Jerusalem: The United States has asked Israel to commit to a one-year freeze of West Bank settlement to prod Arab countries to take steps toward normalising relations with the Jewish state, an Israeli newspaper said on Thursday.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak declined to comment on the settlement issue in an interview with Israeli Army Radio.
The Haaretz newspaper said the proposal was raised by US President Barack Obama`s special envoy, George Mitchell, during talks in Jerusalem last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel, which has been resisting Washington`s demand, in line with a 2003 peace "road map," for a settlement halt in the occupied West Bank, prefers a six-month freeze, the newspaper said.
Mitchell and Netanyahu said last week their discussions were advancing but neither mentioned settlements in their remarks.
The issue has opened the widest rift in US-Israeli relations in a decade and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said peace talks with Israel, suspended since December, could not resume until settlement activity ceased.
Barak, who also met Mitchell last week, said on Tuesday Washington would present a Middle East plan within weeks and Israel should accept it.
He has publicly raised the possibility of a deal under which Israel would halt construction in settlements but complete projects under way in return for peace overtures by Arab states.
Arab moves toward commercial or diplomatic ties with Israel could help Netanyahu persuade partners in his right-leaning coalition to accept a compromise on settlements.
But there has been little indication Arab countries in the region would make such gestures without a settlement freeze.
Kuwait and Jordan said last week in Washington that Israel should fulfil its obligations before peace talks can resume. Saudi Arabia accused the Jewish state of not being serious about peace with the Palestinians.
Israeli media have speculated the Obama administration would put forward new peace proposals to try to break the stalemate reached in talks Israel and the Palestinians launched at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007.
A US State Department spokesman said last week that Mitchell would announce a peace plan "in a matter of weeks”.