Continued from page 1

Palestinians regard settlements as a major obstacle to peace because the construction is on land they claim for part of their future state. Some 300,000 Israeli settlers live in communities scattered across the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem, the area of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

Israeli defense officials said Defense Minister Ehud Barak has floated a proposal under which any future construction — even projects with all the necessary permits — would need his personal approval.

Under this scenario, Mr. Netanyahu in effect would be able to leave the building restrictions in place without openly declaring this. But it was not clear whether Mr. Netanyahu favors the idea. The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has been taken.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his hard-line Cabinet to agree to the slowdown in November in a bid to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after a breakdown of nearly two years.

The Palestinians initially dismissed the gesture because it did not halt construction on thousands of settlement apartments already under way. They also objected because it didn’t apply officially to east Jerusalem — though there has been a de facto construction freeze there for months as well.

After U.S.-mediated peace talks were launched earlier this month in Washington, the Palestinians demanded Israel maintain the curbs.

Mr. Netanyahu — a settlement champion who just last year grudgingly endorsed the notion of a Palestinian state — earlier faced heavy pressure within his pro-settler governing coalition to resume construction.

Any negotiations would be complicated by the rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank, which Mr. Abbas controls, and in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Islamic Hamas militants who overran the territory in June 2007.

On Monday, Hamas’ top leader, Khaled Mashaal, said from his base in Syria that only minor issues remained for a full reconciliation with Mr. Abbas‘ Fatah movement.

Multiple efforts to reconcile the two sides have failed so far. Reconciliation likely would require major concessions, including the integration of rival security forces and new elections.

Hamas opposes peace talks with Israel and has threatened to spoil the latest round with violence.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Ben Hubbard in Jerusalem contributed to this report.