As President Bush completes work on a new set of Middle East peace proposals, his spokesmen are criticizing Israel for its decision to wall off the West Bank with a security fence. They say any demarcation of a border with a Palestinian state should be left to negotiations.
Administration officials say Israel has a right to defend itself from attack, the stated purpose of the barrier being built between it and the West Bank.
But, at the same time, they suggest the fence will be an added hardship for ordinary Palestinians needing to cross the line, and that it might pre-judge future peace negotiations.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said any drawing of a border needs to be left to negotiations and that a peace accord is the best way for Israel to have security.
"The basic framework that we come at is that you do have to do certain things to defend yourselves," he said. "You have to protect yourselves as best you can. But you also have to understand that each of those steps can have consequences. And second of all, that ultimately the only way to get real security for the Israelis is to get peace, and that means having a Palestinian entity, a partner on the other side, that can control security in that area in cooperation with Israel."
An expression of concern about the Israeli project also came from President Bush's wife, Laura, who said she does not think the fence will be a "long-lasting sign of peace."
Mrs. Bush, who rarely comments on foreign policy matters, said there is now a "huge barrier of hate and distrust" between the Middle East parties and she said she hopes they can at least start the process of tearing that barrier down.
The remarks came as President Bush, put finishing touches on what is described as a U.S. "vision" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The message, expected as early as Tuesday, will reiterate U.S. support for Palestinian statehood and possibly propose declaring an interim or provisional state on areas now controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
There have been virtually no leaks from the Bush administration about the content of the policy statement, the product of weeks of consultations with Israel and the Arab states and other concerned parties.
The Israeli newspaper "Yediot Aharonot," however, quoted Israeli sources in its Monday edition as saying the plan includes, along with the interim state idea, a call for a total freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, including the so-called "natural growth" of existing settlements.
The Israeli paper also said the Bush plan will set no target dates for the two sides to meet their commitments, but will set conditions or benchmarks for progress, making recognition of an interim Palestinian government, for instance, dependent on governmental reforms.
Administration officials have made clear in advance the Bush message will not include proposals for settling the most intractable issues including refugees and the status of Jerusalem, but will instead be aimed at providing a path back to negotiations after more than 20 months of violence.