The separation fence between Israel and the West Bank will be built east of the settlement of Ariel, and if this creates a problem with the Americans, the matter will be discussed with them when it arises, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Likud Knesset faction yesterday.

He said that the cabinet will formally approve the fence's route at its meeting today.

"The separation fence will be built east of Ariel and east of Kedumim," Sharon said, referring to two West Bank settlements. "If we reach a point where the matter once again creates a dispute, we will sit with the Americans again."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a long-standing supporter of including Ariel inside the fence, reiterated this position at the meeting. "Ariel, Kfar Sava and Ra'anana are one and the same," he said, comparing the settlement to two other bedroom communities of Tel Aviv located inside Israel. "Ariel and Kedumim must be inside the fence. This route [east of Ariel] brings 40,000 Israelis and 4,000 Palestinians" inside the fence.

He added that an agreement had been reached with the Americans whereby construction of a fence east of Ariel would begin in conjunction with work on other segments of the fence.

However, the fence east of Ariel will apparently not initially be connected to the main separation fence.

Mofaz said that his strong support for the fence stems, among other considerations, from the fact that no end to the conflict with the Palestinians appears in sight. "If I thought that the conflict would end in another year, I would say that we don't need the fence," he said. "But the conflict is protracted, and any agreement is years away. There will be no significant breakthrough unless [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat leaves the region."

But MK Yehiel Hazan (Likud), a resident of Ariel and head of the settlement caucus in the Knesset, said he was not satisfied by Sharon's announcement, because it still appears that initially, the fence will be built with a hole in the Ariel region. "It is inconceivable for there to be a hole in the fence east of the settlements, since that would endanger the security of all of the state's inhabitants," he said. "What value is there to the security provided by the fence if it has a gap?"

Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar noted that Likud MKs overwhelmingly support building the fence east of Ariel, and urged Sharon to take their views into account.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that an agreement must be reached with the Americans over the fence.