JERUSALEM (AFP) – Just days before Washington's top diplomat returns to push for a resumption of direct peace talks, a growing number of Israeli ministers are openly expressing their opposition to the two-state solution.
US Secretary of State John Kerry due to hold a fresh round of talks on Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli leader has been at pains to stress his commitment to resuming dialogue with the Palestinians.
"If Secretary Kerry, whose efforts we support, were to pitch a tent halfway between here and Ramallah - that's 15 minutes away driving time - I'm in it, I'm in the tent," Netanyahu told the Washington Post last week.
"And I'm committed to stay in the tent and negotiate for as long as it takes to work out a solution of peace and security between us and the Palestinians."
In the interview, he reiterated his support for a two-state solution which would see the establishment of a demilitarised Palestinian state in the framework of a deal that assures Israel's security.
But hardliners within Netanyahu's government have been increasingly quick to contradict him, rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state under any conditions.
Earlier this month, coalition partner Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party drew an analogy in which he suggested that for Israel, the Palestinian issue was akin to having "shrapnel in the buttocks."
Although it could be removed by a risky operation, the patient would be "left disabled" he said, suggesting it was something which Israel simply had to live with.
"We won't veto the negotiations, we won't bring down the government over this," Bennett told army radio on Tuesday morning, saying he didn't believe "anything much" would come out of Kerry's fifth visit to the region since February.
Even within Netanyahu's ruling rightwing Likud party, the hardline settler lobby is gaining more and more power.
Likud's Danny Danon, who serves as deputy defence minister, sparked uproar earlier this month after he came out against a Palestinian state.
Danon said the government was not serious about it and that moves to create one would be opposed by most of the coalition.
Since the elections in January, when Likud ran on a joint list with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu, winning a very narrow victory, Netanyahu has faced by a growing revolt within the party.
"Netanyahu no longer controls Likud," said political commentator Amit Segal on Israel's Channel 2 television.
--- Cacophony ---
Senior coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beitenu, has also adopted a tough line vis-a-vis peace, insisting that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is not a partner with whom Israel can talk.
Another coalition partner is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who serves as Israel's chief peace negotiator, who has denounced the wave of diplomatic naysaying sparked by Danon.
"The prime minister must decide if he is going to allow 'Danonism' to control the debate or if he will let forces that understand that a diplomatic solution is in Israel's interest make a decision," she told members of her HaTnuah faction.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the remaining coalition partner who heads Yesh Atid, Israel's second largest party, has for the moment stuck by Netanyahu, preferring to focus on economic and social issues rather than wading into the Palestinian issue.
Faced with such a cacophony as well as heavy pressure from Washington, Netanyahu is hedging his bets.
"The real test of his strength within the government won't be when negotiations start, but if they have to make concrete decisions, for example, about a total freeze on settlement construction," political commentator Hanan Crystal told AFP.
The Maariv newspaper on Tuesday reported that Netanyahu was ready to make "goodwill gestures" to the Palestinians, and release a number of prisoners held by Israel since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
It also said he was likely to push through a partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction, although it did quote any sources.
But army radio said it was highly unlikely that Kerry would succeed in bringing about a return to serious negotiations.
"Once again, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmud Abbas are risking a return to the blame game," it said, in the hope that the blame for the collapse of Kerry's efforts would fall on the other party.