JERUSALEM — There are signs the Israeli government is considering taking unilateral action if peace talks with the Palestinians remain stalled, a move which could involve a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank along the lines of a 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a high-profile security conference on Wednesday that inaction is not an option and Israel cannot wait forever to reach an accord.
"Israel cannot afford to tread water," Barak said. If a deal "proves to be impossible, we have to consider a provisional arrangement or even unilateral action."
The statement reflected a growing sense of urgency in Israel about ending its 45-year entanglement with the Palestinians, even if no peace deal is possible.
Two decades of on-again, off-again peace talks have failed to yield an agreement, and negotiations have been frozen for more than three years. And as time passed, a shift of thinking has quietly occurred in Israel: The occupation of Palestinian lands may ultimately be bad for Israel simply because ruling millions of Arabs will demographically sink the Jewish state.
The new twist: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has grown increasingly vocal about the need to separate from the Palestinians, now has a broad coalition freeing him of nationalists who claim biblical rights to the West Bank.
Netanyahu, who for years rejected most concessions to the Palestinians, has also raised concerns in recent months that continued control of the more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank would threaten Israel's character as a democracy with a Jewish majority.
Early this month, he shored up his coalition by bringing the main opposition party, Kadima, into the government. Netanyahu now presides over a coalition comprising 94 of parliament's 120 members, meaning he is no longer reliant on hard-liners to preserve his majority. The formation of this new supermajority has raised speculation that Netanyahu might soon come forward with a diplomatic initiative to end the deadlock.
Kadima's leader, Shaul Mofaz, has called for creating a temporary Palestinian state in roughly 60 percent of the West Bank until a final agreement can be reached. Such a proposal could easily align with Barak's suggestion of a unilateral withdrawal. Mofaz's office did not return messages seeking comment.
Palestinian officials quickly rejected the idea of unilateral Israel moves – clearly concerned that after a partial pullout leaving them well short of their goals, Israel would have scant reason to negotiate further.
Barak did not elaborate on what sort of unilateral action he has in mind, but a spokesman said the defense minister has many "creative" ideas. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal discussions in the ministry.
It also remains unclear whether Netanyahu would support a unilateral action.
Netanyahu was a leading opponent to the 2005 Gaza pullout, resigning as finance minister at the time to protest what he believed was a surrender to violence.
The withdrawal, in which Israel uprooted all 8,500 Jewish settlers and thousands of soldiers, achieved its goal of enforcing a separation between Israel and the 1.5 million Palestinians of the tiny, impoverished strip. But most Israelis nonetheless see it as a failure: Shortly after the pullout, Hamas militants violently seized control of the territory from the more moderate Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, turning it into a hotbed of fundamentalist Islam and a base for frequent rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Netanyahu has warned he will not allow the same thing to happen in the larger, more central highland of the West Bank, where rocket squads would have Israel's international airport and major cities in easy range. Nonetheless, Netanyahu's silence on Barak's comments appeared to put hard-liners in his government at unease.
Gideon Saar, a Cabinet minister from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said Barak's speech "means that lessons have not yet been learned from the total failure of the unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza." He insisted Barak represented a "fringe minority" and did not reflect government policy.
Despite Netanyahu's past opposition to the Gaza pullout, he has shown signs of moderating since he was elected prime minister three years ago. Shortly after taking office, Netanyahu came out in favor of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, reversing decades of opposition.
On Tuesday, speaking to the same security conference, Netanyahu reiterated his fears of the demographic threat posed by continued control over the Palestinians. Most demographers believe that the Arab population in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper could soon outnumber the Jewish population of some 6 million.
Netanyahu said it was essential "to prevent the creation of a binational state" encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories. "We don't want to rule the Palestinians, and we don't want the Palestinians as citizens of Israel," he said.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late 2008 and have remained stalled, largely because of Palestinian objections to continuing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians seek both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, in addition to Gaza for a future state and have refused to negotiate while Israel expands the settlements that already house some 500,000 Israelis on occupied territory.
Netanyahu opposes any Israeli withdrawal from east Jerusalem, which is home to sensitive religious sites, and says Israel must retain control over parts of the West Bank for security reasons. He also has resisted repeated calls from the international community to halt settlement construction.
With the Israeli and Palestinian positions seemingly unbridgeable, a unilateral pullout from parts of the West Bank could provide a way out of the impasse.
Barak's comments were reminiscent of the run-up to the Gaza pullout. In the weeks before then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan, his deputy at the time, Ehud Olmert, floated the idea of a unilateral separation from the Palestinians.
Barak and Netanyahu are close today despite a tumultuous personal history. Barak was Netanyahu's commander when he led Israel's vaunted Sayeret Matkal commando unit in the 1970s; later, as ideological rivals, Barak bested Netanyahu in the 1999 election for prime minister; today, his popularity having waned, Barak depends on Netanyahu politically, yet also offers him an invaluable cloak of legitimacy as a pragmatic and experienced lieutenant.
With that in mind, many suspected Barak was floating a trial balloon on behalf of the prime minister.
Israel is likely to try to at least coordinate such a move with the Palestinians, to avoid a repeat of the Gaza scenario. It could try to persuade the Palestinians to accept an interim arrangement as a step to build trust and solidify Palestinian rule ahead of a final agreement. That would also get around the rift between the Palestinian authority in the West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip – a major obstacle to a final deal.
But the Palestinians seem unlikely to do much to play along: They oppose any talk of unilateral action or an interim agreement, saying that a temporary solution would likely become permanent.
And Netanyahu's vision of retaining not just east Jerusalem but major settlement blocs in the West Bank and a strip of land along the border with Jordan falls far short of Palestinian aspirations.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat questioned Israel's sincerity.
"If they want to reach an agreement, they know they can, based on a two-state solution," he said Wednesday. "Unilateralism is the name of the game for this government, which is very unfortunate and complicates and undermines the prospect of peace."
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