WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) says he is concerned that the security fence Israel is building could impede peacemaking with the Palestinians.
"A nation is within its rights to put up a fence if it sees the need for one," Powell said in a broadcast to Arab countries. However, he said, "In the case of the Israeli fence, we are concerned when the fence crosses over onto the land of others."
Powell's disapproval of Israeli security construction on the West Bank and his description of the territory as belonging to others could signal a toughening stance by the Bush administration as it tries to push both sides toward following a Bush-sponsored "road map" to settlement of decades of enmity.
Administration officials are considering a reduction in loan guarantees to Israel as a penalty for constructing the fence.
The dollar-for-dollar formula now might be applied to the $9 billion in loan guarantees over three years and $1 billion in military aid approved last spring to help compensate Israel for the economic impact of the war with Iraq.
The main question under consideration is whether building the 370-mile-long fence or barrier is related to settlements, said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Israelis have said the construction will cost about $2 million a mile.
The potential punishment of Israel stirred a protest among pro-Israel members of Congress.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said, "The administration's threat to cut aid to Israel unless it stops construction of a security fence is a heavy-handed tactic."
"It has no place in relations between allies," Lieberman, a presidential aspirant, said in a statement. "The Israeli people have the right to defend themselves from terrorism, and a security fence may be necessary to achieve this."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., urged President Bush in a letter not to delay distribution of the loan guarantees, which were approved by Congress.
"By building a security fence in the West Bank, the Israeli government is pushing a reasonable defensive policy that respects the terms of the cease-fire currently in force and does no violence to the Palestinian people," Schumer said.
The senator said he worried "that a shift in emphasis by the White House on implementing provisions of the road map leaves Israel terribly vulnerable to terrorist attack."
In a parallel action, Rep. Elliot L. Engel, another New York Democrat, issued a statement that asked: "How can President Bush punish the Israelis for stopping terror with a security fence when he topples foreign governments around the world to protect Americans?"
In fact, Engel said, Congress did not authorize the president to curtail loan guarantees to Israel for bolstering its security, even if its actions were on the West Bank.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., expressed "grave concern" in a letter to Bush. "The U.S. must never pressure Israel to take a position or action which would jeopardize the security of its citizens," she wrote.
Powell, in the radio interview recorded Monday, said the administration was talking to Israel about the security fence.
"The fence has walls as part of the fence," he said, "and we hope we can find a way of discussing this problem so that the fence does not become a hindrance toward progress on the road map."