Ziad Asali
(Opinion)
August 19, 2003 - 11:00pm

The long struggle to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians is at a crossroads that will almost certainly determine the direction of future events for decades, if not indeed for generations.

One path, best characterized by President Bush's roadmap and the fragile but impressive cease-fire arranged by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, leads towards a permanent resolution of the conflict based on two states living side-by-side in peace. However, Israel's ongoing settlement activities and the wall designed to encircle much of the population of the West Bank, are creating physical barriers that foreclose the only realistic option for peace.

President George W. Bush deserves a great deal of credit for publishing his roadmap, and insisting that establishing a viable state of Palestine alongside Israel is a central goal of U.S. foreign policy. He restated this commitment to the roadmap during the recent visit to the White House by Abbas and the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that soon followed.

Phase one of the roadmap, which is its central feature, is structured on what boils down to a simple quid pro quo: an end to Palestinian violence against Israelis in exchange for an end to Israeli settlement of Palestinian lands. This plan is calculated to demonstrate to both peoples that they can achieve more towards their basic goals of security and freedom respectively through a political process rather than through conflict.

In order to facilitate the roadmap, the Palestinian people changed their
leadership structure and implemented administrative, fiscal and
constitutional reforms. Against all odds, Abbas succeeded in arranging for a cease-fire, which has held for more than a month and has created the first major period of extended calm since September 2000.

In return, Abbas personally received several important symbolic gestures from the administration but the Palestinians have yet to reap substantial political rewards, or sense a palpable impact on their daily lives. Without such relief the Abbas administration and the cease-fire have little hope of long-term survival.

Unfortunately, the main thing Palestinians have seen from Israel during the five weeks of cease-fire is reshuffling settlement activity and an urgent insistence, both practical and rhetorical, on completing a gigantic wall dividing the Palestinian people from each other and from hope.

Israel calls the wall a "security fence". More than four times as long and twice as high as the notorious Berlin Wall, this concrete and electrified wire edifice is slated for three phases. If completed as planned, it would fully encircle most of the Palestinian population, reducing them to living on only forty five percent of their West Bank land.

According to both Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, the wall
threatens to displace some 90,000 Palestinians from their homes and cut off scores of villages from their farmlands, jobs, neighbors and families. If completed in all three stages, the wall would ring the central area of the West Bank, penning the majority of the Palestinians into a ghetto surrounded on all sides by Israeli forces.

Herein lies the true significance of the wall project: it will render the
creation of a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territories finally
and permanently impossible. Beyond simply being an embodiment of hardship and dehumanization, the wall is a monument to political failure. By eliminating the only clear path to mutual coexistence on peaceful terms between Israelis and Palestinians, the wall virtually ensures conflict into the foreseeable future.

After his meeting with Prime Minister Abbas, President Bush acknowledged that the wall was "a problem." At his press conference with the Israeli Prime Minister, Bush listened without comment, and with full understanding of the implications of the uttered words, to Sharon's defiant vow to continue building the wall.

Reports in the British and Israeli press suggest that the State Department has proposed applying financial pressure on Israel in the form of aid cuts to convince Sharon to stop building his wall. That is a welcome sign to those who believe in the two-state solution and who realize the political poison this wall represents.

If decisive action is not taken now to prevent Sharon from going forward with this plan, President Bush will find that his roadmap to peace will run directly into a giant concrete obstacle which there is no way around. This medieval device should not be allowed to block the road to peace.



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