Jerusalem • Israel's defense minister abruptly proposed Wednesday that Israel consider "unilateral action" if long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians don't produce a deal suggesting Israel may be thinking of withdrawing on its own from parts of the West Bank, as it did from the Gaza Strip seven years ago.
Ehud Barak's proposal of undefined unilateral action came as a surprise, given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to the Gaza pullout and the prevailing sentiment in Israel that the 2005 withdrawal was a failure because violently anti-Israel Hamas militants soon overran the territory.
Two decades of negotiations have been aimed at a treaty to create a Palestinian state next to Israel. Twice they came close to agreement but broke down. Now, with talks stalled for more than three years, Barak warned time was running out to reach an accord.
"Israel cannot afford to tread water," he said in a speech before a security conference, echoing sentiments Netanyahu voiced Tuesday. 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 either term, and a spokesman had no further comment. He might have used the prospect of unilateralism, despised by the Palestinians, simply to pressure them to return to talks, which are stalled over the issue if construction in Israeli settlements.
Unilateral action could take many forms, including annexation of Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, military crackdowns and mass arrests.
But the first image that came to many minds was Israel's 2005 unilateral evacuation of all 8,500 settlers and thousands of soldiers from Gaza, ending a 38-year occupation.
Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to evacuate Gaza caught the Israeli public off guard when he, too, disclosed them in a conference speech.
A spokesman for Netanyahu would not comment when asked whether Israel was working on a unilateral West Bank withdrawal.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu told the same security conference that "we and the Palestinians need to reach a peace agreement to prevent the creation of a binational state" encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories, meaning 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.
The previous, more moderate Israeli government briefly weighed the idea of a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, but it abandoned the idea after a war with Lebanon broke out in the summer of 2006. The notion lost support in the Israeli public after Gaza militants used their territory, once under Israeli control, to batter southern Israel with thousands of rockets.
Netanyahu has warned that this scenario would unfold in the West Bank if Israel pulled out, allowing Hamas and its allies to fire rockets at central Israel with its main population centers, like Tel Aviv.
If Netanyahu and Barak are seriously considering unilateral action, Netanyahu recently shored up his government and gave himself a solid parliamentary majority by bringing in parliament's largest faction, the centrist Kadima the party Sharon formed to move ahead more aggressively with peacemaking than Netanyahu's Likud wanted to do at the time.
A unilateral Israeli pullout would almost certainly fall short of Palestinian demands for a full withdrawal from all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has said he wants to keep parts of the West Bank and opposes any division of Jerusalem.
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."