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Passions High Among Israelis Ahead of Talks on Settlement Freeze

Israel has shown willingness to cede territory and remove people by force if necessary. The country dismantled settlements in the Gaza Strip four years ago and in the Sinai as part of the Camp David accords with Egypt in the 1970s.

But none of those was as rooted or politically and sentimentally attached to the country. Relying on statements made by then-President George W. Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli leaders now assume that several major settlement "blocks" -- not yet defined but presumably including Ariel and even larger communities -- will become part of Israel.

Although smaller or more removed settlements may be vulnerable, critics suspect that even as they talk about turning major portions of the West Bank over to the Palestinians, Israeli leaders will seek a way to avoid any large-scale pullback.

"The logic of the settlement blocks is that it gives the framework for Israel to stay in control," said Jeff Halper, head of the anti-settlement Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Ariel's evolution shows the momentum at work. Although the town's population growth has slowed -- Nachman complains that Ariel has been suffering an effective "freeze" for years -- the broader enterprise continues to grow.

Over the years, the town has absorbed émigrés, housing 9,000 people from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and been the hub of two industrial parks. The second is under construction, as part of plans that Nachman said are designed to turn Ariel into a regional hub of 60,000 people.

The town has drawn widespread support from Jewish and Christian philanthropies. Its public buildings are branded with family names such as Arison, Moscowitz, Ofer and those of other leading Jewish donors. The Billye Brim pool is inside the John Hagee Building, named after the controversial Texas televangelist.

The local hotel is a destination for Christian tour groups, and a higher-education facility is bidding to become the first Israeli university in the West Bank.

There is a high-tech business incubator, a laser research center and, on the outskirts of town, the new $1 million Ariel National Youth Leadership Development Center. With a ropes course, climbing tower and plans for a zip-line, Nachman said, the expectation is that 40,000 Israeli youths will complete a leadership and team-building course there every year.

Those hopes were recently put in doubt. The facility was built without all the necessary approvals, and until last week a demolition permit had been pending against it. However, it was among about 450 projects that the Israeli government approved before Mitchell's trip and an expected announcement that -- at least for now -- construction in much of the West Bank will be stopped.

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