Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants the cabinet to approve the changes to the route of the separation fence as "a single package," and is delaying approval of the already amended and completed plan for the Hebron Hills area until the completion of the plan to reroute the fence in Gush Etzion, a high-ranking political source said yesterday. Only then will the prime minister request the cabinet's approval for both sections, the source said.

Sharon wants to present the ministers with a "balanced" plan under which Israel brings the fence closer to the Green Line in the Hebron Hills area, and also includes within the fence all the settlements in Gush Etzion. "It is better to present a comprehensive plan and to show exactly where we gave and where we received in the discussions with the U.S. administration," the senior political source said.

It appears that Sharon is waiting for a more convenient political opportunity and also that he is taking diplomatic matters into consideration: Approval of parts of the fence, particularly beyond the Green Line, will be seen by the world as a blow to the new Palestinian leadership.

Due to the delays in the planning of the fence in Gush Etzion, approval of the route in the Hebron Hills area north of Be'er Sheva has been put on hold. Meanwhile, construction work on some 75 kilometers of the fence is continuing in other areas that are adjacent to the Green Line and which do not require cabinet approval, as well as the "Jerusalem envelope" section.

Sources in the defense establishment say the planning of the fence's route in Gush Etzion is being delayed due to "endless discussions with the Justice Ministry" on land-ownership issues in the area where the fence is slated to be erected.

According to the Justice Ministry, the defense establishment "has presented principles for the route, but has yet to complete all it is required to do so that it will be possible to conduct a legal review of the material. In light of this, the route in Gush Etzion is not being held up at the Justice Ministry."

The original route of the fence in Gush Etzion, approved by the cabinet in October 2003, included within the barrier an "enclave" of four Palestinian villages with a total of 17,000 residents.

Following a June 2004 High Court of Justice ruling that rejected the proposed segment of the fence due to the harm it would cause the Palestinians, it was decided to reexamine the route so as not to forcibly "annex" the Palestinian villages to Israel.

The Council for Peace and Security - registered in Israel as a "non-profit organization of experts on peace and security" - proposed an alternative route in Gush Etzion that encompassed all the settlements without closing off the four Palestinian villages. Under the council's proposal, defensive walls to provide protection from possible shooting attacks will be built along the roads linking Gush Etzion and Jerusalem.

However, the defense establishment, with the support of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, favored another solution, which positions the fence east of the Tunnel Road from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem. Under the defense establishment's proposal, the fence will have a "break" in an area that will be difficult to traverse and can be easily observed. Thus, the residents of the Palestinian villages will not be closed off completely, and it will also be possible to expand the settlements in the future, and to take over land between Neveh Daniel and Mount Gilo.

In September, Sharon approved the principles of an amended route as suggested by the defense establishment, in the wake of the High Court ruling. Under the plan, the barrier will move closer to the Green Line in most of the sections that have yet to be constructed, but will encompass all the settlements in Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim.

The biggest change was made to the southern section of the route - in the Hebron Hills area - that was originally planned at a distance of a few kilometers from the Green Line and was moved southward following the High Court ruling.

The defense establishment believes it can complete construction of the entire fence by the end of 2005. Sharon, on the other hand, said last week that "most of the security fence" would be constructed next year.