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1. Hybrid of mule and goat

In mid-2002, the Likud faction held a farewell reception for MK Maxim Levy, who had been elected mayor of Lod and therefore had to resign from the Knesset under the law that prohibits holding two offices at once. Ron Nahman, mayor of the West Bank city of Ariel, attended the event. On the same occasion, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reported briefly on the separation fence, which the cabinet had approved a few days earlier. Nahman asked Sharon if his city, Ariel, would be located inside the fence. The prime minister said it would not, and explained that Ariel would be part of a special security zone. Nahman responded testily: "We are not going to have another Lebanon here. There, too, you talked about a special security zone. During the Rabin and Netanyahu governments, we sat with maps and were party to the decisions. With you, we don't know what's going on." His accusations angered Sharon.

Nahman set up a lobby to fight for Ariel's inclusion inside the fence - and won his battle. By doing so, he worked, to some degree, against the position of the National Religious Party, which wanted to prevent the fence from being built at all, and objected to the inclusion of Ariel inside it. The NRP did not want a barrier between Ariel and the settlements to its north: Kedumim, Karnei Shomron, Emmanuel. The result was a change in the route of the fence in a manner that stuck a thick finger deep into Samaria and thereby marked the territories that Israel intends to annex.

This week, Nahman explained that his activity was based on one criterion: maximum security - minimum harm to Palestinians. Which is to say that although the slice of the West Bank that he succeeded in getting incorporated inside the fence is large ("It's all olive groves where the cultivation takes place just once a year, so the owners can get to them with no difficulty"), it contains only 3,000 Palestinians.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operated according to a different goal in marking the route of the fence: to include within it a minimum number of Palestinians and a maximum number of Israelis. The National Security Council (NSC), then headed by Major General Uzi Dayan, espoused a slightly more complex approach: the fence must meet Israel's security needs, not surround Palestinian populations and avoid interfering with their routine of life as much as possible. The result, as seen this week, was a hybrid between a mule and goat: A product that doesn't meet the needs is fraught with internal contradictions, costs a fortune and is entangling those who conceived it and built it instead of serving those for whom it was intended.

The establishment of the separation fence would seem to show something important about the Israeli spirit at the beginning of the 21st century. The fence reflects power of execution, big money, hard-heartedness, confusion and also lots of good intentions. The most senior office holders in the state leadership and public administration are engaged in bringing the project to fruition - the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff, his deputy, several major generals, the director general of the Defense Ministry and the head of the National Security Council - along with fairly large groups of subordinates. In fact, the top level of the political-security establishment is involved in the building of the fence, and this is the group that makes decisions in the most sensitive areas relating to the lives of the nation's inhabitants.

The way in which these high-ranking officials and officers are dealing with the fence makes it possible to observe the quality of the decisions and the nature of their performance. The fence is a concrete, defined, measurable project. If, after almost two years of intense work, filled with good intentions, only a third of the planned fence has been built, and it contains sections where the route has to be changed or the fence torn down, and it is fomenting an international furor and entangling Israel in proceedings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague - then obviously, something is rotten in the kingdom.

2. Bits and pieces

As far as can be judged, the root of the problem lies in the indecisiveness of the prime minister. From the outset, Sharon didn't want the fence. Its character ran contrary to his perception of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and it contradicted his security outlook. When he became prime minister, he believed that he would be able to create security by means of an aggressive operational approach that would suppress the Palestinian uprising. Slowly but surely he discovered that the terrorism and the driving force behind it were phenomena he had not previously encountered.

He also encountered an IDF "which knew not Joseph," whose way of thinking was more complex than what he was familiar with from the past, and in which the spirit at the top is less tempestuous and less aggressive than what he recalled from his years on the General Staff. Sharon also learned that the totality of security considerations is influenced in a manner he had not imagined by international constraints and by the expectations of Israeli society. He had to get used to the idea that part of the war against terrorism consisted of utilizing defensive means - that is, building a separation fence.

In July 2001, Uzi Dayan, as the head of the NSC, submitted to Sharon a proposal to erect a separation fence. Sharon put off the discussion of the plan until May 2002. That month saw a wave of brutal terrorist attacks, which forced Sharon to accept the idea of building a fence. In practice, he recommended that the cabinet approve only a third of the route of the fence and two sections around Jerusalem, which would be 10 kilometers in length, out of the 56 kilometers of fence that would be needed to surround Jerusalem. The foot-dragging is continuing. Of a route of 600 kilometers, the political level has approved, so far, a fence along only 400 kilometers. On the ground, 200 kilometers of fence have been installed. The cost of the entire project is NIS 6 billion, or NIS 10 million for every kilometer.

The inadequate pace at which the fence is being built is not due to a shortfall in recourses or means of production (the Defense Ministry has recruited dozens of contractors who brought in heavy equipment from abroad). Dayan, who today heads the Public Council for the Establishment of a Security Fence for Israel, is complaining that the project is not being implemented around the clock, but the reason for the delays does not appear to lie with the operative level. The weak link is at the top of the decision-making pyramid. The fence is being built in bits and pieces, in large measure as a response to pressure exerted by heads of communities in which terrorist attacks have occurred. The pace of construction is affected by the prime minister's mood swings, which are vulnerable to political pressures both domestic and international. That is the reason the original route of the fence was changed to include the Ariel bloc (an addition of 60 square kilometers), the construction of the fence in the Mount Gilboa and Jerusalem areas was accelerated, the decision to include the Ariel bloc was rescinded and proposals are now being discussed to dismantle sections of the fence in the Qalqilyah area and elsewhere.

The IDF was a central partner in deciding the route of the fence, but did not take a leading part in the discussions. In fact, IDF sources say, the army was never specifically assigned to plan the construction of the fence, as it was given the task of planning the withdrawal from Lebanon (and now, of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip). Responsibility for the project was assigned to the director general of the Defense Ministry, who recruited the IDF for the operation but made it play second fiddle. As a result, cooperation between the IDF and the Defense Ministry was not perfect.

However, the main impression the fence project has created in the General Staff is that the political level did not set itself clear priorities on the subject and that it changes its mind in accordance with external pressure. At the same time, the IDF maintains that there is security justification for building the fence, in certain areas, across the 1967 Green Line, for several reasons: because that line is defensible only in a situation of peace with the Palestinians; because buffer zones are needed between the fence and Israeli communities in order to ensure them maximum warning; and because there are topographically inferior areas along the Green Line, in contrast to the hills in the Palestinian area.

The IDF also says that Uzi Dayan's recommendation was to build a discontinuous fence ("a door in the desert," as some in the IDF say mockingly), whereas the government accepted the position of the defense establishment to build an unbroken fence. The army provided the government with a professional opinion at each decision-making stage, including the price that would have to be paid for including Palestinians in the territories within the fence. Now the prime minister has backtracked from his decision to push the fence eastward in the Ariel area. The formula that was chosen to inform the public of this shift is: The government's decision is not being changed, but in practice, in 2004 the fence will be built only on the western side (along the Green Line) - the rest will be decided when the time comes.

The dismantlement of the fence in the area of Baka al-Garbiyeh and Baka al-Sharkiyeh, an operation that began on Sunday of this week, on the eve of the deliberations in The Hague, is not perceived by the defense establishment as a reflection of sloppy planning and a waste of money. Although there are some who say that the construction of the fence in that area was done to placate the NRP (which viewed it as a precedent to annex areas of the West Bank), the IDF and the Defense Ministry say that it was a calculated expenditure. According to this approach, the fence was built east of Baka al-Sharkiyeh in the knowledge that this was an interim settlement; the state needed time to overcome legal difficulties that prevented the fence from being built in a way that would create a barrier between the two towns. Seven months after it was built, the proceedings that evacuated the residents from the area connecting the two towns ended, and so the moment arrived to take down the fence and move it westward.

Both the army and the ministry point out that the decision on the speedy construction of this section of the fence was made after the terrorist attack at Kibbutz Metzer - further evidence of the influence of local pressure on the prime minister and the defense minister. However, the two branches of the defense establishment are divided on another subject: the IDF estimates that the cost of dismantling the section of fence will be NIS 15-20 million (its construction cost NIS 80 million); the Defense Ministry cites a far lower figure of NIS 3 million - all the materials will be utilized to build other sections of the fence.