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As Netanyahu pushes for settlement freeze deal, suburban Ariel could be sticking point

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Indeed, amid the ebb and flow of peace efforts, Ariel residents have consoled themselves by asserting that their city is an irreversible fact based on size, and more recently, because of the new cultural institutions.

The recent establishment of those institutions has given Ariel, which lies further from Israel proper than other large settlements, an added soft-power prestige among Israelis that residents hope will tip the balance in favor of its annexation.

When a group of actors and playwrights from publicly funded theater companies said they wouldn't perform in Ariel's new performing arts center that opened this month because it was in a settlement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in.

"Those that boycott are cutting the flesh of us all,'' said Mr. Netanyahu last Sunday, even as he sought support from his cabinet for a freeze on settlement building. Chen Kedem, a spokeswoman for the city said the municipality received dozens of notes of support in response to the boycott. "We haven't gotten this much love in a long time.''

Controversy over a settlement freeze

Netanyahu and the US are finalizing an incentive package in exchange for the freeze, which would include $3 billion in US military aid. Israel also wants a promise that the US will never again ask for a settlement freeze again, though it is unclear whether Washington will commit to that.

Right-wing opponents of a freeze have used the delay in firming up American promises of additional aid to Israel to mount a counterattack and defeat the measure in Netanyahu's cabinet. More than half of the parliamentary caucus from the prime minister's political party has signed a petition against the freeze, putting pressure on cabinet ministers.

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