A controversial security fence under construction in the West Bank is a "necessity," a senior Israeli official insisted yesterday after US President George W. Bush described it as a "problem" in landmark talks with Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas.
"The building of this security fence has no political connotations. It's a necessity dictated by the security imperative of preventing Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel," the official said, asking not to be named.
Bush had criticized the fence, which Israel started building in June last year, in a joint news conference with Abbas in the White House Rose Garden late on Friday.
"I think the wall is a problem, and I have discussed this with [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon," he said.
"It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis ... with a wall snaking through the West Bank," Bush said.
The Israeli official took issue with Bush's use of the word "wall" even though the barrier does take that form for part of its length.
"It is a shame that President Bush did not use the correct term security fence," the official said.
"Israel is not constructing a wall -- it's the Palestinians who use that term in a bid to persuade the world it's some sort of Berlin Wall.
"This fence is a necessity and not a choice. Mr Sharon will explain that to President Bush when he meets him" in the White House on Tuesday, the official said, noting that in the past the US leader had "always championed Israel's right to defend itself."
Eventually expected to snake some 900km along the West Bank, the security fence has infuriated Palestinians as it leaves large swathes of the territory on the Israeli side and is seen as a bid to preempt negotiations on the final borders of the Palestinian state promised by 2005 under a US-backed peace roadmap.
The fence, which incorporates a network of earthworks, trenches and patrol roads, also cuts a whole string of Palestinian communities in two.
Sharon promised to review the impact on ordinary Palestinians as part of a series of measures announced just hours before Bush's talks with Abbas.
The prime minister "will consider ways to reduce, by as much as possible, infringements by the security fence on the Palestinian populations daily lives," his office said.
Meanwhile, Sharon is to ask his cabinet today to approve the release of 100 jailed members of Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, public radio said.
Sharon hopes ministers will give their green light before he leaves for the US today, so that he can convince Washington he is serious about building confidence in the fledgling peace process and bolstering the position of Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas, the radio said.
The 100 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members slated for release have not been involved in attacks that claimed Israeli victims, the radio added.
The question of Palestinian prisoners has proved a major stumbling block in efforts to advance the roadmap.