Israeli defense chief proposes West Bank pullout

Associated Press
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 17 2011 file photo, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak attends a press conference in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem. Barak calls for a broad unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank if peace talks remain stalled, saying "practical steps" are needed to breathe life into the diplomatic process. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's defense minister on Monday called for a broad unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank if talks with the Palestinians remain stalled, saying in published comments that "practical steps" are needed to breathe life into the stalemated peace process.

The proposal drew attention to the dire state of affairs with the Palestinians, which has been overshadowed by Israel's focus on the Iranian nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, convinced that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons, says the Islamic Republic must be stopped and has devoted his 3 1/2 year term to rallying international support against the Iranians. At the same time, he has largely ignored the Palestinian issue.

In an interview with the Israel Hayom daily, Defense Minister Ehud Barak implied that the deadlock with the Palestinians cannot be sustained indefinitely.

"It's better to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but if that doesn't happen, we must take practical steps to start a separation," he said. "It will help us not only in dealing with the Palestinians, but also with other countries in the region, with the Europeans, and with the American administration — and of course (will help) us."

Barak's proposal is unlikely to be implemented, at least in the short term. Netanyahu has shown no interest in one-sided concessions, and his governing coalition is dominated by hard-liners who would be reluctant to embrace the plan. Netanyahu's office declined comment.

The 12 million people who live in Israel and the Palestinian territories are divided roughly equally between Jews and Arabs. Most experts believe the Arab birthrate is higher, and that if Israel does not give up control of the West Bank, Jews will no longer be a majority in areas under Israeli control. That would threaten Israel's twin goals of being a democracy and a Jewish state.

Dovish Israelis have cited this demographic argument for years as a key reason to pull out of the West Bank, which is home to 2.5 million Palestinians. Even Netanyahu, head of the nationalist Likud Party, has raised concerns about the demographic issue.

But on the ground, Netanyahu has continued to build up the settlements. More than 300,000 Israelis now live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in addition to 200,000 Israelis in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas and the Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for their future state.

The Palestinians believe the continued construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith and say they will not return to negotiations without a settlement freeze. Netanyahu has rejected this demand, and says peace talks should resume without any conditions.

Barak has previously floated the idea of unilateral action, most recently in May. But in Monday's interview, he was far more detailed.

"We have not been a year or two in Judea and Samaria, but 45 years," Barak said, using the biblical terms for the West Bank. "The time has come to make decisions based not only on ideology and gut feelings, but from a cold reading of reality."

He said Israel would keep heavily concentrated settlement "blocs." These blocs, home to most of the settler population, are mostly located near the frontiers with Israel proper, though one of them, Ariel, is located deep inside the West Bank. Barak also said Israel would need to maintain a military presence along the West Bank's border with Jordan.

The remaining settlers would be given financial incentives to leave, or be allowed to remain in their homes under Palestinian control for a five-year "trial period," Barak said.

"It's time to look at Israeli society honestly and say: 'We succeeded in keeping 80 to 90 percent of settlements,'" he said. "It would be a great accomplishment if we succeed in bringing them into Israel's permanent borders."

Barak, who was out of the country on Monday, did not explain why he decided to unveil his proposal now. A full version of the interview was to be published on Tuesday.

Barak, a former prime minister who led failed peace talks with the Palestinians a decade ago, may have been motivated by domestic politics to float his proposal now. Netanyahu is widely expected to call early elections in the coming weeks, roughly a year ahead of schedule. Barak, who leads the small centrist Independence Party, could be positioning himself for centrist voters ahead of the campaign season.

But the strategy is risky. The idea of a unilateral pullout is widely scorned in Israel following the experience of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The pullout cleared the way for Hamas militants to overrun the territory two years later, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in control of only the West Bank.

Gaza quickly became a launching pad for rocket attacks on southern Israel, prompting a three-week Israeli military offensive in 2008-2009. Many Israelis fear a repeat in the West Bank, which could place Islamic militants just miles away from Israel's largest cities.

The Palestinians also rejected Barak's proposal, since it falls short of their demand for a full withdrawal from the entire West Bank and east Jerusalem. They also say a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank is unacceptable.

Sabri Sedam, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said continued Israeli control of the settlement blocs and east Jerusalem would make the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible.

"These settlement blocs are not isolated populations. They are connected communities, passing through the Palestinian land, which kills any geographical contiguity for a Palestinian state," he said.

Barak's plan would also face resistance from settler groups, who wield significant political power. Extremist settlers might also violently resist any attempts to uproot them.

Settler leader Dani Dayan called the plan a "nonstarter" motivated by Barak's "electioneering." He said the experience of unilateral pullouts had been discredited by the experience in Gaza, as well as an earlier withdrawal in southern Lebanon that strengthened Hezbollah.

"It is regrettable that the minister of defense engages in petty politics on the most crucial issues," he said.

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Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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