JERUSALEM - Israel would dismantle nearly two dozen wildcat settlement outposts in the West Bank in the next few weeks if the U.S. drops its objections to continued building in existing, government-sanctioned settlements, officials said.
Last week, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington and demanded a halt to all settlement growth. But Netanyahu has defied that demand since his return to Israel, saying his government will continue to build homes in existing settlements.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak will bring the new proposal to senior American officials during his visit to Washington next week, the Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not yet been officially submitted.
The wildcat outposts are a peripheral part of Israel's West Bank settlement enterprise because only a few thousand people live there, generally in tents or mobile homes. But these communities, set up to extend Israel's hold on West Bank land, have become a rallying point for settlers and their supporters and a bone of contention for Palestinians. Several have turned into full-fledged settlements.
Under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" plan for peace, Israel is to both take down the outposts and halt building in existing settlements. But it has flouted those obligations since the road map was signed in June 2003.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is to meet Obama at the White House on Thursday and Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the demand for a complete settlement freeze will be the main issue.
"Any attempt to manoeuvre on the implementation of the road map regarding settlement activities is unacceptable," Qureia told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
"What does a peace process mean when settlements are continuing on the Palestinian territories?" he asked. "What we want is to immediately dismantle all settlement outposts and to stop what is called the natural growth in the settlements, and to stop all settlement activities."
Abbas has said there is no point to meeting with Netanyahu unless he freezes settlement construction and agrees to open negotiations on Palestinian independence. Netanyahu has agreed to renew talks, but has resisted U.S. pressure to voice support for Palestinian statehood.
The U.S. considers the settlements - home to nearly 300,000 Israelis - obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.