JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States has asked Israel to freeze West Bank settlement for a year to prod Arab countries to take steps toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state, an Israeli newspaper said on Thursday.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in interviews with two Israeli radio stations, made no comment on the report in the Haaretz newspaper.
But he said “an attempt to reach understandings” with Washington over a suspension of construction in settlements was being held in tandem with U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to persuade Arab countries to make overtures to Israel and revive peace talks.
“All this is in the context of a broad plan for a comprehensive regional agreement that is apparently shaping up as a possible initiative by President Obama with the main focus on the Palestinians and a door kept open, after a certain delay, for Syria and Lebanon,” Barak told Israel Radio.
The Haaretz newspaper said a proposal for a one-year settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank was raised by Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, during talks in Jerusalem last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel prefers a six-month freeze, the newspaper said.
Mitchell and Netanyahu said last week they had made progress in their talks.
The issue has opened the widest rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said peace negotiations with Israel, suspended since December, cannot resume until settlement activity ceases.
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 fulfill 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 U.S. State Department spokesman said last week that Mitchell would announce a peace plan “in a matter of weeks.”
Writing by Joseph Nasr; editing by Andrew Roche