In the US press, a big story on the Middle East today is another ignorant comment by the President of Iran, who holds very little power in the Islamic Republic relative to the Supreme Leader. But the really big story comes out of Israel, where Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for a settlement pullout from the West Bank, another dramatic development in his evolution away from the Likudnik faction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has called for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank if peace talks with the Palestinians fail.

In an interview with Israel Hayom, Mr Barak proposed uprooting dozens of Jewish settlements, although he said major settlement blocs would be kept.

There would also still be a military presence along the border with Jordan [...]

Mr Barak said it would be preferable to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, but that after four years of deadlock, Israel had to “take practical steps to start a separation”.

He told Israel Hayom that his plan for unilateral disengagement would see the dismantling of dozens of isolated settlements, but the retention of the settlement blocs of Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel, where 80% to 90% of the settler population lives.

“It will be a big achievement if we manage to keep them inside Israel’s permanent borders,” he said.

Keeping the big settlement blocs under Israeli control makes this less of a concession than meets the eye. But it definitely breaks with the current government, of which Barak is part.

Domestic politics appears to be driving this decision. Election will happen in Israel next year, and Barak, Defense Minister in a Likud-dominated coalition government, wants to break with Netanyahu and court the centrist Kadima faction. Statements like these, as well as his new-found opposition to an attack on Iran, allow Barak to distance himself from Netanyahu and find a party to lead against Likud. But in the context of the fact that Barak still runs the Defense Ministry, it’s extremely confusing.

This plan to retain some of the West Bank and give up other settlements exists on a continuum with the turnover of the Gaza Strip, especially in its unilateral nature, without agreement from the Palestinians. This has never really succeeded in getting the Palestinians to the negotiating table, and you cannot really fashion an agreement without their participation. So as a plan, this doesn’t look like much. As a change in rhetoric, however, it’s critical. But I’m not thinking Barak will be around to carry it out after next year’s vote.