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ISRAEL EASES STANCE ON CONSTRUCTION

Israel will limit construction in Jewish settlements to a "necessary minimum," its foreign minister said today amid reports that the government is ready to freeze new building projects on disputed land for several months.

The United States has demanded a "timeout" in settlement construction, and Israel's offer came as U.S. Mideast coordinator Dennis Ross shuttled between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to ensure progress in renewed peace negotiations.

The Ha'aretz daily said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would tell Ross today that Israel will not start new building projects in settlements for several months, but that construction already under way would be completed.

The offer was unlikely to satisfy the Palestinians, who have demanded a complete halt to Israeli building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they hope to establish a future state.

Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, also suggested today that Israel was softening its position.

"We want to move forward and not create a situation that would make all our efforts to advance the process irrelevant," Levy said. "Therefore, there are efforts to continue with (only) the necessary minimum" of construction.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said there would be no slowdown in construction in East Jerusalem, where Israel is building a large Jewish neighborhood. The eastern sector is claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital, and the start of construction in March led to the breakdown of peace talks.

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