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On eve of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Netanyahu reassures his jittery party

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks set to resume Sept. 2, Netanyahu may face rebellion in his Likud party over extending Israel's settlement freeze.

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"The atmosphere is simmering," says Uzi Dayan, a reserve general and a former party candidate for parliament, who estimates that religious nationalists who support the settlers account for to 20 to 30 percent of Likud's active membership.

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'Netanyahu sounded like Sharon'

In the hall Monday night, there were no visible signs of opposition as Netanyahu reminded party members that it was Likud founder Menachem Begin who signed Israel's first peace treaty with Egypt – an agreement which forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula.

Parliament members sat like well-behaved pupils in the front row. Likud members carried signs of support like "Bibi, the people are with you.''

Some of the calm stems from the belief among many party members that Netanyahu won't come under new pressure because the talks will show that it is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who is not flexible enough.

One party member, Samuel Malul, explained that Likud members understand that the prime minister made the concession under the threat of international isolation. He added that the building freeze was a tactical maneuver to show Israel's good faith, and as such, it could be extended.

"I'm part of the silent majority in the party," said Mr. Malul, a former mayor of the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona.

But the quiet atmosphere may have been misleading because the more vocal minority was largely absent, cautioned Gil Hoffman, a political columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

"[Netanyahu] sounded like Sharon sounded on the eve of disengagement," he said. "The religious people who have invaded the party were not here.''

Settlers: We won't be satisfied with promises

Outside the convention hall Monday night, activists from the Yesha Council handed out pamphlets with the headline "Building on your word,'' that included quoted promises from Netanyahu and various government ministers to end the Israeli settlement freeze.

"We made a gesture for a limited time, and this isn't open to negotiation," said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz in an interview before the prime minister spoke.

But Likud members such as Bennett of the Yesha Council noted that Netanyahu made no new pledge to end the moratorium. Instead, Netanyahu said he would be a careful and responsible negotiator seeking a stable peace agreement.

"We won’t be satisfied with papers and promises," said Bennett. "We want real peace agreements that guarantee the security of Israel."

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements