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Israel Considers Compromise on Settlement Freeze

Israel is considering a compromise with the United States on the thorny issue of Jewish settlements.

Israel's Cabinet discussed the possibility of a partial freeze on construction in Jewish settlements at its weekly meeting. Israel has been seeking a compromise, following repeated demands by the United States to halt settlement expansion as required by the internationally backed "Roadmap" peace plan.

The issue will top the agenda when Defense Minister Ehud Barak visits the U.S. this week.

Barak said he will discuss a wide range of issues with American officials, including resuming peace talks with the Palestinians and a comprehensive peace with the Arab states. But the Palestinians are refusing to return to the negotiating table until Israel agrees to a settlement freeze.

Barak would neither confirm nor deny a report in Israel's biggest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, that he would propose a three-month halt to construction starts in West Bank settlements, but allow building already underway to continue.

"The matter mentioned in the headlines has not been finalized," Barak said.

Barak's dovish Labor party supports a partial settlement freeze, but hawks in the government do not. Cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan is from the ruling Likud Party.

Erdan said it is unimaginable that a right-wing Likud government would permit a construction freeze that violates the civil rights of the settlers.

Under the U.S.-backed "Roadmap" peace plan, Israel is required to halt construction.

Ideologically, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees with that. But pragmatically, he could seek a compromise because he is anxious to heal a deepening rift with Washington.