Vol. 4 Num 237 Sat. January 24, 2004  

Sharon to make strong case for barrier ahead of US trip, ICJ hearing

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who faces a bribery scandal at home, will most likely visit Washington next February ahead of an International Court of Justice hearing on the legality of the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, an Israeli official said yesterday.

The official, who asked not to be named, said Sharon had been given "an open invitation" to visit the United States for talks with US President George W. Bush.

He said the invitation had been extended by Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, during a conversation with Sharon's chief of staff Dov Weisglass, who is in Washington to discuss the barrier.

Sharon's US trip is likely to occur before February 23 when a hearing will open at the court in The Hague on the legality of the barrier whose controversial route, which often juts deep into the Palestinian territories, has sparked anger on the Palestinian side and even prompted Bush to call it "a problem."

Palestinians see it as a land-grab and a bid to pre-empt the borders of a future Palestinian state while Israel insists the barrier, which is to stretch 730km, only aims to prevent infiltration by Palestinian attackers.

A December 8 Arab-backed UN General Assembly resolution asked for the ICJ opinion which, although it will only be advisory and its ruling non-binding, could well embarrass Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom telephoned US Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday to once again defend the barrier and said Israel intends to question the competence of the world court to give an opinion on the substance of the case "as well as for procedural reasons."

And Sharon said last Sunday he may consider minor changes to the barrier's path where it has not yet been constructed as he acknowledged the works caused "damage to Palestinians' quality of life."

Israeli justice officials have already warned that they would have a hard time defending the barrier at The Hague because of its problematic route.

Sharon will also expose his "disengagement plan" to Bush during his upcoming trip, Israeli media reported Thursday.

The hawkish premier warned last December that if the Palestinians were not to implement their obligations under the peace roadmap, he would unilaterally disengage from them by withdrawing from a limited number of Jewish settlements, mostly in the Gaza Strip, and drawing his own security border.