JERUSALEM -- There are signs the Israeli government is considering taking unilateral action if peace talks with the Palestinians remain stalled, a move that could involve a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a high-profile security conference yesterday that inaction is not an option and Israel cannot wait forever to reach an accord. "Israel cannot afford to tread water," he said. If a deal "proves to be impossible, we have to consider a provisional arrangement or even unilateral action."

The statement reflected a growing sense of urgency in Israel about ending its 45- year entanglement with the Palestinians, even if no peace deal is possible. A shift of thinking has quietly occurred in Israel: The occupation of Palestinian lands may ultimately be bad, simply because ruling millions of Arabs will demographically sink the Jewish state.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, increasingly vocal about the need to separate from the Palestinians, now has a broad coalition freeing him of nationalists who claim biblical rights to the West Bank. He has raised concerns that continued control of the more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank would threaten Israel's character as a democracy with a Jewish majority.

Palestinian officials quickly rejected the idea of unilateral Israel moves, clearly concerned that after a partial pullout leaving them well short of their goals, Israel would have scant reason to negotiate further.