Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be willing to consider suspending construction in the West Bank for several months - but first plans to authorize hundreds of new apartments there, an aide said Friday.
The US has been pressing Israel to agree to a settlement freeze, and the Palestinians have said they would not resume peace talks unless Israel suspends construction on lands they want for a future state.
Friday's statement was the first time an aide has said in the name of the Prime Minister's Office that such a move could be imminent.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose plans Netanyahu has not officially announced.
It was unclear to what extent Israel would actually freeze construction.
Netanyahu made it clear through his aide that Israel does not intend to abandon its West Bank settlement enterprise, and it seemed clear that thousands of units would continue to be built in the West Bank even during a supposed freeze.
In the next few days, the aide said, the prime minister will approve the construction of hundreds of new apartments in the West Bank.
He did not have a specific number. But he said these apartments would be in addition to the 2,500 that are already under construction and will continue to be built.
The construction will be centered in the main settlement blocs, areas Israel hopes to retain after any peace deal, he said.
In exchange for a suspension, Netanyahu would expect the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, the aide added.
The Palestinians want the West Bank as part of a future state, along with east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and see continued settlement construction as a sign that Israel is not serious about making peace.
Message to Right: You'll be pleasantly surprised
Before the approval of construction of new apartments became public, Netanyahu tried to send a calming message to top right-wing officials, and said they would be "pleasantly surprised" by the agreements to be reached with the Americans.
The message came following talks with right-wing politicians on Thursday, in which they conveyed their concern over a broad settlement freeze.
Netanyahu's office expressed optimism Thursday night that in US special envoy George Mitchell's visit to Israel next weekend agreements will be reached that will include jumpstarting the political process with the Palestinians.
"The gaps remaining are very small," a PMO source said.
However, it remained unclear whether a three-way summit will take place in New York at the end of the month between Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
If the positive undertone voiced by Jerusalem overnight is reflected in talks with Mitchell next week, it is likely that such a meeting will take place during the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September.
According to moderate PMO sources, it seems Israel will be forced to announce a settlement freeze, including major blocs – but not including Jerusalem.
However, the term "settlement freeze" can be interpreted in several ways, and the duration and scope of the freeze have yet to be specified. Israel is likely to insist on a few points, including the continuation of construction in Jerusalem, and allowing for the "necessary measure needed for natural growth" in major settlement blocs.
Roni Sofer contributed to this report