Time to Build a Fence? Some Israeli Pols Talk about Fencing off the Whole West Bank. but Amram Mitzna, the New Labor Party Leader, Is Serious

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Byline: Dan Ephron

Even in the wildly disparate arena of Israeli politics, Amram Mitzna stands out. As the Labor Party's new leader, the 57-year-old general has become the country's first candidate for prime minister ever to run on a promise to dismantle Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. If his party somehow carries the Jan. 28 elections, and if his government can't get a peace deal within a year, Mitzna has pledged to do what he believes must be done: evacuate many of the Jewish settlers now living in the West Bank and fence the place off. The settlements should never have been there to begin with, he says. "We have to confess it was a mistake [to build them]," he recently told a visiting delegation of Jewish Americans. "It is a dream that we cannot have today."

His listeners groaned aloud. The grief was for Israel's broken dreams, but it could just as well have been for Labor's faltering hopes on Election Day. Speaking ill of the settlements has yet to help Mitzna win popular support away from Ariel Sharon and his Likud bloc. The current prime minister has good odds of keeping his job; the latest polls put his approval rating around 70 percent, and most of the 200,000 settlers on the West Bank are solidly behind him.

Still, one plank in Mitzna's platform has already won massive public backing: the idea of fencing off the West Bank. With no hint of any break in the hostilities after 26 months of riots, terrorist attacks and armed clashes, more than 70 percent of Israelis now tell pollsters they want "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians. Israel sealed off its entire 32-mile border with Gaza after the 1994 Oslo accords, and security experts are urging a similar barricade along the 300-mile Green Line that separated Israel from the West Bank in the years after it captured the area in 1967. They say a fence would be a big help in keeping Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel. Last week 11 victims died and 47 were injured, many of them high-school students, in an explosion aboard a packed bus in Jerusalem; the bomber was identified as a 23-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank town of Bethlehem. The proposed fence is drawing support even from hard-liners like Sharon's right-wing rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always hated anything that might be seen as limiting Israel's territorial claims.

So far the scheme has been stymied by political questions disguised as geographic ones: where the fence would run and what would become of settlements on the Palestinian side. "When you build a fence, you create a reality," says Uzi Dayan, a retired general who until recently was Sharon's national security adviser. "It involves tough decisions, and Israeli politicians don't like making tough decisions." Mitzna says he's prepared to face the settlers' wrath. He's done it before. When Israel handed back Sinai to the Egyptians in 1982, he was the commander in charge of evacuating one of the last Israeli bastions, the kibbutz of Yamit. His troops wrestled the last holdouts off the rooftops and forced them into trucks that carried them back to Israel.

The man who ordered the evacuation was Israel's Defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon. …