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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.

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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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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.

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.

RELATED: Five largest Israeli settlements: who lives there, and why

"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

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