Israel is plotting each meter of its security fence with great care and consideration, Israeli officials say -- not just to keep terrorists out, but to keep the United States on Israel's side.
With the Bush administration close to Israel on most other issues of Middle East diplomacy, the security fence has become the single greatest issue threatening bilateral relations, Israelis have acknowledged -- and they treat each American objection accordingly.
"Each issue on the fence is being worked out with the Americans privately," an official said.
That's likely to be the case for a long while, said David Makovksy, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"This is an issue that will not go away," he said. "This route is being negotiated with the United States at every meter and mile of the West Bank."
Bush administration officials have warned Israel not to build a fence that would cut off parts of the West Bank from each other and to plan the fence to allow for an eventual Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.
Palestinians say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to plot the fence so that a future Palestinian state will consist of several small and overpopulated cantons.
Their presentations have moved U.S. officials as senior as President Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and have led the Americans to monitor the fence closely.
Israel says it needs the fence to keep terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank into Israel proper, where they kill Israelis -- and any hope of progress toward peace.
The Israeli official identified three areas of U.S. concern that Israel is trying to address. The outline was confirmed by a leading pro-Israel activist in Washington.
The issues are:\n
• Israel wants to push the fence slightly into the West Bank to distance it from Ben-Gurion International Airport. Officials of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Agency are in Israel to examine alternatives that would allow the land to remain unfenced, while not leaving the airport vulnerable to terrorists with shoulder-held missiles.\n
•Horseshoe-shaped fences would protect settlements in the Ariel area in the northern West Bank. These smaller fences would not be linked to one another, allowing passage for Palestinians living in the area.\n
•Jerusalem remains the most contentious issue. In one instance, Israel shifted its planned route to avoid seizing a soccer field owned by Al Quds University in the suburb of Abu Dis. In another, Sharon agreed to encircle the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim -- a bedroom community for Jerusalem -- rather than link its fence to the national fence. Such a link would slice the West Bank into two Palestinian cantons, Palestinian negotiators have said.
Another issue that alarmed the Americans was a Palestinian projection that Israel would run a fence down the Jordan Valley, cutting the Palestinians off from Jordan and closing in a future Palestinian state from the east.
Israel has dealt with that issue simply by suspending any building in the Jordan Valley.
U.S. concerns have been somewhat assuaged by Israel's cooperation in these areas, but they have maintained the pressure. Rice has made the phrase "a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state" a staple of her speeches.
The Bush administration also has reached out to Israel's staunchest supporters in Congress. When the Democratic whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), led a 29-member Democratic delegation to Israel in August, he lashed out against Bush administration criticism of the fence, saying threats to link loan guarantees to the fence's route could "undermine Israel's security needs."
Last week, Hoyer once again endorsed the fence, but with a caveat: "The route of that fence is an issue and properly continues to be examined," he said in Congress.
Such close monitoring of the fence discomfits Israeli officials. But perhaps the Bush administration's toughest threat is that it will draw back from involvement in the region.
Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, is worried that the United States might dump responsibility for the "road map" peace plan on the U.N. Security Council, which is far less open to Israel's perspective.
That could make Israel answerable for the fence route to a body it regards with suspicion. On Tuesday, the Security Council is set to discuss a Syrian-backed resolution ordering Israel to cease building the fence.
"This is a very dangerous development," Gillerman said. "We view it with very great concern."
Gillerman urged U.S. Jews to lobby hard for the fence, saying its existing stretches have effectively separated central Israel from the terrorist strongholds. Instead, he said, suicide attackers are slipping into Jerusalem in the south and from Jenin into Haifa in the north.
Most recently, 20 Israelis were killed in Haifa when a suicide bomber came through an opening in the fence, Gillerman said.
"This last horrible suicide bombing will prove that had a fence been there, all those lives could have been saved," he told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a conference call last week.
Israeli envoys don't miss an opportunity to importune U.S. Jews to make the fence an issue in dealings with elected representatives. At a recent fund-raiser in Washington for an Israeli university, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, departed from his prepared remarks to make the case for the fence.
Israelis also bristle at suggestions that the fence marks a permanent border, noting that they handily removed a similar length of barbed wire and brick in southern Lebanon in 2000.
"Whoever tries to paint it as a separation wall is being cynical and misleading," Gillerman said.
Americans argue that Israeli additions in the West Bank, starting with the Jordan Valley settlements of the late 1960s, initially were presented as temporary but now seem burnished by permanence.
The issue is not likely to disappear. The collapse of the peace process and the fact that the fence has become virtually the only issue dividing the United States and Israel means its importance is likely to increase, Makovsky said.
"You're in a dysfunctional period; any sense of diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians has broken down," he said. "And with the re-emergence of Arafat, no one thinks counter-terror is the name of the game. The fence -- that's life now."
Palestinians are not unhappy with the emphasis on the fence, but they say it means little given the Israeli-U.S. closeness in other spheres.
Edward Abington, a senior Washington adviser to the Palestinians, predicted that the Bush administration would lose interest in the fence route as U.S. elections and economic problems loom and as the rebuilding of Iraq -- and the security of U.S. soldiers there -- becomes more complicated.
"Pretty soon, we'll be in a position in which the Israelis have fenced off Jerusalem, dividing the West Bank between east and west and north and south," Abington said. "Palestinians will be shut up in cantons the same way they are shut up in Gaza."