JERUSALEM — Israel's defense minister called for a unilateral pullout from much of the West Bank in published comments Monday, saying Israel must take "practical steps" if peace efforts with the Palestinians remain stalled.
The comments by Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to put him at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has resisted making any major concessions to the Palestinians in the absence of peace talks. Negotiations have been deadlocked for nearly four years. Netanyahu's office declined comment.
Barak's proposal is unlikely to be implemented, at least in the near term. Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by hardliners who would be reluctant to embrace the plan. But Netanyahu is widely expected to call early elections in the coming weeks, and Barak may be trying to attract centrist voters to his party ahead of an upcoming campaign.
Speaking to the Israel Hayom newspaper, Barak called for uprooting dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but said Israel would keep major settlement "blocs."
These blocs, home to 80 to 90 percent 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 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."
The proposal falls far short of Palestinian demands for all of the West Bank, along with adjacent east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for a future independent state. Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.
Sabri Sedam, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Barak's proposal. He said continued Israeli control of the settlement blocs and east Jerusalem would make the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible.
"The major settlement blocs separate the West Bank and confiscates east Jerusalem," Sedam said. "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."
The 12 million people who live in Israel plus the Palestinian areas are roughly equally divided between Arabs and Jews, and the Arab birthrate is generally higher.
In Israel proper, Jews make up about three-quarters of the population. But when the Palestinian areas are included, Jews could soon find themselves a minority in Israel-controlled areas. Dovish Israelis have cited this demographic argument for years as a key reason to pull out of the West Bank. Even Netanyahu has raised concerns about the demographic issue.
"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."
But unilateral moves are extremely controversial in Israel.
Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, citing demographics. Within two years, Hamas militants overran the territory, using it to fire thousands of rockets into Israel. Israeli hardliners fear the same thing could happen in the West Bank
Peace talks have been stalled since late 2008, in large part because of the Jewish settlements. The Palestinians refuse to negotiate while Israel continues to build new homes for settlers on occupied territory.
Netanyahu has refused to halt settlement construction, saying all disagreements must be resolved in negotiations.
Associated Press Writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.