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Israel Presses White House To Reword Rights Report

WASHINGTON — Israel is pressuring the Bush administration to omit references to the West Bank security fence from the State Department’s annual human rights report.

American diplomats in Tel Aviv recently told Israeli officials that the administration planned to refer to the fence in the report’s chapter that scrutinizes Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights. But, sources said, the administration has not yet made a final decision on the issue.

The report is scheduled to be released in March, the same time that the International Court of Justice is expected to take up the Israeli fence issue. Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are worried that a negative citation in the report will weaken Israel’s case at the Hague, according to Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel activists in Washington—who also are increasingly concerned that any mention will be used as ammunition against Jerusalem in front of the court.

The administration is still considering whether it will support Israel’s position in front of the court. Briefs to the court have to be filed by January 30. The court is expected to start discussing the case three weeks later.

“This is a very serious issue with dire potential implications,” said a pro-Israel Washington activist. “And our sense is that administration officials are not quite focused on it.”

Another activist speculated that by not rushing to take Israel’s side on the fence, the administration may be expressing its frustration with what it views as Israel’s foot-dragging when it comes to improving the humanitarian situation for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, curtailing Jewish settlement activity and dismantling so-called illegal settlement outposts. According to pro-Israel activists, administration officials accept Jerusalem’s position that the Palestinian Authority’s failure to fight terrorism is to blame for the halt in implementing the “road map” peace plan, but also are upset over Israel’s failure to take preliminary steps outlined in the plan. Administration officials reportedly believe this failure is partially to blame for the deteriorating situations and makes it even more difficult to kick-start peace negotiations.

This view seems to explain the harsh rebuke leveled at Israel this week by David Satterfield, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, in his keynote address at a State Department-sponsored conference on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. While making very critical comments about the Palestinians, and calling for major reforms within the Palestinian Authority and an end to terrorism, Satterfield also had some unusually harsh words for Israel.

“The fact is that settlements continue to grow today, encouraged by specific ongoing government policies and at enormous expense to Israel’s economy. And this persists even as it becomes clearer and clearer that the logic of settlements and the reality of demographics could threaten the future of Israel itself as a Jewish democratic state,” Satterfield said. “Settlement activity must stop, because it ultimately undermines Israeli as well as Palestinian interests.”

“As Israeli settlements expand — those settlements that began immediately after June 10th, 1967 — and their populations increase,” Satterfield said, “it becomes ever more difficult to see how two peoples can be separated into two states.”

The U.S. diplomat used careful language to characterize America’s objection to the fence: “The course of the separation barrier under construction now remains a significant problem as well — not in its existence per se, as a separation barrier between Israel and the territories of the West Bank — but because its planned route inside the West Bank isolates Palestinians from each other and from their land and their livelihoods, prejudices negotiations and, like settlement activity itself, takes everyone further from the confidence and trust necessary to achieve the president’s vision of two states.”

Administration officials are also frustrated with Prime Minister Sharon’s reluctance to elaborate on his “unilateral separation” initiative. Sharon has put very little flesh on the skeletal plan he articulated in his “Herzliya speech” last month, when he announced his intention to have Israel unilaterally disengage from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza if the Palestinian Authority fails to fulfill its part of the first phase of the “road map.” According to Israeli sources, administration officials “want to see more details, they want more communications with the Israelis on this issue. They still don’t know what it is that Sharon wants to do.”

Sharon this week indicated that he soon will present his plan to the Knesset. His most trusted political ally, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told the Jerusalem Post: “In my estimation, by the month of June our preparations for major unilateral moves will be complete … and this plan, including withdrawal from certain settlements, will begin to be implemented in the second half of this year.”

Administration officials last week complained to pro-Israel activists that if Sharon and Olmert intended for their unilateral threats to spur the Palestinian leadership into security and diplomatic action, then the result seemed to be the opposite.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei last week warned that Israel’s continued construction of the fence, as well as further unilateral Israeli steps, would force the Palestinians to abandon their demand for a two-state solution. Instead, he said, they would work to establish a bi-national state comprising Israel and the territories, in which Palestinians would be granted equal rights. Under such a plan, Arabs would constitute a majority in less than two decades, observers said.

Just a day after Qurei’s warning, the PLO’s executive committee, meeting in Ramallah, threatened that any Israeli unilateral move to claim portions of the West Bank and Gaza would be countered by a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood. Qurei did not repeat his threat, which was criticized by senior members of his Fatah faction and leaders of the Palestinian Islamic opposition.

The insistence of Hamas on a two-state solution was highlighted in an unusual statement issued by the organization’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. In an interview with a German news agency, Yassin said last week that his organization will stop its anti-Israeli attacks if Israel allows the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza along the pre-1967 lines. Yassin denied reports that Hamas has decided to suspend attacks inside Israel. Recent Egyptian attempts to broker a Palestinian cease-fire agreement reportedly had reached a dead-end last week.

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