The State Department said Tuesday the United States is in active discussions with Israel about the route of its controversial security fence, amid reports Israel may be planning to extend the barrier to a settlement deep inside the West Bank. U.S. officials reiterate that the fence project is a "problem."
The State Department says U.S. officials have raised with the Israeli government at high levels reports that it may be preparing to extend its security barrier around the major Jewish settlement Ariel, which would be its deepest penetration into the West Bank.
Ariel, which has about 16,000 Israeli residents, is located near the center of the northern sector of the West Bank, about 20 kilometers east of the so-called "green line" that was Israel's boundary before the 1967 Middle East war.
Israel has defended the fence project as necessary to protect its citizens from terrorists and says it has already led to a reduction in attacks.
The Bush administration has said it does not object to the barrier in principle provided it is on or near the pre-war lines. However, at a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated that the United States finds a fence that intrudes deeply into Palestinian areas problematic.
"Our position has been clear: the fence is a problem," he said. "It's a problem to the extent that it pre-judges final borders, that it confiscates Palestinian property, or that it imposes further hardship on the Palestinian people. So that is the position that we've taken in the discussions with the Israelis. We talk about the barrier, and we talk about what its consequences might be."
Mr. Boucher said U.S.-Israeli discussions on the issue are active, though he did not provide details.
A plan approved by the Israeli government late last year calls for building a barrier around three sides of Ariel and possibly linking it later to the main fence, which is about one-quarter complete and runs closer to the "green line" on the northwestern edge of the West Bank.
The Israeli defense ministry, which is in charge of building the barrier, says ground has not been broken in the Ariel area, but Palestinians say survey work began last week.
The Bush administration has threatened to deduct, from congressionally approved loan guarantees, the amount of money Israel spends for the barrier in places where it thrusts into Palestinian land.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat says putting Ariel inside the barrier would leave little to negotiate in future Middle East peace talks and he suggests the Israeli government may be acting now to try to take advantage of the U.S. Presidential campaign.