NAZARETH // Benjamin Netanyahu's approval this week of hundreds of new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank follows rapidly on the heels of other moves suggesting the Israeli prime minister is intent on pushing his government further to the right.
Despite mounting speculation that Mr Netanyahu is preparing to unveil a peace initiative in the coming weeks, Haaretz newspaper revealed last week that he has been conducting negotiations with the National Union to bring three of its four MPs into his coalition. The party is considered the most right-wing in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.
A day earlier, Mr Netanyahu announced the appointment of a hawkish former general, Yaakov Amidror, as the new head of the National Security Council and his key adviser on defence policy and the peace process.
Mr Amidror, described by one observer as an "icon" of the national-religious community, which forms the backbone of the settler movement in the West Bank, has courted controversy with his ultranationalist statements.
Both recent moves by the prime minister raised questions about what Mr Netanyahu was really intending after a week in which his officials have strongly hinted that he is preparing to reveal a peace plan to Washington. But Israeli media said the White House told Mr Netanyahu at the weekend that he should announce an initiative only if it was "dramatic".
Indications from Israeli government officials, however, have been that Mr Netanyahu is considering only an interim proposed deal establishing a demilitarised Palestinian state in temporary borders, probably on no more than 60 per cent of the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem.
Last week Mr Netanyahu was taken by the Israeli army on a tour of the Jordan Valley, a swath of the West Bank bordering Jordan. He called the valley Israel's "defence line" and insisted it must remain under Israeli military control for the foreseeable future. "If rockets and missiles break out here, they will reach Tel Aviv, Haifa and all over the country," he told reporters.
Palestinian leaders have said they will not agree to a state with temporary borders, concerned that Israel would use the intervening time to grab more Palestinian land.
Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Authority's media centre in Ramallah, said he was not convinced that Mr Netanyahu had anything new to offer: "We are not optimistic about this so-called plan. He seems determined to add more right-wingers to his government to restrain his ability to offer something that can be accepted not just by the Palestinians but by the international community as well.
"As Palestinians, we have learnt to read Israel's political mind not by what it says but by what it does. And all the while it is expanding the settlements and consolidating the occupation," Mr Khatib said.
According to Haaretz, Mr Netanyahu's negotiations with the far-right National Union have included offering its leader, Yaakov Katz, a seat in the cabinet.
The talks are said to be stalled over a demand from Mr Katz that, as the price for his MPs entering the coalition, the government commit itself to large-scale settlement building in East Jerusalem and in the nearby West Bank, at Maale Adumim.
Maale Adumim is one of four so-called "settlement blocs" the Israeli government included in a plan, announced on Sunday, to build 500 settler homes in response to the killing of a family of five in the settlement of Itamar last Friday.
The Israeli prime minister had previously sought to slow the pace of construction, after falling out with Washington in September over his refusal to renew a partial settlement freeze.
Mr Netanyahu's intransigence led to the break-up of peace talks.
In a sign of widespread political concern about Israel's international isolation, Shimon Peres, Israel's president, was reported last week to have privately approached the White House seeking a meeting with Barack Obama to kick-start peace talks.
The Quartet, the international group that comprises the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations and that oversees the peace process, was due to meet this week.
However, the group announced last Wednesday that the meeting has been postponed until next month.
Israeli officials suggested that the delay may be designed to give Mr Netanyahu more time to present a convincing diplomatic plan to the Palestinians and the world.
However Mr Amidror, Mr Netanyahu's new security adviser, is not expected to encourage compromises towards the Palestinians.
A former head of military intelligence, he has made his hard-line opinions well known to Israelis through a regular column in the daily Yisrael Hayom newspaper.
Mr Amidror has expressed opposition to creating a Palestinian state, and last month wrote that peace talks, and even an agreement with the Palestinians, "would not benefit Israel in any way".
He has also suggested that the Gaza Strip should be reoccupied by the Israeli army "for many years".
Immediately after his appointment, a group of leading intellectuals sent a protest letter to the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee in which the signers called him a "fascist".
They also quoted a remark he made last year, when he said that "a soldier who refuses to attack should be shot between the eyes".
Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University, said the "confusing signals" being sent by Mr Netanyahu were in fact part of his strategy.
"I have known Netanyahu and followed his career for 40 years." Prof Ezrahi said. "His strategy, and his way of winning votes, is to accumulate gains for the right while at the same time constantly making gestures to the centre that he is about to do something dramatic.
"The approach works mainly because there is a belief on the Israeli left and centre that only a right-winger like Netanyahu can make a peace treaty stick."