Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Israeli security barrier that divides Israel and parts of the West Bank is a "rational response" to security concerns, a U.S. lawmaker said in Jerusalem.
House of Representatives Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is leading a delegation of lawmakers - the largest ever to visit Israel - on a one-week fact-finding tour, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which has links to AIPAC, America's largest pro-Israel lobby.
The organization said it hoped the trip would provide the 29 House members with first-hand knowledge on the importance of U.S.-Israel relations, the prospects for peace and Israeli security needs.
The group of Democrats met with Israeli Knesset members, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and were scheduled to meet with other Israelis and Palestinians.
Hoyer, on his sixth visit, said many lawmakers decided to make the trip because "they have realized the critical times that confront Israel, that confronts the United States and that confronts the world in ensuring that our world is not ruled by those who would visit terror on our countries and on our people."
At the same time, he said, many of the lawmakers have "great hope" that peace can be achieved in this region of the world.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening, Hoyer said the controversial Israeli security barrier makes sense for Israel and actually would promote peace.
"The fence is a rational response to securing safety, and in my opinion - to the extent that it stops terrorist acts from occurring - it will further the peace process, because terrorist acts will inevitably undermine the peace process."
The issue of the barrier, which is part fence, part wall, has caused friction between the Bush administration and Israel. Washington is concerned that the fence, which antagonizes Palestinians, could hamper attempts to move forward on the road map.
Earlier this week, reports suggested that the U.S. was considering penalizing Israel by cutting part of the $9 billion in loan guarantees extended to Israel from the U.S. by the amount that Israel is spending to build the fence.
Palestinians complain that the fence, which they call a wall, dissects agricultural land and cuts connections between rural areas and cities.
In his meeting with Abbas, Hoyer said he contradicted Abbas' description of the barrier as the "Berlin Wall."
"We discussed briefly the fence," Hoyer said. "He made an analogy of the fence to the Berlin Wall.
"I pointed out to him the Berlin Wall was constructed to enslave people, to keep people from leaving. This fence, as I understand it...is being constructed to prevent terrorism, provide safety, and in fact to provide a context in which the peace process would be possible," he said.
But even within the group, there were varying opinions about the fence/wall.
Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said she had been very supportive of the efforts of former President Bill Clinton to bring peace and now believed the U.S. should be very involved in the peace process.
Lee said she'd like to sideline the fence issue.
"I don't think the administration should have moved as quickly as it did in condemning it, and I think it's a conversation that needs to have clarity between what the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority is saying, Abu Mazen, and what Prime Minister Sharon is saying," Lee said.
Sharon talks about "security," she said, and Abbas about "divisiveness" but she said she thinks there can be "common ground for compromise."
Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), also on her sixth visit to Israel, said she originally opposed the "road map" because she felt it was "date-driven and not deed-driven" with its reference to establishing a Palestinian state by 2005, without any checks to ensure security for Israel.
She thinks the fence is a good idea.
"I'm in favor of that fence," Berkley said. "I don't think they could build it high enough to protect the Israeli people and the Jewish people."
On one point there seemed to be universal agreement: Terrorist organizations must be destroyed and effectively dismantled before there can be progress on the road map.
"I do support the fact that the terrorist entities have to be dismantled and what that means to me is that the infrastructure has to go, the money has to go and the tentative or the open support of groups that go against both the Prime Minister of the Palestinian authority and attack Israelis has to stop," said Lee.
"You must, before the road map goes forward to any phase, dismantle the terrorist organizations, because if you don't do that, this is just going to continue and a ceasefire isn't adequate and a permanent ceasefire isn't adequate," Berkley said.
"You have to dismantle the terrorist organizations, put an end to them, stop them, arrest them, get them out of circulation, close off their money and their resources and disarm them and anything short of that will be completely in effective," she added.