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Deal would allow many West Bank outposts

Israeli minister, settlers in talks

JERUSALEM -- Unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank would get official government approval under a deal Israel's defense minister is working out, settlers and government officials said yesterday, in apparent violation of a US-backed peace plan.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz is negotiating with settler leaders on a deal to take down some of the outposts, move others and give authorization to the rest, according to Emily Amrussi, a spokeswoman for the settlers.

The Defense Ministry confirmed that talks with settler leaders are taking place and would continue, saying Peretz initiated them to defuse tension and allow the evacuation of unauthorized outposts to proceed.

However, the ministry said in a statement that the talks were ``not negotiations, but dialogue" and that no agreements had been reached.

A deal that leaves significant numbers of outposts in place could constitute a violation of Israel's commitments under the internationally backed ``road map."

Peace Now, an Israeli group that favors a withdrawal from the West Bank, criticized the reported negotiations. ``We don't think lawbreakers need to get a prize, and we're afraid that this deal will be cosmetic -- that one or two outposts will be evacuated and the rest declared legal," said Yariv Oppenheimer, the group's director.

But Oppenheimer said he would see an agreement as progress if it leads to the removal of most outposts.

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