JERUSALEM - On the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's crucial visit to Washington, his defence minister suggested Saturday the Israeli leader might be ready to endorse an independent Palestinian entity when he meets U.S. President Barack Obama.
That would be a significant shift for Netanyahu, who has made clear in the past that he does not think the Palestinians are ready to rule themselves. But that position has put him at odds with long-standing U.S. policy that supports Palestinian statehood as the cornerstone of Mideast peace efforts.
"I think and believe that Netanyahu will tell Obama this government is prepared to go for a political process that will result in two peoples living side by side in peace and mutual respect," Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Channel 2 TV on Saturday.
Barak said he thought an agreement with the Palestinians could be achieved within three years.
However, he did not explicitly use the word state in his remark, leaving open other options for Netanyahu.
Palestinian independence hasn't been the only contentious issue between Netanyahu and Israel's closest and most important ally. The Obama administration's efforts to open dialogue with Syria and Iran have also rattled the Israelis.
Netanyahu has hinted he would be prepared to take military action against Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons - something U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden has said would be "ill-advised."
Israeli and foreign media reported this week that CIA Director Leon Panetta secretly visited Israel earlier this month and asked for advance warning of any military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
If the Israeli leader does endorse a Palestinian state, he will almost certainly want something in return from Obama - a tougher line on reining in Iran.
Netanyahu doesn't believe Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and paints Iran as the crux of the Mideast's problems. He travelled to Egypt and Jordan this week to try to rally Arab support against Iran.
The Israeli leader's approach is at odds with Washington's, which sees movement toward Palestinian statehood as key to pressuring Tehran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly made that linkage last month. "For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can't stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts," she said.
Jordan's King Abdullah said earlier this month the U.S. was preparing a new "combined approach" to the Middle East that will aim for a comprehensive peace among Israelis, Palestinians and the broader Arab world based on a two-state solution.
Obama could lay out his vision in a June 4 speech on U.S. relations with the Muslim world that he plans to deliver from Egypt.
Even if Netanyahu pays lip service to a Palestinian state, it won't be easy for his hawkish government to make the leap to sweeping concessions such as freezing Jewish settlement in the West Bank and sharing the holy city of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has said the old formula of trading land for peace has been unsuccessful. He has suggested focusing instead on building up the Palestinian economy and security services loyal to western-leaning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But Netanyahu has acknowledged neither track is a substitute for political negotiations. And on trips to Egypt and Jordan last week, he said he wanted to quickly renew talks with Palestinians that stalled last year without any breakthrough.
Aides say he favours giving Palestinians the powers to govern themselves but minus the powers that could threaten Israel - establishing an army, making treaties with states including Iran, importing heavy weapons, or controlling air space close to Israel's international airport.
Meanwhile, the prospects for Netanyahu announcing in Washington a resumption of peace negotiations on the Syrian track seem dim. Last year, Turkey mediated indirect talks between the enemies. Syria halted them over the Gaza war.
On Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his country was interested in resuming indirect talks but does not see the new Israeli government as a good partner. Syria is demanding Israel cede all the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
"When we have a specific vision and when there is a partner, then we can speak about a date to resume peace talks," Assad said.
Just days ago, Netanyahu said Israel would not leave the Golan.