The wall and the court

February 23, 2004

WHEN PALESTINIANS voice their objections to Israel's security barrier today before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, they will direct their message as much to the world as to the 15 sitting judges. The legitimacy of Palestinian complaints about Israel's so-called line of defense suffers when juxtaposed with the carnage of suicide bombers -- and how could it not? The deadly bus bombing in Jerusalem yesterday only served to reinforce Israel's position.

Since Palestinians often are viewed in the context of their surroundings -- hemmed in by Israeli tanks and soldiers, ill-served by hapless and helpless leaders -- they will seek to press their claim - in court that the security wall cutting through Palestinian farmland and isolating towns is an illegal land grab to restrict the borders of a future Palestinian state.

But don't expect the request by the United Nations for an advisory opinion on the "legal consequences" of the security barrier to halt construction of the 480-mile wall, an amalgam of fencing, electronic sensors, concrete slabs and ditches. Nor will it advance the stalled peace process and attempts at a negotiated settlement, which is the only serious way to solve this dispute. The United States surely would veto any attempt to try to enforce the court's recommendation through the Security Council.

Still, Israel has reason to worry about the potential fallout of an advisory opinion. Although the U.S., European Union and other major international players opposed the court's review of the Israeli barrier, they didn't support Israel's design or location of the barrier. If the Palestinians and their allies push for action in the General Assembly, it could escalate anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and elsewhere. For its part, Israel should stop talking about reducing the hardships imposed on Palestinians by the security fence and make the appropriate changes in the structure's route.

Palestinians may be too focused on the three-day hearing at The Hague to pay attention to reports that Washington is interested in further discussions on Israel's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip. If the U.S. accepted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to abandon 17 settlements in Gaza, it would go against a basic premise of this conflict that the way to reach a peaceful solution is through joint negotiations.

What else could Israel decide on its own -- the West Bank borders? As it is, Washington has refused to press Israel on any number of issues because Palestinians have failed to move against terrorist elements.

Palestinians should remember: A good day at the world court will have less impact on daily life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than Washington's influence on Israel.

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