and the U.S., this is an issue on which Israel should not give in. If we disagree on a matter that is of vital importance to the U.S., it is Israel that should defer to American wishes. But if it is a matter of vital interest to Israel, it is the U.S. that should defer to Israel’s position. With few exceptions, that has been the tradition of U.S.-Israeli relations in past years, and that is how it should continue.”
Yet, some Israelis, even some who think the barrier is justified on security grounds, say Sharon has gone too far. Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of Bitterlemons, a joint Palestinian-Israeli online publication, argues that Sharon has used the security argument to control more of the West Bank. In an August edition of Bitterlemons Alpher, who was one of the original advocates for a barrier on the actual 1967 border, critiques Sharon’s motives.
“Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially opposed the fence, essentially because he feared the repercussions for the settlements, which ensure long term Israeli control over the West Bank. For obvious reasons, so did the settlers themselves. Eventually Sharon bowed to extensive public pressure, some of which we engineered, and undertook reluctantly to build the fence more or less along the green line.
When pressure was applied by settlers to include more and more of their homes within the fence, Sharon saw an opening to ‘hijack’ the fence for his own purposes. This began with rather extensive deviations — and consequent hardships imposed on Palestinian towns and villages — to accommodate more distant settlements. Thus, in order to include Alfei Menashe inside the fence, the town of Qalqilya had to be fenced in on almost all sides and rendered a virtual enclave.”
Clearly Sharon is going to think of Israel first, but at what price? Was the Bush administration seriously considering cutting funds to Israel? Or were just throwing a bone to the fuming Arab world? Either way, White House inaction will allow Sharon to have his way constructing the settlements and the separation barrier in the West Bank.