By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
They’re talking fences in the Mideast -- indeed, the Sharon Cabinet has already authorized two of them. The first -- between Umm el Fahm in Israel and Tulkarm in the occupied territories -- would run pretty much along the 1967 borders, as was envisioned in the Oslo accords. The second would partition some yet-to-be-specified sections of Jerusalem.
A fence, of course, isn‘t simply a fence. It’s also a de facto frontier, a temporary solution that can become a permanent solution -- or problem. Ariel Sharon often speaks of coming up with a “long-term interim” arrangement to diminish the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (welcome to the mind of Ariel Sharon). But a fence -- a border -- that isn‘t agreed upon by both sides resolves only one aspect of that conflict while worsening the others.
There is, for instance, a long-standing fence around Gaza. In one sense it has worked brilliantly. No suicide bombers have come into Israel from Gaza; they can’t get through the barricades. At a moment such as this, there are precious few Israeli Jews, or friends of Israeli Jews, who don‘t appreciate that fence.
That’s not all the fence does, however. It deepens Gaza‘s isolation, its estrangement from anything resembling a normal life, its all-consuming rage. Recent polling has shown that Gaza residents are decidedly more supportive of suicide bombers than their West Bank counterparts.
Should Sharon now build such fences throughout the West Bank, he inevitably will Gaza-fy it. The number of suicide-bomb murders will greatly and blessedly diminish. But inasmuch as Sharon has contended for the past quarter-century that Israel should annex the eastern part of the West Bank and all of Arab East Jerusalem, all the downsides of Gaza-fication would almost surely be replicated, too. By building the fence to incorporate many of the far-flung Israeli settlements into Israel proper, he would create a West Bank Palestine that is little more than a collection of Bantustans. Sharon’s plan for the West Bank -- which to a great degree he‘s carried out -- has been to place Israeli settlements on the hilltops, confining the Palestinians to non-contiguous lowlands. Under such an arrangement, the economic life of the West Bank Palestinians -- a number of whom are middle-class -- would likely sink to a Gaza-like level. Their rage at Israel, at its very existence, would likely rise to a Gaza-like level, too.
For now, that’s a trade-off many Israelis would instantaneously embrace, so long as it assures an end to, or at least a decline in, the suicide-bomb murders. But suppose -- depending on where the fence stakes are driven -- that Israelis don‘t have to make that trade-off at all.
For there are fences and there are fences. A fence running along the lines that members of the Barak government unofficially negotiated with officials of the Palestinian Authority during the closing days of the Clinton administration -- such a fence could markedly increase the odds for an eventual political settlement. It is in line with the proposal the Saudis offered in Beirut several weeks ago. A fence that snakes through the West Bank to annex the settlements, by contrast, would do precisely the reverse -- which is as Sharon wants it. The primary raison d’etre of the Israeli right, after all, dating all the way back to the first Zionist settlements, has been to build that second kind of fence (and no fence at all until they got their way). The essence of Jabotinsky Zionism -- named for Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ultranationalist who fought constantly with the socialist Zionists who dominated Israeli politics in pre- (and, for a time, post-) statehood years -- was to deny that Palestinians had any place in the land that today comprises both Israel and the West Bank (and to hasten their departure).
Sharon is Jabotinsky‘s ideological heir -- but most of his countrymen are not, even in the midst of the current savagery. On Friday, April 12, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv published a poll on Israelis‘ reactions to a range of peace proposals. The one garnering the most support -- 57 percent, with 35 percent opposed -- was to withdraw from 80 percent of the occupied territories, dismantle the settlements and annex only those close to the ’67 borders. The next preferred solution (54 percent pro, 40 percent con) was to establish a Palestinian state. There was 52 percent support for the Saudi initiative (transferring all the territories in return for a comprehensive regional peace treaty and normalized relations) and 42 percent opposition. Coming in dead last was a proposal to annex all the occupied territories and “transfer” the Palestinians out (out where was left unspecified), which Israelis rejected by nearly a 2-1 margin (32 percent pro, 50 percent con). Sharon‘s position is more nuanced than this last humdinger, but it’s emphatically the position of his chief rival for leadership of Likud, Bibi Netanyahu.
Like everything else in the Middle East, though, Israeli public opinion is complicated. This majority support for a two-state solution coexists with Israelis‘ overwhelming support for the military action in the West Bank. For a huge number of Israelis, there’s a clear demarcation between “what we need to do now” and “what we need to do next.” Most Israelis understand that a fence erected with no one‘s support but their own won’t bring any lasting peace -- indeed, would further infuriate the Arab world and make relations with everyone else that much more strained.