Experts Discuss Israel’s West Bank Barrier
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MARGARET WARNER: And here to assess the latest developments over the security barrier and Sharon’s political standing, two familiar faces: David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post; and Hisham Melhem, the Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir. He also hosts a weekly program on the Arab news channel Al-Arabiya. Welcome to you both.
David, today as Jim announced earlier, the Israeli government said it is definitely redrawing the proposed route of the fence to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling of June 30. What more can you tell us about the plans? How much land would the Palestinians reclaim?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well right now as it stands the barrier takes up 12.5 percent of, when it’s completed, 12.5 percent of the West Bank near what you call the green line, near the old pre-1967 borders. That’s going to be modified inward. We don’t really have an exact number. So I really wouldn’t want to say. But Clinton, at the end of the negotiations, said the number would be five. So it will be somewhere in my view between 12 and five.
MARGARET WARNER: But the court decision, as I understand it, it was just a petition involving a very short little strip. So they really only have to respond to that but there are some 20 other petitions.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: There are 20 other petitions pending and my information is that the Israeli defense forces, the Israeli ministry of defense is trying to settle those 20 claims out of court.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, they fully expect that if they got all the way to the Supreme Court in Israel, again the court would rule against the Israeli government.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: The court actually validated the idea of the fence even protruding in the West Bank. All it says is there needs to be a balance between Israel’s security concerns and the humanitarian concerns of the Palestinians. That’s the balance the Israeli court was trying to reach as opposed to the international court of justice.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, so Hisham, today, the Palestinian spokesman, cabinet secretary, even before the revisions are announced said, you know, it’s not enough. Why not?
HISHAM MELHEM: Because the Supreme Court of Israel ordered the government to re-route — to remove — move the barrier, not to remove it — although there is something interesting in the Israeli high court when it said that Israel is in belligerent occupation, quote unquote of the West Bank which is very significant for an Israeli court of law to say that. Now, the international court of justice went of course beyond that.
MARGARET WARNER: Right. But go back for a minute to what is going to actually happen. Would the Palestinians accept the idea of the fence, barrier, wall, whatever you want to call it, if it absolutely — I know this is impossible — I mean, it won’t happen — but if it absolutely adhered to the green line?
HISHAM MELHEM: If it absolutely adheres to the green line on Israeli territory, of course they will accept it and they will welcome it. Obviously they said that; they said that on the record. The problem is that the wall is not designed because of security concerns also — only, it is designed to encompass the settlement blocks, and we are talking about almost 400,000 Israelis in those settlement blocks if you include Jerusalem, obviously. And the barrier, even according to what David is saying, would probably leave at least according to the international court, about a quarter million Palestinians stranded between the green line and the wall.
MARGARET WARNER: How many?
HISHAM MELHEM: A quarter of a million people. Again, we don’t know exactly how the wall will end up being. The problem is David will tell you 12 percent, the Palestinians talk about at least 16 to 18 percent — but you know, the best solution would be –
MARGARET WARNER: The U.N. said it was 14 percent but it’s somewhere in that area.
HISHAM MELHEM: Exactly.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, David, explain just in very simple terms why Israel is not willing to move this wall closer to the green line or on the green line? Is it purely the settlements?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yeah, I mean Hisham and I could quibble over the exact number of settlers but almost all the settlers, despite the way it’s perceived maybe in the media, live near the green line and therefore since Bill Clinton said any deal is going to include those settlement blocks – going to be part of Israel, the Israeli government’s position is really not different than Bill Clinton’s.
MARGARET WARNER: But Israel is not in return taking the wall and carving into any Israeli territory, is it, in compensation the way the Clinton plan would have had it do?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. What we would call the swap zones. In my view, once we get to what is called the final status, if we ever get there, to the end game of this, then I believe there will be swap zones. That will definitely happen.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Hisham, you wanted to speak earlier about the international court’s ruling, which of course said this whole fence is illegal and should all come down. Israel said it is going to ignore it. Is that international court ruling of any practical effect for the Palestinians?
HISHAM MELHEM: This is a very significant probably historic decision.. We are not dealing here with the amorphous court of public opinion. We are dealing here with a real court. Now people are saying that the decision is non-binding, this is just an advisory. Maybe the advisory part is non- binding but the way the court read — came up with its decision is based on legal, binding laws. I mean including for Geneva. It is very significant; the Israelis can ignore it but the international community will not ignore it.
MARGARET WARNER: But it is a moral victory?
HISHAM MELHEM: It is a moral victory, it’s a legal victory; it’s a political victory for the Palestinians if they know how to play it well.
MARGARET WARNER: Does the Israeli government feel it can ignore that ruling essentially with impunity?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it really does. It feels that its own court is trying to strike the balance between security and humanitarian concerns. The one American judge on the high court, on the international court of justice, Mr. Burgenthal said basically my own court here is totally dismissing Israeli self-defense issues — never visited the area, has no concept of the security issues. That’s coming from what then Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School said that, you know, we are putting Palestinian property over Israeli laws.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you a related but somewhat different question which is what has the Bush administration’s attitude been on this? Last October, Secretary of State Powell gave an interview in which he called the security fence a problem and he made a comment about if you’re going to build a fence between you and your neighbor, you put it on your property line, you don’t put it on your neighbor’s property. Has the U.S. government exerted any pressure on the Israeli government?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I would argue this is a very interesting case of where the United States and European Union including France and all the European Union countries went to the International Court of Justice and said you guys stay out of this. Whatever our issues are with the fence, this is a political issue not a legal issue and stay out. The only countries saying going to the ICJ were Cuba and North Korea.
MARGARET WARNER: I’m really talking more now about what the Israeli government is going to do with the fence. Has the Bush administration –
DAVID MAKOVSKY: It hasn’t gotten into the headlines, but basically last nine months, there has been a lot of what I call fence diplomacy with Condoleezza Rice using people from the United States government who have been monitoring this quietly and getting Israel to reroute it down to 12.5 percent. The numbers were a little bit higher — certainly not the 16 percent that Palestinian spokesmen were claiming. And I think it is playing a quiet role to try to minimize hardship.
MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say the Palestinians would like the Bush administration to be doing more?
HISHAM MELHEM: Well, of course. I mean, they would like to see some sort of pressure on the Israelis. And I think they don’t expect it from the United States. I think they will take it to the general assembly because the courts said the issue now should go back to the general assembly and the Security Council to act on it. They know that an American veto is inevitable there.
But I think they are taking moral support from the Europeans, from the international community because now we have elected officials in Europe are calling for some sort of sanctions against Israel, some kind of real measures against the Israeli government. And I think this is not only a political issue. It is a legal issue because the international court of law — of justice said essentially, or reaffirmed the fact that Israel is an occupying power. This is extremely important for the Palestinians.
MARGARET WARNER: In the few minutes we have left, like two, I think, let’s just talk about the political story. Sharon asked Peres of the Labor Party to form a coalition government. What will Peres demand, what does he want, David, in return for joining this coalition government, and does Sharon need him and Labor enough to grant it?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I believe he does. Right now he is only opening contacts about the possibility. I think it’s got to move in the direction you are saying because I don’t think the current configuration can push through Gaza. Sharon has bet the ranch, the political ranch on pulling out of Gaza, getting all the settlements out. He has got to cut a deal with Peres which goes along this line: I keep the economic policy based on economic reform, and you will get me to coordinate the Gaza handover with the Palestinian Authority…
MARGARET WARNER: The prime minister.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: — who was on the setup piece. It takes the edges of unilateralism off it and do this as a smoother handover. I think that’s deal. It will be cut during the parliamentary summer recess when he can’t be brought down from his own party.
MARGARET WARNER: So you think that Prime Minister Sharon is willing to sit down and talk to Palestinians about this withdrawal in return for getting Peres –
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I don’t think he will talk about the fence but I think that he will talk about how to do Gaza more smoothly and coordinate that. And I think the Israeli military wants to move in that direction and I think we are heading towards a broad based Israeli government.
MARGARET WARNER: Are the Palestinians in any way heartened by the fact that Sharon has had to go to Peres here?
HISHAM MELHEM: I don’t think so. I think the Palestinians are too cynical because they know too much about these two old wily Israeli politicians who are as opportunistic as they come and they know that Sharon in the end who is probably smarter than all of them, will use Peres to smooth or to improve his image or maybe to allow a faster withdrawal from Gaza.
But even withdrawal from Gaza doesn’t sit very well with the Palestinians because it is unilateral, because it is not going to be real withdrawal, the Israelis will control the air space, with regard to the territorial waters and all the border crossing points and they will maintain their forces there, too.
But definitely the Palestinians would welcome any kind of real Israeli withdrawal but they don’t see it. They know that Sharon is going to use Peres to help him with the Gaza withdrawal because Sharon has his eyes on the real prize which is maintaining as much control over the West Bank territory with the least amount of Palestinians living on that territory in the West Bank. That’s Sharon’s objective all along. He has been working on it for decades. He is 76 years old. He is not going to change.
MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Hisham, David, thank you.