WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that Israel risks becoming an "apartheid" state if it does not make peace with the Palestinians soon, a US news website reported.
His spokesman Jen Psaki would neither confirm nor deny "the accuracy of comments made during a private meeting" which grouped American, Russian, European and Japanese experts.
"But the secretary does not believe and did not state publicly or privately that Israel is an apartheid state, and there's an important difference there," she told reporters.
"Israel is obviously a vibrant democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens."
Mr Kerry allegedly made the remarks to a group of senior international officials at a closed-door meeting of the influential Trilateral Commission on Friday, The Daily Beast news website reported, saying it had been given a recording of the diplomat's comments.
"A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens - or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state," Mr Kerry said, according to The Daily Beast on Sunday.
"Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two state solution, which both leaders, even (Thursday), said they remain deeply committed to," he reportedly said.
If accurate, the comments add weight to the feeling that Washington's patience is growing thin after more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy by Mr Kerry with the initial aim of brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians by April 29.
The term "apartheid" is a reference to South Africa's 1948-1994 oppressive and racially segregated social system.
While both Mr Kerry and US President Barack Obama have refrained from using the term when speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, former president Jimmy Carter titled a 2006 book that he wrote on the subject Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Some Israeli ministers took issue with Mr Kerry's purported comments.
Transport Minister Israel Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party, expressed outrage.
"Kerry, shame on you. There are some words you cannot use," he wrote on his Facebook page.
The top US diplomat also insisted however in the meeting that the peace process was not dead.
"The reports of the demise of the peace process have consistently been misunderstood and misreported. And even we are now getting to the moment of obvious confrontation and hiatus, but I would far from declare it dead," Mr Kerry said, according to the news website.