There are strong hints that Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, in his meeting here Friday with President Carter, wants to discuss potentially significant concessions on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.
Dispute over the West Bank is the core issue in an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. The West Bank would be the heart of the Palestinian "homeland" or "entry" that President Carter has endorsed - or the Palestinian "state" which the Arabs demand and which Begin adamantly rejects.
Begin's long-held position has been that Israel can never surrender the West Bank, the historic Judea and Samaria of the Bible, Egyptian President Anear Sadat's peace initiative, however, requires a solution of this dominant, divisive West Bank-Palestinian issue in order to achieve any settlement beyond a limited Egyptian-Israeli accord. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan has said Israel must rethink profoundly its basic positions, in order to be responsive to the hopes raised by Sadat's overtures.
There are indications that what American officials have described as Begin's new readiness to discuss "bold" and "positive" responses to Sadat involve a major shift of policy toward the West Bank.
Those hints were reinforced yesterday, as Begin left Israel for New York, with speculation by a leading Israeli position, Shimon Peres, head of the opposition Labor Party and former Israeli defense minister.
Peres said in an Israeli television interview, "I estimate that Mr. Begin is traveling with concessions. I do not think Mr. Begin is leaving for the United States only with arguments."
"I know the Egyptians expect Israel to refer to two subjects," Peres said. "One is the Palestinian issue, which involves a definition, and the other is the issue of withdrawal from the territories, which is a geographic issue.
"It seems to me," Peres said, that "according to the composition of the delegation, the stress is on the the sphere of definition. It is clear . . . that there will be new definition. It is clear . . . that there will be new definitions. In other words, definitions which include an element of concessions."
Diplomats have noted with high interest that Begin in recent days has been employing the terminology of "Palestinian Arabs" to refer to the West Bank Arabs.
This suggests that Begin sliding toward a compromise that could be claimed to be compatible with Israel's historic claim to the West Bank as part of Palestine, and yet resolve the demand for an Arab Palestinian homeland.
A legal re-definition of the West Bank problem therefore may well be the key to Begin's new move. His lawyers are with him, to justify any shift.
Carter has said he favors a West Bank solution that would associate the area with Jordan. It would be a diplomatic coup, which the United States would enthusiastically endorse, if Egypt and Israel could produce enough compromise language to draw Jordan into the Cairo talks. Jordan's King Hussein has strongly indicated he would join if there is enough movement by Israel to justify Jordan's participation.
Begin, without revealing any details, said before leaving Jerusalem that "the problem of Palestinian Arabs does exist and we shall work out a solution to this problem." He also said that in Washington "we are going to discuss all the problems concerned with the making of peace, and these entail legal questions of the first order." This indicates he means something more than merely the technical language of a draft peace treaty.
He went immediately to the Waldorf-Astoria for sessions with Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz and other advisers in preparation for his White House meeting.
Sources close to Begin said there was no political significance to his decision to spend 24 hours in New York. Begin's health has been a matter of concern since he suffered a heart attack last May shortly after his election victory, and he sought a rest period before seeing Carter, sources said.
Begin will probably also meet with American Jewish leaders before traveling to Washington Thursday.
After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Israel last month, Begin said that when Israeli-Egyptian negotiations reached the point at which serious decisions had to be made, it would be essential for him to meet with Carter.
The Sadat visit was followed by secret contacts between the two nations during which further details were discussed prior to the opening today of their Cairo conference.
"I feel that President Carter should be informed in detail about all these events," Begin said at Kennedy International Airport.The Prime Minister expressed gratitude to Carter for agreeing to meet him on short notice. Begin proposed the meeting Saturday to Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, who was on a Mideast tour, and Carter agreed quickly.