An Israeli soldier scuffles with a Palestinian farmer as villagers are prevented from working on their lands in the West Bank village of Tuqua, east of Bethlehem, near the Jewish colony of Tekoa. Image Credit: AFP


Occupied Jerusalem: Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak abruptly proposed on Wednesday that Israel consider “unilateral action” if long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians don’t resume and produce a deal — suggesting Israel may be thinking of withdrawing from part of the West Bank, as it did from the Gaza Strip seven years ago.

Echoing sentiments voiced Tuesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the defence minister warned that time was running out to reach an accord.

“Israel cannot afford to tread water,” he said in a speech before a security conference. If a deal “proves to be impossible, we have to consider a provisional arrangement or even unilateral action.”

Barak did not elaborate on what he meant by “unilateral action” and a spokesman had no further comment.

But the phrase raises memories of Israel’s 2005 Gaza pullout, when it pulled all 8,500 colonists and thousands of soldiers from the territory, ending a 38-year occupation.

A spokesman for Netanyahu would not comment when asked whether Israel was working on a unilateral West Bank withdrawal similar to the Gaza pullout.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu told the same conference that “we and the Palestinians need to reach a peace agreement to prevent the creation of a bi-national state,” where Israel would lose its Jewish majority.

“We don’t want to rule the Palestinians and we don’t want the Palestinians as citizens of Israel,” he said.


Common ground

Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been unable to find enough common ground to renew talks that broke down in 2008.

Abbas says Israel must halt colony construction on occupied land sought by the Palestinians for a future state. Netanyahu says talks should resume without preconditions.

A unilateral Israeli pullout would almost certainly fall short of Palestinian demands for a full withdrawal from all of the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Netanyahu has said he wants to keep parts of the West Bank, and opposes any division of occupied Jerusalem.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat questioned the sincerity of Israel’s declared desire to make peace.

“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.”

Barak’s proposal of unilateral action came as a surprise, given the prevailing sentiment in Israel that the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was a failure because Hamas militants soon overran the territory and, with the help of other radical Palestinian groups, began barraging southern Israel with rocket fire.