Israel has asked the U.S. to provide official endorsement of the separation fence route, as part of the "benefits basket" which is to be provided in exchange for the implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's separation plan. This request was submitted as part of an attempt to satisfy conditions upon which Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has predicated his support for the separation plan.
American support for the fence would not be included in a letter of guarantees submitted to Israel in exchange for the execution of the separation plan; instead, the fence endorsement would be exhibited in a different way. Details of this endorsement arrangement are to be worked out in talks with the three U.S. envoys - William Burns, Elliot Abrams and Steve Hadley - who will arrive in Israel tomorrow. The three will also finalize details for Sharon's meeting in the U.S. with President George W. Bush on April 14.
After accepting an Israeli compromise proposal concerning the construction of the separation fence, the U.S. government is no longer lobbying for changes in the barrier's planned route. Apart from the endorsement discussion, the fence issue has effectively been removed from the agenda in diplomatic contacts between Jerusalem and Washington. The resolution of the controversy became apparent during discussions last week between senior Israeli officials and the three American envoys.
The compromise proposal was submitted by Defense Ministry Director-General Amos Yaron in discussions with Burns, Hadley and Abrams.
Under the compromise proposal, the fence route which was approved by the Sharon government on October 1 2003 would not be altered. But it would be defined as a "vision" whose construction is to be done in stages. Problematic areas of the fence which stirred U.S. criticism will either not be built at present, or will be constructed in a manner that minimizes inconvenience to Palestinians who live in nearby villages. The principle which has guided Yaron in mapping out the fence's route has been to provide security for Israeli citizens who live within the Green Line, and on settlements in the territories, while not precluding future diplomatic options. Israeli sources predict that under a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, the Ariel bloc settlements would be annexed to Israel, and so these blocs will then be linked to the separation fence. As things stand today, however, construction of the fence around the settlement blocs is not an option due to stiff international pressure, the sources say.
A local fence, not connected at this stage to the long separation fence, is to be built around the West Bank town of Ariel and the Immanuel settlement. At Kedumim, settlers object to the construction of a fence; and no fence is to be built for the time being at Karnei Shomron.
U.S. officials oppose the creation of fenced-off "enclaves" in the Ben-Gurion International Airport area (around the Beit Aryeh settlement), and along Route 443 (the Jerusalem-Modi'in road). According to the plan approved on October 1, the fence is to wind around two sides in these areas, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians penned inside. Israel has been sharply criticized for this plan to create a large "holding pen" for these Palestinian residents.
Responding to this criticism, Defense Ministry officials decided to build a major fence along the western-southern side of the areas, along the Green Line, and a less imposing fence on the eastern-northern side of the enclaves. As the construction work proceeds, a fence will run along the north-east sides, but it will not be continuous, and will thus not "imprison" the Palestinians.
Another change will involve the stretch of the fence running between Jerusalem and the southern Hebron Hills. The fence is to be moved closer to the Green Line in this area, so as to minimize burdens caused to Palestinians.
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