The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 5/31/02 ]


Israeli fence plan provides gateway to needed debate

The tragic resumption of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians has exposed the futility of "Operation Defensive Shield," the Israeli offensive that attempted to rip out the infrastructure of Palestinian terror.

That failure is not surprising. The true infrastructure of terror has always been Palestinian anger, hatred and desperation, and the Israeli military is useless against such targets.

Now, in a desperation of their own, the Israeli people are contemplating a much different approach, the construction of a high-tech security fence roughly along the border between the West Bank and Israel. While security experts have long understood the usefulness of such a fence -- a similar barrier already protects Israel from attacks launched from the Gaza Strip -- political controversy has prevented its construction.

The problem is symbolic. A fence implies a border, and a fence between the West Bank and Israel implies a border between Israel and Palestine. To Israelis who still dream about annexing the West Bank, such a step is anathema. They oppose any distinction between Israel proper and the territory they call Judea and Samaria.

In other words, what seems to be a debate about a fence is really an internal debate over Israel's future. It is a struggle between those who envision Israel existing side by side, if a bit uneasily, with a Palestinian state, and those who envision Israel as comprising both its current territory as well as land occupied in the 1967 war.

Until now, Israelis have hesitated to even address the contradiction between those two visions, fearing that it would destroy their unity as a people. So they have taken both courses at once, trying to negotiate a peace based on the assumption that most of the settlements would disappear while also encouraging those same settlements to grow.

At some point, they knew, the game would have to end and the contradiction would have to be resolved. If Yasser Arafat had said "yes" instead of "no" at Camp David in 2000, for example, the Israelis would have had to make their choice then, and the outcome of that decision was at best uncertain.

Now the decision is being forced in another way, through violence.

An estimated 3.5 million Palestinians live on the West Bank and Gaza, and they cannot be wished away. A few Israeli politicians argue that they should be expelled, that the land should be cleansed of Arabs to make room for Jews. Others believe that expulsion isn't necessary, that 5 million Jews can somehow permanently pacify 4.5 million Arabs. Even if plausible, the cruelty that would be needed to enforce such an occupation would destroy Israel as a democratic state.

The fence, then, has become an indirect means for Israelis to confront that issue. According to one poll, 70 percent of Israelis now support the idea, and for the first time leading Israeli politicians are even advocating steps such as "unilateral separation," meaning the withdrawal of Israeli forces from most of the West Bank and Gaza and the sealing off of the border.

The resulting debate has already become emotional and heated, but it is long overdue.

© 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution