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Netanyahu: Israel, US Close to Settlement Deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens during a press conference in Jerusalem about a US-drafted deal to renew a freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements, 15 Nov 2010

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he is close to reaching an understanding with the United States on a package of incentives Washington will offer in exchange for a one-time, 90-day construction freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu's office said he hopes to conclude contacts with the U.S. "soon" in order to present the deal to his 15-member security cabinet. Officials close to the Israeli prime minister said he could convene the cabinet within the next 24 hours to approve the deal.

Representatives from Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas religious party said Wednesday they would abstain from the vote if the deal specifically excludes East Jerusalem - claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians -- from the settlement freeze. Shas abstentions would allow the proposal to succeed.

Israeli officials said Mr. Netanyahu also is seeking explicit assurances from the U.S. that he will not have to extend the building moratorium after the 90-day period ends.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday the Obama Administration is drafting a letter to the Israeli government detailing the diplomatic and security guarantees reached last week between Mr. Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, U.S. envoy David Hale met with Palestinian officials in the West Bank Wednesday to discuss the emerging deal. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said his side would not offer comments until the details are worked out.

It was the first time Palestinian leaders had been officially informed of the plan.

The U.S. proposal would fund the delivery of 20 advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets to Israel, in addition to 20 of the warplanes that Israel had already ordered for purchase. The U.S. also has pledged to block any independent attempt by Palestinians to declare statehood at the United Nations.

In exchange, Israel would agree to the settlement freeze, a condition that Palestinian officials say is key for their return to direct peace talks.

Direct negotiations between the two sides broke down after Israel's 10-month settlement freeze expired in September. Palestinians oppose construction on land they want as part of a future state.

Earlier Wednesday, the Israeli military said it launched an air strike in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip that killed two Palestinian brothers. Officials said one of the brothers is a senior member of the Army of Islam militant group and he had been plotting an attack against Israelis in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.

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