WASHINGTON - After publicly criticizing the fence and wall that Israel is building in the West Bank, the Bush administration is quietly negotiating with the Israeli government on changes in the route of the barrier.
In a series of high-level contacts, Israel has addressed complaints raised by the United States about particular sections of what it calls a security fence, without drastically altering plans that Palestinians say would prevent creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Israel's effort to avoid a public clash with the United States comes as the barrier draws growing international opposition and the Bush administration has suspended its active involvement in prodding Israel and the Palestinians toward renewed peace talks.
While U.S. officials say they aren't satisfied with the route changes made so far, the White House has held off on withholding foreign aid, a move that could cause domestic political damage to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and provoke an uproar among Sharon's supporters in the United States.
"What we're trying to do is make it a nonissue," an Israeli diplomat said.
Signs that construction of the barrier will proceed with only minor adjustments have alarmed Palestinians and opponents of Sharon's hard-line tactics.
"A role reversal [by the United States] on this would be the final nail in our coffin," said Amjad Atallah, a Washington-based Palestinian representative.
"It's a slippery slope for the administration to be going down, missing the point of what the fence means to the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations," said Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, which opposes Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The barrier, a network of walls, fences and trenches, has become a flashpoint in the struggle over territory that lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the Israelis deny it, Palestinians say they fear that it will create a new de facto border.
The negotiations between Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, and a top aide to Sharon, Dov Weissglass, highlight the administration's dilemma in advancing Bush's declared vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while not dictating how Israel should protect its citizens.
The talks also provide a fresh example of Sharon's skill in managing his relationship with the White House and in maneuvering among frequently divided administration policy-makers.
Parts of the barrier run fairly close to "green line," the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories that existed before the 1967 Six Day War. But other sections cut deeply into the West Bank, effectively bringing Palestinian villages and many Jewish West Bank settlements into Israeli territory.
A map of the planned section around Jerusalem published by the Israeli human-rights group B'tselem shows that it would extend the city's boundary almost to Ramallah in the north and to Bethlehem in the southeast, cutting West Bank Palestinians off from the Arab sector they claim as a future capital. The barrier could envelop at least 8 percent of the West Bank and 175,000 Palestinians, one administration official said.
Israel began erecting the barrier in response to a public clamor for greater security after three years of Palestinian attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives. Describing it as necessary to keep suicide bombers out of Israel, the government insists the route has no bearing on where a final border will be drawn.
"We left more concrete in Sinai than ever will be here," said Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev, referring to Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula to fulfill its 1978 Camp David agreement with Egypt.
Palestinians say the planned route would carve the West Bank into isolated areas, preventing the contiguity of territories necessary for an economically viable state. They fear that the barrier, linked together with ever-growing Israeli settlements, would fulfill Sharon's long-term goal, as stated in a newspaper interview before his 2001 election, of granting Palestinians control over just 45 percent of the West Bank, leaving a large mid-section surrounding Jerusalem and the Jordan River Valley in Israeli hands .
They also say Palestinians on the Israeli side of the barrier will be economically strangled, cut off from farmland and major West Bank population centers, and will gradually be forced to leave the area.
Arab states have demanded that the United Nations Security Council declare the barrier illegal. This demand will force the United States, which holds the council's revolving presidency this month, to preside over what is likely to be an acrimonious meeting on the Middle East on Tuesday, and possibly to exercise a veto.
"We don't think that resolutions - one-sided resolutions of this kind - serve any useful purpose, even though we also recognize that we have our own reservations about Israeli actions with respect to construction of the wall," said John D. Negroponte, the American representative at the U.N.
U.S. officials have long pressed the Israelis to avoid creating "facts on the ground" that would prejudge the division of land that would come in a final peace agreement. In June, Rice said the barrier also ran counter to the administration's view that after a peace deal, "there would be no need for any kind of physical separation."
In July, Bush said during a news conference with then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, "I think the wall is a problem, and I discussed this with Ariel Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank." On Oct. 2, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "The President continues to believe that the fence presents a problem, and to the extent that the fence intrudes on Palestinian land, that problem is exacerbated."
But amid this public criticism, Israelis have noted a subtle change in the American language. Where Bush once denounced a "wall," he and other officials have now adopted the Israeli term "fence."
After her discussions with Weissglass on Sept. 22, Rice played down the split and suggested the barrier was unstoppable.
"We understand that they have some security concerns, and that it is extremely important, if it is going to be built, that, as much as possible, it not intrude on the lives of the Palestinians, and most importantly that it not look as if it's trying to prejudge the outcome of a peace agreement," Rice said. The talks were held, she said, "in a friendly spirit." Weissglass is due in Washington for further talks in the next few weeks.
In response to U.S. objections, Israelis have put off building a section of the fence that would envelop Ariel, one of the largest West Bank settlements, and adjusted the route slightly in Jerusalem to avoid interfering with al Quds University, a Palestinian institution.
Israelis are also allowing an American security team to examine whether the designated fence route in the center of the country is necessary to protect Ben Gurion Airport.
"In the absence of other diplomatic initiatives, the administration is likely to accept the political reality that the fence is the only game in town," commented Robert Satloff, policy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The year-old Rice-Weissglass channel gives Sharon direct access to the White House, diluting the role of State Department officials who have long been seen by Israelis as less sympathetic.
The administration has a blunt political instrument to wield to show its displeasure - cutting the cost of the fence from U.S.-guaranteed loans.
While the sums of money involved aren't significant, such an action could damage Sharon's standing with Israeli voters, who value a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, Roth said. However, months after leaking word of this threat, the administration is still postponing what one official calls a "half-legal, half-policy" decision.