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Summer 2004  
Vol. 32, No. 4

HIGH-STAKES GAMBLE

by David Saperstein

he fence is a high-stakes gamble, offering both enormous promise and risk. On the one hand, it offers the promise of both added security and the possibility of moving the peace process forward. On the other, if over time there is no movement toward a negotiated settlement, the fence may well lead to a serious deterioration in Israel's security, resulting in even greater instability than the bloody status quo.

Some background: Three years ago, when the intifada began, one of Israel's greatest errors was to insist that all terrorism stop before it would return to the negotiating table. Both Israeli doves and hawks held that position. They shared an utter astonishment that the Palestinians could have walked away from the negotiating table when the two sides were so close to a final agreement that offered the real possibility of the Palestinians achieving what they had always dreamed of: a nation of their own. Most Israelis assumed that the logic and potential benefits of the peace process were so strong that the violence would have to end soon to allow the parties to return to the table and complete the negotiations. To pressure the PA to take immediate action against terrorism, the Israeli government took the position that a continuation of talks must hinge on a cessation of terrorist acts. But this position ultimately played into the hands of Palestinian extremists, enabling them to halt any attempt to return to meaningful discussions simply by launching another attack. At the same time, this policy gave Israeli hardline opponents of the Oslo peace process the power to determine the length of time required to qualify as a "cessation of terrorism." Consequently, the hardliners on both sides essentially sidelined the moderates. There was no return to negotiations.

During the Oslo process, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin used to say: "I will fight terrorism as if there were no negotiations and negotiate as if there was no terrorism." Israel followed Rabin's first precept, but ignored the second. Had the policy been "let's keep talking, let's try to work out solutions," perhaps it would have been possible to have brought the violence to an earlier end. We'll never know, but we can say with certainty that the "no negotiations/military response only" policy on terrorism has not brought the Israelis and Palestinians any closer to ending the bloodshed. Indeed, in recent months, former heads of Israel's Shin Bet, as well as former and current generals, including the military's Chief of Staff, have raised serious reservations about this approach, arguing that it has undermined both Palestinian moderates and Israel's security.

Ironically, the original idea for the separation barrier came from Israeli doves. Frustrated by the catch-22 situation preventing renewed negotiations, they surmised that a fence like the one in Gaza, erected on the West Bank, might stop the terrorist attacks long enough to allow Israel and the PA to resume the negotiations, which in their view represented the only hope for a diplomatic, two-state resolution of the conflict. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Sharon and most hawks in Israel first opposed the building of a West Bank fence, because, among other concerns, it would leave many settlements outside the fence. But recognizing that a growing number of Israelis were deeply frustrated by the failure of his policies to end the violence, Prime Minister Sharon saw an opportunity to turn the fence idea to his advantage by incorporating large swaths of territory east of the Green Line and projecting, with facts on the ground, where the border of Israel and any future Palestinian entity might be.

Whatever the final path of the fence, if it succeeds in stopping terrorism and saving Israeli lives for a period of time, and only if that time--we're talking no more than a year or two--can be used by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to forge a peaceful solution to the conflict, it will have served an extraordinarily beneficial long-term purpose. That is the promise. If, on the other hand, this potential peace opportunity is ignored--if Israel becomes complacent as a result of the temporary cessation of violence and squanders the opportunity to resolve the conflict diplomatically--the terrorists will eventually find ways to circumvent the fence. They will obtain missile technology to breach it; they will attack by sea; or, most alarmingly, they will set about radicalizing and enlisting Israeli Arabs or residents of East Jerusalem to attack from within. If this happens, Israel's security will forever be compromised, and the window of opportunity to reach a negotiated agreement will almost certainly be closed. That is the risk.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.


First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

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