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Israel's Wall: A Step Toward Peace?

By Stan Crock Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down!

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Walls have a history in the Middle East. They tend to offend everyone. They tend to be overcome. And they tend to have unpredictable political consequences. These are lessons the Israelis should consider as they build a barrier intended to cordon off the West Bank and protect the Israeli public from terrorism. Because when you examine this latest plan closely, it gets curiouser and curiouser.

Combating terrorism in this relatively defensive way -- in contrast to occupation forces -- isn't a bad idea from a security standpoint. It could mean fewer Israeli and Palestinian deaths. The primary function of a government, after all, is to protect its citizenry, and the current porous borders don't do that. Over time, however, the $115 million, 72-mile wall being built from Salem in the north to Kafr Qasem in the south is likely to be bypassed by tunnels underneath or rockets above. And terrorists disguised as Israeli soldiers could pass through it on the ground, even at heavily guarded checkpoints.

The wall will be, at best, a short-term, partial solution to security. Matan Vilnai, Israel's Science, Culture, & Sport Minister, who, as a general, built a wall around Gaza, told a luncheon at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on July 17 that the new barrier could avert perhaps 80% of terrorist incidents. "There is no quick fix," he says.

TEMPORARY LULL? The larger question is what effect it will have on an ultimate political resolution of the conflict. As the poet Frost knew, walls have a way of becoming symbols. Think of the Berlin Wall. Or the Great Wall of China. Or even the thousand-mile fence that America Firster Pat Buchanan recently wanted to erect along the U.S.-Mexican border.

The wall the British built along the Lebanese border in 1938 to stop Arab bands from attacking Jewish settlements and British soldiers, for example, inflamed both sides. That's because it bisected pastures and private property, according to an analysis by historian Laura Zittrain Eisenberg, in The Middle East Review of International Affairs. When the rebellion ended, the wall came down, but smugglers of guns and illegal Jewish immigrants continued to cross the line, she says.

More recently, Israel built a wall on the same border after Israeli Defense Forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. That wall, according to some analysts, has been effective in reducing terrorist incidents except in the disputed Shebaa Farms area. But Hezbollah is believed to have amassed an arsenal of thousands of rockets north of the wall, so the lull may be temporary. If Israel does something to set off Hezbollah, "that thing is going to blow sky high," warns David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It just hasn't happened yet."

UNEXPECTED IMPACT. The wall Israeli General Vilnai built around Gaza has dampened security problems, but he says that cooping up Gaza residents will bring political and economic costs. "The flow of workers to Israel must continue," he says.

Will the West Bank Wall follow this pattern? It may improve security, but its political impact could be quite substantial -- and not what one might expect. Indeed, the prospect of the wall already has created a bizarre political situation. The barrier has united, of all people, the Palestinians and their arch-enemies, the Jewish settlers.

The settlers oppose the wall because they are left outside its protection. The Palestinians oppose it because it looks like a unilateral drawing of borders by Israel. On the other side are Israelis who don't live on settlements. One recent poll shows 68% approval of the wall, which would protect major cities that have been subjected to bombings.

UNDEFENDABLE. The key may be where the wall is located. It largely follows the "green line," the 1967 border. One reason: The military realized that including settlements by moving the line a kilometer or two to the east would have meant including 380,000 Palestinians -- something defense forces didn't consider a great idea.

The upshot is the wall will make crystal clear what some military analysts have been saying for some time: Most of the settlements are not militarily defensible. The wall also will isolate politically the radical right-wing settlers, chronic obstacles to peace whose opposition to the barrier makes them seem indifferent to the security of the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

The final irony: Ariel Sharon, the hard-line Likud Prime Minister, is effectively returning Israel to its 1967 borders. Palestinian opposition could either mean its leadership is incredibly stupid -- or the border they really want is the sea.

SEEDS OF A DEAL. If the Palestinians come to their senses, they'll realize that the current terrorism policy, which is producing the wall and economic isolation, will leave them worse off in every way. Yet the wall also holds the seeds of a peace deal. It would in effect be a secure border for Israel precisely where the Palestinians want it.

That by itself would not bring peace. Some border adjustments would still have to be made. The right of return and status of Jerusalem must be addressed, though discussions at the resort of Taba after the Camp David peace talks failed in 2000 made some headway on these topics. It's hardly inevitable, but the wall just might be a surprising start down the road to a Middle East peace deal. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

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