Prime Minister Ehud Barak seemed to defuse a potentially explosive showdown today with hard-line Jewish settlers who had vowed to mount massive resistance to his plans for them to evacuate 15 of their newly established outposts in the West Bank.

After all-day meetings between settlement leaders and Barak's top lieutenants, the government said the residents of three of the 15 outposts earmarked for evacuation will be permitted to remain. Students can still attend school at a fourth and livestock will stay at a fifth.

Thus, five of the 15 outposts Barak had initially threatened to evacuate would retain varying degrees of settler activity.

In return, settlement leaders pledged that the remaining 10 strongholds will be abandoned voluntarily, a spokesman for the government said. There was no immediate confirmation of the deal from settlement leaders.

The issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is one of the most sensitive in Israel's recently revived peace efforts with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians, who aspire to establish a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, regard all 160 Jewish settlements there as illegal.

They were infuriated when, around the time of the signing of the Wye River agreement in Maryland last year, Israeli settlers suddenly occupied dozens of new hilltops in the West Bank, in many cases on the very land the Palestinians see as integral to their future state.

Of 42 such new outposts, Israel says only seven were established with full approval. Twenty-eight more had received only a partial green light. Faced with that legal tangle, and the Palestinians' bitter opposition, Barak seemed to try to strike a balance--ordering some closed, allowing others to remain.

If it holds, tonight's deal would avoid what some feared could turn into a violent confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Barak late Tuesday ordered evacuation of the 15 outposts, many of which are no more than a few trailers and a generator atop lonely hilltops, ruling that they were established illegally. Without naming a date, the Israeli leader said the evacuation will take place soon and urged the settlers to leave voluntarily.

He also ordered a freeze on construction at another 16 outposts--without ordering their closure--and said the other 11 of the 42 can remain unhindered.

The settlers asked to evacuate, who number no more than 60 or so, vowed to resist any attempt by Israeli soldiers to remove them. Many of them are armed, but they stopped short of outright threats of violence and said they would reoccupy any hilltops from which they were evacuated and occupy new hilltop settlements.

With conciliatory words and promises of communication and cooperation, Barak had so far sidestepped confrontation with the settler movement in his first three months in office. He has taken pains to acknowledge that many Jews settled in the West Bank at the behest of successive Israeli governments and has avoided the dismissive--and at times disdainful--tone that his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, directed at settlers who opposed his pro-peace policies when he was prime minister.

But his decision to shut down even a portion of 42 new and disputed outposts marked a break. And it was a signal that the settlers will not enjoy carte blanche under his government, as they often appeared to under the administration of his right-wing predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.

"If the outposts are evacuated, we will return to them," Shimon Riklin, a bearded young settler who lives in one of the outposts, told Israeli television tonight before the reported deal. "If [the authorities] come to evacuate, the [television images] will be difficult."

"Settlements are very important to the Zionist movement and to the state of Israel," Barak said. "But the government cannot . . . accept actions deemed illegal."