Was Barak’s call for unilateral action with the Palestinians a trial balloon?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during an Independence Party meeting at the Knesset on May 21.

By Ben Sales, JTA

Was Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s recent suggestion that Israel take “unilateral action” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a hint at a policy under discussion or just an off-the-cuff remark?

And how will the response of others — such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — shape the country’s fate in the coming months?

“We must aim to discuss all of the core issues, putting an end to the conflict, and an end to mutual claims,” Barak said at the end of a May 30 speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “If this appears to be impossible, we need to think of an interim agreement, and even unilateral actions.”

Netanyahu’s unprecedented 94-member governing coalition, he added, gives Israel an “opportunity to advance the peace process.”

But Netanyahu’s past statements make such unilateral actions — especially withdrawal from portions of the West Bank and settlement dismantlement — seem unlikely. The Israeli leader consistently has called for direct negotiations without preconditions and he repeated that during his own speech at the institute on the day before Barak’s talk. Last year Netanyahu called the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral effort to obtain United Nations statehood recognition “an attempt to avoid negotiations that are based on mutual compromise.”

President Barack Obama also strongly opposed the Palestinian U.N. statehood bid, and repeatedly has urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to restart direct negotiations.

For his part, as prime minster from 1999 to 2001, Barak engaged in both direct negotiations and unilateral action. In late spring 2000, he unilaterally withdrew Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, ending Israel’s 18-year occupation there — albeit one very different from its occupation of the West Bank.

At a high-profile Camp David summit in July of that same year, Barak joined President Bill Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in a failed effort to create an “end-of-conflict” agreement. Barak offered what was then the most far-reaching Israeli peace proposal to date. It reportedly included offering the Palestinians nearly the entire West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Bank and Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Those talks ended unsuccessfully and by late September the second intifada had begun.

At the time, Shaul Mofaz — now head of the centrist Kadima Party, which recently joined Netanyahu’s coalition — was the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. Today, Mofaz calls for Israel to recognize a Palestinian state with temporary borders on about 60 percent of the West Bank, with negotiations over final borders and other outstanding issues to follow.

Soon after the second intifada started, near the end of his term as prime minister, Barak shifted from favoring direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to calls for unilateral withdrawal.

Barak is not alone in pushing unilateral moves since that time.

Five years after the Camp David talks broke down, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon executed the largest unilateral Israeli settlement withdrawal ever, removing all of his country’s settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrawing military forces from the coastal area.

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East policy adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state who is now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that neither bilateral negotiations nor unilateral steps would succeed at the moment. In the case of the former, the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians on core issues are too large, he told JTA.

When it comes to Israel’s drawing or imposing a border, he said, “you also have a major security problem given the increasing range, lethality and precision of Hamas high trajectory weapons.”

David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said unilateral moves might work.

“If bilateralism is not revived, the unilateral imperative, which seemed discredited after the Lebanon War, becomes a live policy option,” Makovsky said, referring to Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah.

In Israel, an organization called Blue White Future is advocating another type of unilateral move: urging the country to offer incentives to settlers to leave their homes in advance of a final agreement. It also calls for a complete halt to settlement construction east of the West Bank security fence.

The group was created in 2010 by some well-known former top security and political figures, including Ami Ayalon, a past Israeli Shin Bet security head.

In a New York Times Op-Ed in late April, the group’s founders wrote,”Israel can and must take constructive steps to advance the reality of two states based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps — regardless of whether Palestinian leaders have agreed to accept it.”

So ultimately, what did Barak’s call represent and how will it resonate with the Israeli public? That remains unclear.

Makovsky said that how political leaders respond could weigh heavily on their fates.

“When you have 94 seats and you cannot produce, the Israeli public will not be as forgiving,” he said. “For Netanyahu and Mofaz, this government is an opportunity and a challenge.”