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Israel’s Barak: Weigh ‘unilateral action’
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.
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.
By Donald Lambro
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