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As Netanyahu pushes for settlement freeze deal, suburban Ariel could be sticking point

Ariel, the fourth-largest Jewish settlement could prove to be one of the thorniest points of contention in border negotiations that the US hopes will boost stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

By Correspondent / November 21, 2010

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday. Ariel, the fourth-largest Jewish settlement could prove to be a sticking point in moving forward with stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Ronen Zvulun/AP

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Ariel, West Bank

With some 20,000 residents, a new performing arts center, and a university-in-the-making, this sprawling suburb has fashioned itself as an everyday Israeli city rather than a settlement of religious fundamentalists.

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But because Ariel, the fourth-largest Jewish settlement, is located 11 miles deep into the West Bank, it could prove to be one of the thorniest points of contention in border negotiations that the US hopes will give momentum to stalled peace efforts.

The border talks may be imminent if the US and Israel can agree on the terms of a new three-month settlement freeze in order to lure the Palestinians back to the peace table. Palestinians see settlements such as Ariel as eating into an already diminished territory where they seek to establish a sovereign state of their own. But as the Israeli population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has burgeoned to more than half a million, a consensus has grown in Israel that the largest settlement blocs would be annexed under any peace deal.

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"Just focusing on the border, Ariel is a major problem because there are a lot people there," says Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of BitterLemons.org, an online opinion forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "By dint of smart politics, it's considered a consensus settlement: There are no fanatics there. People commute to Tel Aviv, they have a proto-university, and, here, they have a new cultural center.''

Ariel receives unusual support – even from Netanyahu

Indeed, amid the ebb and flow of peace efforts, Ariel residents have consoled themselves by asserting that their city is an irreversible fact based on size, and more recently, because of the new cultural institutions.

The recent establishment of those institutions has given Ariel, which lies further from Israel proper than other large settlements, an added soft-power prestige among Israelis that residents hope will tip the balance in favor of its annexation.

When a group of actors and playwrights from publicly funded theater companies said they wouldn't perform in Ariel's new performing arts center that opened this month because it was in a settlement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in.

"Those that boycott are cutting the flesh of us all,'' said Mr. Netanyahu last Sunday, even as he sought support from his cabinet for a freeze on settlement building. Chen Kedem, a spokeswoman for the city said the municipality received dozens of notes of support in response to the boycott. "We haven't gotten this much love in a long time.''

Controversy over a settlement freeze

Netanyahu and the US are finalizing an incentive package in exchange for the freeze, which would include $3 billion in US military aid. Israel also wants a promise that the US will never again ask for a settlement freeze again, though it is unclear whether Washington will commit to that.

Right-wing opponents of a freeze have used the delay in firming up American promises of additional aid to Israel to mount a counterattack and defeat the measure in Netanyahu's cabinet. More than half of the parliamentary caucus from the prime minister's political party has signed a petition against the freeze, putting pressure on cabinet ministers.

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