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Obama demands that Israel stop settlements. How feasible is that?

The US and Israel agreed this week to establish a joint committee on how to implement a freeze outlined in the 2003 road map.

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Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, said the right to build inside the current municipal boundaries of the settlements is something that no Israeli government can concede.

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"From a moral standpoint, it's difficult for me to accept the [equating] of building new bedrooms in the settlements with stopping suicide bombers," he says.

This week, Israel and the US agreed to establish a joint committee to discuss implementation of the settlement freeze, as well as the lifting of restrictions on Palestinian movement and goods into Gaza.

The two sides will have to reach an agreement on a definition of a settlement and just what constitutes a violation.

Enforcing a freeze will require monitoring dozens of locations in the West Bank and clamping down on a handful of government agencies that continue to fund expansion projects – not an easy task for a government that counts the settlers a main constituency.

"There's all sorts of loopholes. Are you going to deny them a new nursery school?" says Yossi Alpher, the coeditor of the online Israeli-Palestinian web op-ed forum Bitterlemons.org. "Even the most dovish prime minister would have to point to American pressure" to justify enforcing a settlement freeze.

One of the settlements likely to be targeted is the outpost of Migron, a hilltop near the Palestinian city of Ramallah littered with mobile hopes, where dozens of families moved after 2001. But an effort to evacuate Migron is almost sure to spark an impassioned political battle if not a battle over the outpost itself.

"We're not the 51st state," says Itai Harel, a spokesman for Migron settlers, who bristles at US pressure to freeze settlement growth. "If they want to help the people of Israel to return their land, that's fine. But if they want to say this is lawful, and that isn't lawful, what business is it of theirs? They have no moral right."

Enforcing freeze could drive hard-liners from government

Over the years, dovish governments neglected imposing a settlement freeze because they wanted to avoid the political fallout from a clash with the settlers such as Mr. Harel. However, both Mr. Alpher and Dr. Lasensky cautioned that the degree to which Israeli governments are able to implement a settlement freeze depends on the success the US has in ensuring the Palestinians are complying with their road map obligations.

Michael Sfard, a lawyer representing the settlement-watch project of the dovish Peace Now group, says the Obama administration should start by requesting that Netanyahu deliver on a commitment, made to the US in a 2004 letter by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to remove unauthorized settlement outposts.

He predicts political fallout from the eviction of about 700 of the most hard-core settlers from about 21 outposts could create the momentum for a settlement freeze.

Such a move would probably cause hard-liners to quit the government, allowing a new coalition to be formed as well as generating public support for a clampdown. "It will create a snowball effect," he said. "It can't stop there."

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