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Netanyahu Europe Trip: Israeli Settlements To Dominate Talks

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LONDON — Benjamin Netanyahu's talks in Europe this week will force the Israeli leader to balance the demands of his right-leaning ruling coalition against an international front opposed to Israeli settlements.

Though Netanyahu says his talks in London and Berlin will touch on other subjects, such as Iran's nuclear program, he is likely to hear concerns about settlements from all three of the key people he is slated to meet: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the representative of Israel's closest ally, U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell.

Netanyahu began his 4-day European visit in London late Monday afternoon, and held a meeting with British newspaper editors Monday evening before his scheduled meeting with Brown on Tuesday. He will meet Mitchell in London on Wednesday before heading to Berlin. He is due to return to Israel Thursday.

Ignoring the wishes of the broader international community will demand a diplomatic cost Israel can ill afford to pay, and both Israel and the U.S. signaled Monday that they have made progress on a compromise on settlements.

But at home, Netanyahu's partners in an unruly governing coalition are pulling him in the opposite direction and are suspicious of any sign of compromise. Crossing them could unravel his hold on power.

In recent weeks, some of Netanyahu's allies have done their best to nudge him rightward. A group of Cabinet ministers paid a supportive visit to an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank – even though Netanyahu has promised to remove such wildcat settlements – and called on the prime minister to ignore President Barack Obama's call to stop building homes for Jews on land the Palestinians want for an independent country.

Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz said there was no expectation that the settlement issue would be resolved at Wednesday's meeting with Mitchell, perhaps the most important of Netanyahu's meetings this week. But Hefetz told reporters traveling with the prime minister that there was likely to be "certain progress."

That was echoed Monday in Washington, D.C., by State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, who said the sides were "getting closer" to a deal.

"I don't want to go into the details of exactly why, but just to say that we are – we're hopeful that we can resume very soon," Kelly said, referring to the suspended Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Palestinians say they will not resume talks before the Israelis freeze settlement construction. Hefetz said Israel's government believed talks could be resumed within two months.

Israeli government officials say a compromise being discussed could see Israel freeze building except for 2,500 units currently under construction. They spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the talks between Israel and the U.S. are secret.

The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank – home to some 2.5 million Palestinians – has more than doubled since the mid-1990s and now stands at around 300,000.

Netanyahu has shown some willingness to compromise since taking office in March, after winning an election on a hard-line platform.

He endorsed the formation of a Palestinian state, a major reversal after years of opposing the idea, albeit with several conditions. And last week, Netanyahu's housing minister said Israel had temporarily stopped approving new building projects in the West Bank.

Obama said after that announcement that he was "encouraged by some of the things I am seeing on the ground," an indication, perhaps, that the sides are getting close to a compromise.

But the halt in approvals for new building was seen by Netanyahu's critics as little more than a maneuver. The settlement watchdog group Peace Now said Sunday that there had been no real slowdown in construction and that settlers could keep building indefinitely, using plans that have already been approved.

Netanyahu has also taken steps to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank. With the territory enjoying a period of calm, some Israeli military checkpoints have been lifted, permits for importing raw materials are being granted, and there are other signs that life there is assuming a semblance of normalcy.

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