Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday floated a controversial West Bank pullout plan which included unilaterally leaving areas beyond several large settlement blocs, with details that immediately drew fire from both his right flank and official Palestinian sources.
Barak's plan, revealed during an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper, suggested that settlers who wish to remain in areas designated for evacuation could opt to remain in place, but under Palestinian rule in a five-year trial period.
Israel has broadly stated that it expects to retain at least three main West Bank areas in any future peace deal: the cities of Ma'ale Adumim in East Jerusalem, Ariel in the northern West Bank, and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, to the south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Barak's plan is aimed at restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, which came to a halt in 2009 over settlement expansion.
"It would be better to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but if that doesn't happen, we will need to act to start separating," he told the newspaper.
"We managed to retain in Israel 80 to 90 percent of the settlers who arrived (in the West Bank) over the years at the government's initiative and with its encouragement," he said, adding that "It would be a big achievement if we manage to bring them back into Israel's permanent borders."
Barak believes such a gesture would also strengthen Israel's ties with Arab and Muslim countries in the region, as well as with the U.S. administration.
Political analysts have pointed out recently that Barak, who spent decades in the left-leaning Labor party, is trying to distinguish himself from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist views, with an eye towards future elections, scheduled to take place in mid-2013.
However, members of the right-of-center coalition government, mainly from the ruling Likud party, dismissed Barak's plan.
Minister of Intelligence Services Dan Meridor compared Barak's idea to Israel's 2005 Gaza pullout, in which itunilaterally withdrew some 9,000 residents from the coastal enclave.
"We saw what happened in Gaza," Meridor told Israel Radio, expressing his view that a unilateral withdrawal of any kind is " not a good idea."
"We all want to reach an agreement," he said, "but since ( former prime minister Ehud) Olmert's government (in 2006), we haven't had real negotiations and they (the Palestinians) don't seem to want it," either.
He added, however, that Israel should make an effort to reinvigorate the peace process and strive to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
As well, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that, "The very idea of another one-sided unilateral withdrawal does not give the Palestinian Authority any incentive to return to negotiations and concede anything."
On the Palestinian side, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas averred that the idea, at the outset.
"The major settlement blocs separate the West Bank and confiscates East Jerusalem," said Abbas aide Sabri Sedam. "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."