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Israeli Officials Say US Urging West Bank Settlement Freeze

Israeli officials say the United States is pushing Israel to offer a key concession to the Palestinians as a long-waited peace conference approaches. Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau.

Israeli officials say the United States is pressing Israel to declare a complete freeze on construction in West Bank settlements. Israeli officials say that message was delivered to aides of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who visited Washington last week.

The Bush administration has been meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials in hopes of laying the groundwork for an international peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland planned for the end of this month. The conference is expected to focus on the creation of a Palestinian state, and if it is successful, formal peace talks could resume afterwards.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says a settlement freeze is a step in the right direction, but he doubts that Israel will comply.

"As far as President Bush calling upon Israel to stop settlement activities, it's time to turn these calls into deeds," said Erekat.

In the run up to the planned summit, the Bush administration has been working to give a boost to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was weakened after the Islamic militant group Hamas routed his Fatah forces in June and seized control of the Gaza Strip. Mr. Abbas now heads a more moderate government in the West Bank.

Israeli media reports say Israel is prepared to declare a settlement freeze, as called for in the internationally backed "Roadmap" peace plan. But Israel believes the Palestinians must also keep their part of the deal and crack down on militant groups.

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, says what is missing is reciprocity from Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.

"I think what Israel is doing is really a gesture to bolster the regime of Abu Mazen, and in a way to kind of sweeten the deal for him in order to go to Annapolis," said Ayalon. "But they [the Palestinians] should do something in return, and the least of which is to really fight terror in an effective way."

Prime Minister Olmert is due to meet with President Abbas on Monday to try to narrow the gaps on a document on Palestinian statehood that will be presented at the peace conference.