Israel and the United States have reached a deal allowing the Jewish state to build about 2,500 housing units already under construction in West Bank settlements, a newspaper reported on Wednesday.
An armed Israeli settler stands with youths on July 6, 2009, next to the ruins of their temporary structures at the illegal outpost of Tzuria, east of the West Bank Palestinian town of Tulqarem, after the Israeli police destroyed them. (AFP Photo)
The agreement was secured during a meeting between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Monday, said the Maariv newspaper, quoting unnamed sources.
Under the arrangement, Israel would be allowed to continue work on about 700 buildings already under construction on the occupied Palestinian territory, or about 2,500 units.
If confirmed, the deal would go counter to repeated demands by the administration of US President Barack Obama for Israel to stop all activity in the settlements, which the international community considers illegal and which are one of the major obstacles in the hobbled Middle East peace process.
Barak and Mitchell reportedly agreed that a halt to settlement construction would come only within the framework of regional peace negotiations that would also involve Syria and Lebanon.
"In other words, the Americans have adopted the position that Israel should not be required to halt settlement construction as a precondition, but rather only when the peace process with the Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority gets on track," the Maariv said.
It quoted an unnamed senior political source as saying Obama could host an international conference where Israel would be required to freeze all settlement construction and "Arab states would express their commitment to the process and begin normalising their relations with Israel.
Asked about the report, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that "contacts are continuing to arrive at an arrangement. The rest is speculation."
In a joint statement following their meeting, Barak and Mitchell said they held "constructive" talks and reaffirmed a commitment of a regional peace between Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
Among steps required for a peace deal, they listed Palestinian action on security, moves by Arab states towards normalisation of ties with Israel and Israeli measures on settlements and on access and movement in the West Bank.