JERUSALEM — The recent sea change in Israeli politics is breathing new life into the right-wing settler movement, to the dismay of liberal Israelis and Palestinians who say it will jeopardize the Middle East peace process.
Settlers, emboldened by new hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vow to triple their numbers in Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank.
Drastic expansion of settlements and the paving of wide, new highways will create "facts on the ground" that they say will block creation of an independent Palestine - which the previous Israeli government planned to allow in exchange for peace.
Few concrete steps have been taken yet, but settlers say they feel rejuvenated after four years of official neglect. They expect Mr. Netanyahu to lift the building ban imposed by the previous Labor government - in deference to the peace process - so they can snap up more land and build new settlements.
But the settlement debate in Israel is couched in harsh language, as if war was still being waged between the 140,000 settlers who live among 1.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Critics say fruition of settlers' dreams, or even a concerted attempt to fulfill them, will harm chances for peace.
"Settlements and building roads in the heart of the Palestinian entity is tantamount to a declaration of war," said Freih Abu Medein, the Palestinian justice minister. He predicted bloodshed if the building goes on unchecked.
But settlers pay this no mind and revel in their new status: "For four years we were the bad boys," says Yechiel Leiter, the director of a particularly vocal settler group, the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria (the Biblical terms for the West Bank) and Gaza.
Under the previous government, "We were blamed for everything: If there was crime, inflation, or terror, it was the settlers' fault," he says. "They demonized us to delegitimize us, but they failed."
In fact, on Tuesday, aides to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres disclosed that in 1995 Israel and the Palestinians secretly came to an understanding on a specific blueprint to turn as much as 90 percent of the West Bank into a Palestinian state.
In that plan, Israel would have kept about 10 percent of the area, leaving settlers perched in tiny enclaves surrounded by the Palestinian state. But the settlers need no longer be concerned.
"We're not the bad boys anymore," Mr. Leiter says, speaking in a strong American accent honed as a boy in Scranton, Penn. Between sentences, he takes off his pistol and leather holster and places them in his desk drawer. "We may not be heroes, but Netanyahu talks of us on the front line and in the heartland."
More than 140 spartan settlements now dot the West Bank. Most were thrown up overnight in the first years of the decade, causing violent scenes when Palestinian property owners rejected the outright expropriation of their land.
Stonings were commonplace, as were scuffles with police. But when the Labor government came to power in 1992, the settlers' worst enemy - in their eyes - became their own Israeli authorities. The US labeled the settlements an "obstacle to peace" and construction was frozen.
Hundreds of new housing units stand empty, as they have for four years, waiting for the government to lift the ban on settling militant Jews in occupied Arab lands.
New strategy: no bombast
Sensing their unpopularity among the majority of Israelis, the settlers have kept a low profile and only subtly pitched for Mr. Netanyahu in Israel's May election. That strategy has paid off. "In terms of making demands," Leiter says, "we learned that instead of making bombastic statements, it is better to get the job done on the ground. That's what counts."
And the settlers have found a willing partner in Netanyahu.
"Settlers are much more confident now than before," says a senior government official. "They can claim they brought him to power, because it's true," he says. "He owes them, and he identifies with them."
Netanyahu met with settlers for the first time Monday but reportedly made no promises. The day before, however, his government announced it would reintroduce tax incentives and financial aid for Israelis moving to the West Bank and Gaza.
Ariel Sharon, the former housing minister responsible for many of the settlers' first gains, is the new and powerful minister of infrastructure. On Sunday he ordered construction of two major roads in the West Bank for settler use (see map).
"When you have a road where Jews and Arabs travel together ... it will only contribute to the relations," Mr. Sharon said. But Palestinians and many observers are dubious.
The prime minister vows to stick to commitments that previous governments have made toward peace, including holding "final status" talks with the Palestinians. But keeping both settlers and Palestinians happy may prove too difficult, analysts say.
"I expect a confrontation between the settlement movement and government in one or two years, if the government keeps to the peace process," says Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information
A plan for 'Greater Jerusalem'?
When asked about his settlement policy during his recent US visit, Netanyahu said that under Labor the settler population had increased by 50 percent - a figure disputed by antisettlement activists - and said: "I assume nobody here expects us to do less than the Labor government."
Such rhetoric has fueled speculation about a master plan that envisions eight new settlements, expansion of old ones, and the creation of a "Greater Jerusalem" by building a "Jewish belt" stretching from the southern outskirts of the Palestinian town of Ramallah to the northern fringe of Hebron, to Jericho in the east.
The West Bank would be effectively cut in two, and Arabs would be squeezed out of Jerusalem almost entirely.
Mordechai Bar-On of Peace Now, a group that has tracked settlements for 10 years, says settler motives are more sinister than just fulfilling the Zionist dream of living on Biblical lands. "They are not there to live in more and more places," he says. "They are there to inhibit the peace."
"There is a plan, but not a plan for today. It is for the year 2020," says Khalil Tufakji, head of the mapping bureau of the Arab Studies Institute. He tracks the extent of settler actions. "If this plan is carried out, there will be no more Arabs left in Jerusalem."
Also at risk is the Palestinian demand for a state comprising the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital.
Netanyahu will make the choice between these two views. "Where is Netanyahu on this? I'm not sure he knows himself," says Joseph Alpher, an expert on settlement policy and the director of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem.
"Netanyahu will have a choice between his ideology or his policy, and will likely sacrifice his ideology," Mr. Alpher says.
Also included in the equation is Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat. Analysts say he could "show his displeasure" with new settlements by reigniting the intifadah - the 1980s uprising against Israeli occupiers - or by allowing extremist groups to carry out terrorism.
Still, there is smug relief among settlers, who are preparing for the construction.
"The last government gave us the feeling that we were unwanted, adopted children," says Dayan Yosef, the deputy mayor of one of the most militant settlements at Kiryat Arba, which is near Hebron. "Now we feel a part of the family," he says. And how far does he want Kiryat Arba to expand in the future? Without hesitation, he knows the answer: "Until Jerusalem."