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Boundaries Going Up 

A layman’s (and statesman’s) guide to fencing in the Middle East

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
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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.

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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.

At a time when Arab anti-Semitism is rampant and Western European anti-Semitism is stirring from its nearly 60-year nap, it would be understandable if Israelis said, “To hell with it -- we‘ll go it alone.” Yet a clear majority of them don’t. They have some familiarity, after all, with the advantages of internationally recognized frontiers. The border between Jordan and Israel, to which both parties agreed, is quiet. The Sinai border between Israel and Egypt, recognized a quarter-century ago by Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, is patrolled by a token, third-party force of U.S. soldiers and is as silent as the desert it runs through. Any fence, these Israelis understand, can provide some measure of security, but they want more than any fence. The people of the book want it in writing -- a fence, of course, but also a treaty, a genuine accord that creates the possibility of international legitimacy, of a sustainable way of life.

In a recent article in The American Prospect (check it out at www.prospect.org), columnist John Judis argued that what really separates the Democrats‘ multilateral view of foreign policy from the Republicans’ go-it-alone routine is a very different view of the world. The Democrats, Judis wrote, have a Lockean perspective -- that the world is best governed by contracts and concords, that allies and alliances (NATO, for one) afford the most practical way to achieve order and peace. The Republicans are Hobbesians: Life is nasty, brutish and short out there; best to trust no one and carry the biggest damned stick you‘ve ever seen.

What divides Democrats from Republicans in a fundamental way divides Israelis from each other in an existential one. Sharon not only has never met a Palestinian he can trust, he can’t even imagine a Palestinian who, out of national self-interest, would accept a reasonable settlement. And while the conduct of Yasser Arafat over the past two years may give some weight to Sharon‘s applied Hobbesianism, his view ignores all evidence to the contrary: the great reduction in Palestinian violence in the years when they believed the Oslo process would be implemented, for instance, or the Saudi proposal just last month.

The Bush gang, of course, wins the Thomas Hobbes sweepstakes for its consistent dismissal of the rest of the world. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged it kicking and screaming into a world where the opinions of Arab nations actually matter, where the U.S. must actually negotiate a settlement. Sharon’s bulldozer approach still has its champions within the administration (Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, most notably), but for others, the road to Iraq has been re-routed through the West Bank. Absent a settlement there, it‘s hard to see any state near Iraq consenting to be a staging grounds for the Iraqi invasion.

Of late, Sharon is mixing Hobbesianism with chutzpah: unelecting Arafat; proposing, in effect, that he himself should designate the next leader of Palestine. (Who does Sharon think he is? The CIA?) William Safire, The New York Times’ brilliant conservative columnist, once wrote that Sharon and he belonged to a small group of guys who had dubbed themselves the shtarkers -- Yiddish for strong ones, tough guys. If the measure of shtarkerdom is the willingness to use force, then shtarkers they be. As strategists, however -- as leaders who can think their way to a genuine solution to Israel‘s plight -- they’re not shtarkers at all. They‘re shmendricks. (Translates to “pip-squeaks,” and -- ah, Yiddish -- sounds that way, too.)

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