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Israeli Official Weighs an Imposed Palestinian Border
Published: May 30, 2012
The New York Times

TEL AVIV — Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday that Israel should consider imposing the borders of a future Palestinian state, becoming the most senior government official to suggest bypassing a stagnant peace process.

Mr. Barak’s statement urging consideration of what he and many Israelis call “unilateral actions,” without offering any specifics, echoed an emerging chorus of political leaders, analysts and intellectuals who have said that Israel needs to put in effect its own settlement to the Palestinian crisis. Though the Israeli government continues to call for negotiations toward a two-state solution, the drive for a one-sided approach also received a boost on Wednesday from the Institute for National Security Studies, a respected research center that is close to the military and security establishment.

Mr. Barak called for “an interim agreement, maybe even unilateral action,” during a conference sponsored by the institute here. Referring to fears that Jews will become a minority in their own state, he added, “Inaction is not a possibility.”

“Israel cannot afford stagnation,” Mr. Barak said. “It will be a difficult decision to make, but the time is running out.”

Calls for direct action are based on the arguments that negotiations are no longer feasible because of enduring political divisions on both sides and the changing dynamics inspired by the Arab Spring, which demand that leaders take more populist positions in line with anti-Israel public sentiment. But some advocates of this approach have also said that they believe the door should remain open to negotiations, suggesting that unilateral steps could be phased in over many years and be designed, in part, to give Israel a stronger hand in final status talks.

The Palestinian Authority has opposed any effort by Israel to decree the contours of its territory and abandon a negotiated settlement on a wide variety of issues, including the future of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority, however, did take its own unilateral steps last fall, when it pursued United Nations recognition, something it is considering doing again. Israel has criticized such efforts for stepping outside the bounds of negotiations. The Obama administration has strongly opposed unilateral action by either side, and some senior Israeli officials have worried that such a move by Israel could provoke an uprising by Palestinians.

“The core issues of the conflict can only be resolved by direct negotiations,” Daniel B. Shapiro, the United States ambassador to Israel, said Wednesday. Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, also objected to the call for unilateralism, saying, “This policy won’t lead to a solution and would prolong the conflict. It will end the idea of the two-state solution.”

Both Mr. Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the security conference that they, too, preferred a final-status solution of two states for two peoples, and that the broad unity government they formed this month presented a unique opportunity for a peace deal. But many here see bilateral negotiations as all but impossible and are seeking a new paradigm.

Mr. Barak, who briefly spoke about the Palestinian conflict at the end of a wide-ranging lecture, did not offer any specifics by design, according to a senior aide who said later that “what he’s talking about is the importance of taking action.”

Shaul Mofaz, the Kadima Party leader whose alliance with Mr. Netanyahu this month created the supermajority of 94 out of 120 members of Parliament, has advocated creating an interim Palestinian state on 60 percent of the West Bank, with settlers offered incentives or being forced to leave their homes.

A new Israeli organization called Blue White Future, which supports a two-state solution along the 1967 borders, penned an April Op-Ed page article in The New York Times saying that “through a series of unilateral actions, gradual but tangible changes could begin to transform the situation on the ground.” From the right, Naftali Bennett, a high-tech millionaire trying to form a new political party, in March sent 5,000 opinion leaders his plan for Israeli annexation of large swaths of the West Bank known as Area C, where most settlers live.

And Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster, wrote this month that “unilateral steps by both sides could provide an alternative” to what he sees as a “growing one-state reality.” At Wednesday’s conference, Shlomo Brom, a retired general who leads the research center’s program on the Palestinian conflict, presented a paper calling “the unilateral route the only remaining course of action.”

“We can start talking about a permanent agreement,” Mr. Brom said, “but we believe we will start talking about the transitional arrangement very quickly and prepare ourselves to implement unilateral moves.”

Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who now runs the institute, called it “the best of all evils.”

“If a miracle happens and we can reach a negotiation and reach an agreement, this institute will be happy to take all of its papers and burn them,” Mr. Yadlin told the audience of about 200 of Israel’s leading security officials and intellectuals. “We are going to shape the reality of the two states. Everybody believes in it. Let’s advance it without conditioning it on the agreement of the Palestinians. We have to take the initiative in our own hands.”

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.But critics of the unilateral approach abound, many of them citing Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the takeover two years later by the militant Hamas faction.

“How come there are people who are ready to think about such a dangerous idea after the complete failure of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza?” Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s minister of education, asked in a statement on Wednesday, adding that Mr. Barak, who is close to Mr. Netanyahu but not a member of his Likud Party, represented a minority view in the cabinet and coalition.

Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to Tony Blair on the Middle East, called unilateralism “very problematic.”

“What political entity would emerge in the aftermath of your withdrawal?” Mr. Danin asked. “What are you getting for giving up land? Why would you want to uproot 70,000 settlers, or halt settlement activity, for nothing?”

Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former Palestinian Authority minister who is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, told the Israeli audience that continued settlement activity in the West Bank “undermines any possibility of disengagement.”

“We are negotiating about the West Bank and you continue eating the West Bank slice after slice, slice after slice,” Mr. Abu Zayyad said. “If I see that the Israeli government cannot evacuate outposts, can anyone convince me that it will be able to evacuate settlements?”

Asked about the unilateral proposals, a spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu referred to the prime minister’s speech on Tuesday evening in which he called for a return to bilateral talks. “Chances are not always repeated in history, in political history, but it exists now,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Negotiations for peace need two sides. One side is there.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Moshe Yaalon, a deputy prime minister, had taken the stage at the conference to say that unilateral steps are a disincentive to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority “to come to the table.”

“We as a government say O.K., we have a strategy, we’re ready to sit to the table if there’s a partner,” said Mr. Yaalon, the minster for strategic affairs and former chief of the Israeli Defense Force. “When we retreat or withdraw, we show weakness.”

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