Bush leans on Israel to stop security fence

Special to World
Thursday, July 24, 2003

The United States is said to be pressuring Israel to suspend construction of a security fence to protect the Jewish state from Palestinian insurgents in the West Bank.

Israeli and U.S. officials said the Bush administration has relayed a series of messages to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that called for a suspension of any decision to complete the 370-kilometer security fence. The officials said President George Bush has determined that the electronic fence endangers the so-called roadmap plan drafted by the international community to establish an interim Palestinian state by the end of 2003.

Secretary of State Colin Powell reported the U.S. pressure on Israel to stop the 350-kilometer security fence in a news conference that followed a meeting with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Powell said the issue of the security fence was discussed with Shalom on Wednesday. Shalom has met administration officials to prepare for the arrival of Sharon to Washington next week.

"We are having conversations with our Israeli colleagues about the fence, and the next phase of fence construction, and whether or not we have to take a more serious, in-depth look at those construction activities to see whether or not it helps the process as we move forward, or whether there are other adjustments that might be made," Powell said. "My colleague is aware of the concerns that we have about the fence."

U.S. officials said the administration has been receiving nearly daily reports on the fence by the Palestinian Authority as well as the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and the embassy in Tel Aviv. They said the administration has demanded that Israel suspend the construction of the fence and change its proposed location so it would not encompass an enclave of Israeli communities in the West Bank.

Shalom has acknowledged the dispute between Israel and the United States over the security fence. But the foreign minister said the core issue between the two countries remains the implementation of the roadmap, which also calls for the end of the Palestinian war against Israel and the dismantling of insurgency groups.

"There is perhaps a lack of coordination between our [U.S.] position and theirs," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Sharon, who has delayed a decision to allocate $170 million to complete the fence, is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday and meet Bush.

Officials said Bush is expected to demand the suspension of the fence project and the release of additional Palestinian prisoners. Israel has agreed to the release of at least 420 Palestinians.

Israel's security agency has recommended that the Sharon government release 520 Palestinian insurgents. The Israel Security Agency said in its recommendation that the detained insurgents should include members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The agency did not recommend that Israel consider releasing Palestinians who were convicted of killing Israelis.

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