Stop construction now — wall only destroys trust

Condoleezza Rice was right to call on Israel to halt the construction of the security fence during her brief visit here this week. There is really nothing surprising in her observation that the fence creates problematic facts on the ground — "even if it is intended to be apolitical, it still looks political." What is truly astonishing is that the issue has only now come to the fore.

The basic argument of advocates of the security fence is that it is possible to distinguish conceptually and practically between a defensive wall and a political boundary. This claim is at best disingenuous and at worst ludicrous.

The prolonged discussions on the fence, which included endless sessions on its convoluted routing, focused simultaneously on topography and demography. The government-approved path lies substantially to the east of the Green Line in an effort to satisfy settler demands. This demarcation constitutes a de facto, even if purportedly temporary, annexation.

The ring road around Jerusalem accentuates this trend by appropriating and consequently dividing segments of Palestinian towns such as Beit Jalla, Bethlehem, Abu Dis and Azariya into the metropolitan area. No one disputes the fact that the security fence deviates substantially from Israel's 1967 borders.

The location of the fence, then, is undeniably a political statement. Its nature reinforces this conclusion. What is under construction is not a minor hedge separating bickering neighbors but a full-fledged, 20-foot wall equipped with the most sophisticated electronic equipment and buttressed by substantial obstacles on both sides. The expenditure of billions of shekels can hardly be dismissed as an interim defensive measure of limited duration.

Intentionally or not, the misnamed security "fence" does establish new facts on the ground. These are clearly an impediment to any future negotiations.

The idea of a physical divide between Israelis and Palestinians emerged at the height of the second intifada. Its proponents on both the left and right presumed that under the circumstances, with no apparent Palestinian negotiating partners in sight, Israel had no choice but to initiate unilateral steps to protect its citizens from murderous excursions into its population centers.

This logic flies in the face of the "road map." Israel is now officially committed to talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unilateral measures especially of the kind exemplified by the fence are a form of compulsion that contradicts the essence of negotiations. In effect, Israel is doing everything possible to dictate the outcome of the process precisely when it is beginning to engage in talks on this very issue.

The security fence, conceived at a time of political stalemate, is thus by definition a veritable handicap in an era of renewed diplomatic activity. It may also be flawed in defensive terms. The separation wall gained currency after military efforts to contain terrorism failed. From this perspective it is very much a default option: The fence may be viewed more as another attempt to offer a magical panacea to a jittery Israeli public than as a serious effort to confront the country's very real security needs.

Israel's undeniable right to provide security to its citizens is better served by a workable settlement than by any ethnically defined wall. The still-precarious agreements on a cease-fire and partial Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories have already reduced terrorist threats more than any artificial fence. Insistence on continuing to build this massive edifice offers little security and adversely affects the prospects for accommodation.

Some of the defenders of the security fence, cognizant of its political repercussions, nevertheless persist in justifying its erection in shamelessly paternalistic terms. To them the positioning of the fence is the political price the Palestinians must pay for the violence they have unleashed against Israel. Such arguments unabashedly prejudice what are already extremely sensitive negotiations. They also concede the feebleness of the purely security rationales for the fence.

Now that Israel is embarking on an effort to achieve a negotiated agreement with its Palestinian neighbors, it should stop work on the security fence now. Its completion compromises negotiations, threatens the prospects of achieving a viable two-state solution to the conflict, and does very little to ensure Israel's security.

A hiatus in building fences may prove to be an invaluable step in constructing more secure bridges to the future.