On the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's crucial visit to Washington, his defense minister suggested Saturday the Israeli leader might endorse a Palestinian state when he meets with 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.
Senior White House officials said Obama's meeting with Netanyahu Monday is "part of his commitment that he's made since day one of the administration to pursue comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he thought an agreement with the Palestinians could be achieved within three years.
"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," Barak told Channel 2 TV.
However, he did not use the word state, leaving open other options for Netanyahu.
After the Israeli prime minister made a lightning visit to Jordan Thursday to meet with the king, a senior Jordanian government official said Netanyahu is likely to endorse a two-state solution when he meets Obama. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
When they meet, the two allies will be grappling with diverging policies on how to approach the Mideast conflict. They do not see eye-to-eye on the Palestinian issue or on the Obama administration's efforts to open a dialogue with Israel's arch foes, Syria and Iran.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding Syria in recent weeks. An Obama envoy was in Damascus to try to repair strained relations and assured the government the U.S. is committed to pursuing a comprehensive Middle East peace that would include the Syria-Israel track. Obama's chief Middle East envoy George Mitchell is also planning a trip to Syria, U.S. officials said Friday.
Last year, Turkey mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria but Damascus halted them over the Gaza war.
The recent messages from both sides have not been positive. On Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his country was interested in resuming indirect talks but does not see the new hard-line Israeli government as a good partner.
Syria is demanding Israel cede all the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. But just days ago, Netanyahu said Israel would not leave the Golan.
"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.
The U.S. and its Arab allies see the establishment of a Palestinian state as the key to broader Middle East peace. And even if Netanyahu expresses support for a Palestinian state, it won't be easy for his hawkish government to make the sweeping concessions needed 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 moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But he has acknowledged that would not be 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 favors 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.
If Netanyahu does endorse a Palestinian state or agree to resume contacts with Syria, he will almost certainly want something in return from Obama — a tougher line on Iran.
"For the U.S., Israel-Palestinian relations is the top priority. But for Israel, Iran is the most pressing issue," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar Ilan University.
Netanyahu has hinted he would be prepared to take military action against Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons — something 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.
Netanyahu doesn't believe Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and sees Iran as the crux of the Mideast's problems, with its nuclear ambitions, military arsenal and anti-Israel proxies, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. He traveled to Egypt and Jordan this week to try to rally Arab support against Iran.
That approach is at odds with Washington's, which sees movement toward Palestinian statehood as key to pressuring Tehran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 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.