JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister, known for his rigid negotiating positions, has been sending signals that he is ready for significant compromises in a peace deal with the Palestinians — and that he accepts the narrative increasingly favored by his opponents that says ending the West Bank occupation is essential for Israel itself.
While some of Benjamin Netanyahu's political allies say he is serious, the Palestinians remain skeptical. This week's visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could show which way things can go.
In recent speeches, Netanyahu has stressed the importance of reaching a peace deal, saying it is essential to ensuring Israel's long-term survival.
On Thursday, he made reference to Israel's nightmare scenario in which the peace process breaks down, Palestinians drop their pursuit of an independent state and instead demand equal rights in a single, binational state compromising today's Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza. Most experts believe that given the high Palestinian birthrate, such an Israel could not long survive as a country that is both democratic and somehow Jewish in character.
"It's correct. We do not want a binational state," Netanyahu said at a memorial ceremony for the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl.
On the front page of the Haaretz daily, an anonymous Cabinet minister in Netanyahu's Likud Party was quoted as saying Thursday that Netanyahu is prepared to withdraw from most of the West Bank and evacuate numerous Jewish settlement as part of a peace deal. The story became the focus of much discussion in Israel, widely taken as a trial balloon and an attempt to signal seriousness by the government.
Another Cabinet minister, Yaakov Peri, told the Army Radio station that Netanyahu "knows he will have to carry out a painful evacuation of a number of settlements" as part of any deal.
Netanyahu recently told the Washington Post that if Kerry were to pitch a tent to hold peace talks with the Palestinians, he would "stay in the tent and negotiate for as long as it takes to work out a solution of peace and security."
Such pronouncements were once unthinkable for Netanyahu, who for years was the leader of Israel's nationalist camp and an opponent of Palestinian independence.
That began to change after Netanyahu was elected four years ago and for the first time endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state.
Even so, peace efforts failed to get off the ground, in large part due to Palestinian suspicions toward Netanyahu.
The Palestinians have called on Netanyahu to freeze all Jewish settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war that the Palestinians claim for their future state along with the Gaza Strip, which Israel also occupied but pulled out of in 2005. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in such Jewish settlements, making it increasingly difficult to divide the land into two states.
The Palestinians also say Netanyahu should accept Israel's pre-1967 boundaries as the basis for a final border, with slight modifications worked out in negotiations. Previous Israeli leaders accepted the 1967 borders as a basis for talks.
Netanyahu has refused the Palestinian demands, saying talks should begin without any preconditions.
On Thursday, Israel's outgoing central bank chief, Stanley Fischer, lamented that Israel could have "done more efforts to reach an agreement" with the Palestinians. It was a rare political pronouncement by the internationally respected economist.
Given Netanyahu's refusal to spell out his vision for a final peace deal in any detail, and his past hardline policies and views , the Palestinians remain deeply suspicious.
They note the hundreds of housing starts on occupied land already this year, with thousands more in the pipeline — including 69 homes that received final permission for construction in an area of east Jerusalem this week.
"Israel has a selected repertoire awaiting U.S. officials ... which includes settlements, settlements and more settlements," the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Thursday. "The international community should understand that in order to create the right environment for negotiations it should not grant impunity to Israel over its repeated crimes and violations."
Following the re-elections of both Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, the U.S. has launched a new mission aimed at reviving peace talks.
Kerry has been shuttling between the sides in search of an acceptable formula. His arrival in Israel late Thursday marked his fifth visit to the region since taking office early this year.
The Americans have been putting pressure on both sides without tangible signs of progress so far. Kerry's proposal is expected to call for compromises by both, including a partial halt to settlement construction, economic aid to the beleaguered Palestinian economy and guarantees that Israel will negotiate border issues in a timely manner.
U.S. officials traveling with Kerry said he will be using long-time relationships with officials from both sides to coax them into talks, and at the same time will remind them of what could happen if no accord is reached.
Earlier this month, in a speech to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, Kerry said that the best way to truly ensure Israel's security is by ending the conflict and reaching a negotiated resolution that results in two states.
" The Palestinian Authority has committed itself to a policy of nonviolence," he said. "But if that experiment is allowed to fail, ask yourselves: What will replace it?" The failure of the moderate Palestinian leadership could very well invite the rise of the very thing that we want to avoid: the same extremism in the West Bank that we have seen in Gaza or from southern Lebanon."
It is far from clear whether Kerry will succeed, and Netanyahu's grand vision, if he has one, remains a secret.
Dore Gold, a former Netanyahu adviser who remains a confidant of the prime minister, said the Israeli leader "is determined to make the peace process work" and show "considerable Israeli flexibility."
"At the same time, he's cognizant of the fact that Israel is in a much more dangerous neighborhood," he said, referring to the civil war in neighboring Syria and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas militants. That requires far-reaching security guarantees, Gold said.
Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Israeli politician who helped negotiate interim peace accords with the Palestinians, said there is a complicated "dichotomy" with Netanyahu. Beilin said he has held discussions with Netanyahu and believes he truly is serious about pursuing peace. But he also remains a fervent nationalist and security hawk who will not make the concessions demanded by the Palestinians.
"He is not somebody with whom you cannot talk. But ... not really ready to pay the price of a permanent agreement," Beilin said.
Beilin said the Palestinians should consider pursuing an "interim" deal, granting them independence in 50 to 70 percent of the West Bank while leaving the most difficult issues, such as final borders and the status of Jerusalem, for later. As long as Hamas, which opposes a peace deal with Israel, controls Gaza, a partial deal is the best anyone can hope for anyway, he said.
"There is an opportunity with him," Beilin said, referring to Netanyahu.