Scaling the wall

January 01, 2004

IN 2003, George W. Bush offered Israelis and Palestinians a "road map" to peace, an initiative that stalled with the collapse of a cease-fire and the resignation of the first Palestinian prime minister. A peace accord secretly negotiated between former Israeli and Palestinian officials in Geneva attracted international attention, but no real traction. A one-page peace plan drafted by a retired Israeli intelligence chief and a Palestinian intellectual garnered thousands of signatures of support and little else.

Amid the debates and discussions, the continued bloodshed and the violence, what remained constant was a concrete and barbed-wire barrier dividing Israelis and Palestinians and the land they claim as their own.

This barrier, this divide, may prove to be the defining factor for peace - or against it - in 2004. It has the potential to become the de facto border that Palestinians now claim it to be.

The reason is this: Israel views the security barrier as a line of defense to keep suicide bombers from practicing their deadly trade in Jewish cities and communities. If terrorist attacks abate as a result of the barrier's construction upon its completion, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be vindicated in its defense of the structure and firm in its resolve to maintain it. Mr. Sharon has already signaled his intention to settle the four-year conflict by disengaging from the peace process if Palestinians fail to meet their commitments under the U.S.-backed road map and dismantle the militant groups.

Palestinians have portrayed the security barrier as a bulwark against the establishment of an independent state. And they are right to an extent: If Mr. Sharon moves ahead on his own, Palestinians will be left with a much smaller and less contiguous swath of land on which to build their state. Palestinian opposition to the Israeli barricade has won them much sympathy around the world. But that hasn't stopped the fence, nor has it galvanized the political reforms and enforcement actions critical to moving the peace process forward.

Further complicating peace efforts has been the return of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as the central power broker, and until Palestinians recognize that he possesses neither the skills nor the credibility to bring this conflict to a just end, they will remain captive to Israel's actions - corralled behind a 425-mile stretch of chain-link fence, concrete berms, electronic sensors and trenches.

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