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."