Invariably, it seems that Defense Minister Ehud Barak says one thing and the US State Department immediately contradicts him.

At the end of his latest visit to Washington, where he conferred with his American counterpart, Leon Panetta, and other senior US officials, the former IDF chief of staff and prime minister raised the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promptly went out with an unequivocal statement to the effect that there is no substitute for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. She implied that territorial concessions by Israel would not do the trick.

It seems that Barak has not learned from the tragic results of Israel’s two previous unconditional pullbacks – one from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the other from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The hectic overnight disappearance of Israeli troops from the so-called Security Zone south of Lebanon’s Litani River simply prompted the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia to seize the strategic area and use it as a base for hostile operations against Israel. It also left Israel’s local ally, the South Lebanon Army, completely in the lurch – many of its personnel and their dependents unexpectedly at the mercy of their domestic enemies.

Israel’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, which was implemented five years later at the behest of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, was even more disastrous.

The local Hamas movement, which also was (and still is) backed by Iran and which is led by Islamic extremists, seized power immediately after the Israeli troops and settlers were gone. It ousted the Palestine Liberation Organization’s adherents after defeating the local Fatah political cadres in an election held half a year after the pullout.

One reason for Hamas’s success at the polls was the overwhelming consensus among Gaza’s Palestinians that the Israelis were forced out by Hamas’s resistance fighters.

The fact that Barak now can consider another one-sided and unconditional evacuation after these two debacles is incredible. His vague proposal for a repeat performance of Lebanon 2000 in the hotly contested West Bank suggests that he does not know the traditional Arab (and Muslim) view of premeditated retreats. It was voiced by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Indeed, Khomeini was a Persian rather than an Arab, but true to the two nationalities’ common adherence to Islamic concepts and tactics, he contended that victorious armies must never withdraw voluntarily because to do so implies weakness and lack of resolve.

Unilateral and unconditional withdrawals are a rarity in modern history.

A rare and comprehensive ones was carried out by the Soviet Union’s Red Army four decades after the end of World War II.

Authorized by the USSR’s then-leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, it reduced the Soviets’ military presence in East Germany and the various satellite states, but the USSR’S political grip on them remained intact. On the other hand, Israel’s political influence over southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip was forfeited in toto in 2000 and 2005, respectively.

It is difficult if not impossible to see how a reduction of Israel’s military presence could affect the political status quo in the West Bank, however. This assessment is bolstered by the fact that its advocates, including Barak, rule out a concurrent elimination of Jewish settlements there.

They are a constant stimulus for Palestinian extremism.

Nor are President Barack Obama and the US State Department likely to be impressed.

They do not regard the presence of more than 350,000 settlers there as a positive development. American officialdom’s political and strategic preference is that the West Bank’s post-1967 Jewish population be removed in toto, if only as an inducement for the local Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Barak is deceiving himself if he believes that US disapproval of wide-ranging and unrestricted Jewish settlement activity will be modified by the imposition of new “facts on the ground” – i.e. a unilateral Israeli pullback. One little-noticed indication of this is the fact that during the 45 years that have elapsed since the Six Day War, few if any American journalists based in or on temporary assignment to Israel have reported on the challenges faced by the settlers or the nationalist and/or religious principles that motivate them.

One of the facts of life in the news media is that foreign correspondents operate within the framework of their respective audiences’ political and social consensus and their respective governments’ policies Therefore, the American media’s consensus, like that of their European counterparts, is negative insofar as the Jewish settlements are concerned. The prevailing view is that they are an obstacle rather than a boon to peace.

Although public opinion in the so-called Bible Belt south of the US Mason-Dixon Line is sympathetic to Israeli Jews who want to return to and live in biblical Judea and Samaria, the highest priority insofar as US officials are concerned is the handover of the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip to the local Palestinians and their allegedly displaced brethren (the 1948-49 refugees).

Statements or actions perceived in the Arab world as being based on even the slightest sympathy with or support for the settlers would undermine the US’s strategic position and influence in the Middle East and risk anti-American outbursts by the region’s Islamic extremists.

The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.

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