The road from Jerusalem to Nablus, following an ancient Roman carriageway, curves over rocky hills terraced with olive trees. It winds through fertile valleys plowed by Palestinian Arab peasants and their donkeys in scenes as timeless as those in the Bible.
But the face of the West Bank is changing with a speed that is shocking to the slow-moving, conservative Palestinian West Bank.
Suddenly around the bend a whole tract of freshly built villas with red tile roofs sprouts out of a hilltop. A new highway cuts across the two-lane Nablus-Jerusalem road with signposts in Hebrew and English pointing the way to numerous new Jewish settlements. Future Israeli-Jewish homeowners cruise the area in cars with yellow license plates clearly distinct from the blue West Bank plates. A road sign in an area lined with Arab villages proclaims a visitor has entered the area of the Binyamin Jewish Regional Council.
''My relatives went to visit a village they knew well and they didn't recognize the place because a new Jewish settlement blocked it from the road,'' says former Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka, deposed by Israeli authorities for political activism.
These physical changes have had an equally dramatic effect on the whole Palestinian movement. The fear of imminent and final Israeli annexation of the West Bank's land is one of the most powerful factors prodding the Palestine Liberation Organization to gamble on a peace initiative at the critical session of the Palestine National Council (PNC), or parliament, which began Monday in Algiers.
''If there are no negotiations, there will be a disaster on the West Bank,'' says a leading Nablus businessman, Hikmat al-Masri. ''There is no way anymore for the PNC to postpone a decision.''
The complex relationship between the West Bank and the PLO has never been more important. PLO moderates need West Bank backing as ammunition against arguments of hard-liners for any move toward negotiations. In addition, Palestinian leaders may have to turn to West Bankers as surrogates in any negotiations in order to get around the US and Israeli veto on dealings with the PLO.
The kidney-shaped 2,200-square-mile area of hills and desert making up the West Bank and running for 80 miles along the Jordan River Valley has an importance to the Palestinian cause far out of proportion to its size or level of development. A backwater district of Palestine under the British mandate, it remained underdeveloped under Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967.
Under Israeli occupation, it remains underdeveloped. Any industrialization has been thwarted by heavy import duties, security restrictions, and political uncertainty. The bulk of the West Bank's youth faces the choice of working in Israel as laborers - as part of a daily force of 63,000 entering Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip - or emigrating to the Arab world or to the West in search of better jobs.
But the West Bank, the last part of Palestine along with the Gaza Strip to be inhabited predominantly by Palestinians, gives crucial legitimacy to the Palestinian cause. For while the world showed little sympathy for Palestinian calls to dissolve the state of Israel prior to 1967, the goal of liberating territory from occupation and establishing a West Bank Palestinian homeland has gained the PLO its worldwide support. And with the loss of the PLO's Lebanese ''state within a state,'' the West Bank, with its Palestinian institutions, universities, and newspapers - ironically established only after occupation - has become a more vital symbol than ever.
For their part, West Bankers have traditionally looked to whichever outside leaders they believed could rescue them from occupation. After 1974, when the Arab League designated the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians, the PLO's support on the West Bank soared over that of Jordan, which maintained strong commercial and financial ties with a large segment of the West Bank population.
But West Bankers, mostly small-town merchants and politicians who feel vulnerable and isolated under occupation, have traditionally been reluctant to take any independent political role of their own. During 1979-80, a good deal of discontent surfaced between West Bank notables and elected mayors on the one hand, and the PLO on the other. The West Bank officials felt the PLO was not sufficiently attuned to their problems under occupation. But this tension fizzled after Israel deposed or deported several activist mayors and banned Palestinian political organizations.
Today, in the wake of the PLO's expulsion from Beirut and the omnipresent threat of de facto annexation by Israel, the West Bank provides the strongest bloc of support for the relatively pragmatic policies of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and his move toward a joint negotiating policy with Jordan.
Early reports from Algiers (denied by PLO hard-liners) say the PLO leadership is close to agreement on giving King Hussein of Jordan tacit authority to open peace talks with the Israelis for the return of the West Bank to Arab sovereignty under American auspices. This is to circumvent US and Israeli unwillingness to negotiate directly with the PLO.
Press reports say the PLO has already decided that a future Palestinian state should be confederated with Jordan, a move also designed to mollify the Americans.
But the King wants West Bank Palestinians on his negotiating team to give him greater legitimacy and he wants their presence openly endorsed by the Palestinian leadership. PLO leaders have so far been reluctant to OK this. Some West Bankers say they are anxious about risking the creation of a new group of Palestinian leaders who one day might challenge their primacy in a West Bank-based Palestinian homeland.
There is much debate in the West Bank over whether the PLO is moving too fast or not fast enough. Some US policymakers say certain West Bankers might break with the PLO and move ahead alone if it does not give a green light to a joint Jordan-West Bank negotiating team. This, however, appears highly unlikely.
''One cannot speak of a homogeneous West Bank,'' says Albert Agharazian, public relations director of Bir Zeit University and one of a group of young, Western-educated Palestinian intellectuals at that institution. ''But the West Bankers are aware that the biggest danger that could happen is the disintegration of the Palestinian movement.''
''We have one leadership. We can't have more,'' stresses Dr. Gabi Baramki, acting president of Bir Zeit University.
Adds an Arab-American academic very familiar with the West Bank, ''The reason West Bank Palestinians can't give up the PLO is that it is the only legal symbol which stands for their unity as a people. They can't give that up for total uncertainty.''
But some West Bankers believe that time is so short and the West Bank situation so desperate that they should already have taken dramatic initiatives to prod the PLO.
''I really don't think the people in the West Bank realize the full danger of what is happening,'' complained one such moderate. ''People are afraid to express their opinions without the safety of the PLO umbrella.''
One advocate of independent West Bank action is Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem. Mayor Freij is a Christian businessman and political pragmatist who backs the moderate, Arafat-led wing of the PLO.
Freij's influence is limited as a Christian, but he is more adept than any other West Bank figure at appealing to the international media and diplomatic corps. He displays a photo of the late Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago in an anteroom of his City Hall.
He says he believes the Palestinians have only two months left to prevent Israel from gaining irreversible control of the West Bank. As such, he tried to organize a petition calling for mutual Israeli-PLO recognition, support for PLO-Jordanian rapprochement, and PLO recognition of United Nations resolutions 242 and 338. Recognition of these resolutions is the US condition for talking directly to the PLO.
Mr. Freij gathered signatures of about 200 businessmen and professionals. Additional notables signed a watered-down version circulated by businessman Hiknat al-Masri.
The PLO, however, vetoed the petition, arguing that it had not been consulted in advance. Some West Bankers noted that the PLO seemed more interested in squelching what it saw as competing leadership than in suggesting changes in the petition that might have made it a useful political tool.
Mr. Freij has continued speaking out, publicly urging the PLO to announce willingness to negotiate with Israel on the basis of US President Ronald Reagan's peace proposal. ''What we can achieve today may be better than what we can achieve tomorrow,'' he said recently on a visit to Egypt.
Deposed Mayor Rashad Shawa of Gaza, who signed the Freij petition, cabled the Palestine National Council urging it to seize a ''historic opportunity to save what is left of our occupied land'' by ''amalgamating with Jordan under a federation.''
He urged that the council act quickly and, if necessary, arrive at decisions by a majority rather than the customary unanimous vote, which until now has hamstrung Mr. Arafat and his moderate wing in the predominant Fatah movement inside the PLO. This call for a majority vote and for hard-liners to accept the role of loyal opposition is being commonly heard on the West Bank.
But advocates of the petition say that even the most moderate West Bankers will not enter negotiations without a green light from the PLO.
''We understand a red light but we won't accept a yellow light,'' said one moderate. ''We want a public statement by Yasser Arafat. Otherwise, who would protect West Bankers who negotiate if we fail?''
Asked what he was afraid of, this moderate said,''I am afraid of the Israeli position. If I had the slightest feeling that the Israeli government was really sincere about peace or the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, then the picture on the West Bank would be much different.''
An association of Israeli-funded and -backed Village Leagues accorded little legitimacy by established West Bank leadership has indicated it might conduct separate negotiations with the Israelis, although a conference scheduled for this past weekend to discuss such a move did not take place.
The contretemps over the petition hints at possible future political power struggles between PLO leaders - mostly born inside what now is Israel proper, or in the Gaza Strip - and local West Bank leadership, should the halcyon days of statehood ever arrive.
But businessman al-Masri says this will not happen. ''When we solve our problems, there will be elections on the West Bank and the PLO will participate as individuals.''
But that struggle lies in the future. In the present, most West Bankers accept the leadership of the PLO. Despite the circumstances, many would prefer the outlines of negotiations to be clearer before the PLO gives its OK.
They are cynical about US intentions toward the West Bank and US credibility as a mediator, and their deepest fear is that the PLO might legitimize a settlement that would leave them still under subjugation - Israeli or Jordanian.
''People on the West Bank have full confidence in the PLO and want to get rid of occupation. But we don't want the compromise which would lead us to a situation worse than where we are,'' says Dr. Baramki.
''A situation which would not lead to an independent Palestinian state is not far from where we are,'' he added. ''And if there is no freeze on Jewish settlements (on the West Bank), why go into negotiations which are devoid of content?''
Former Nablus Mayor Shaka, still an active political force despite losing his legs in a car bomb, echoes the widely heard West Bank desire to know the results of negotiations before getting into them. ''I won't say yes or no to something fluid. If the outlines of what we will get are clear, then we can decide on that basis. If Israel would agree to withdraw form Nablus then you will hear from me.''
Many West Bankers, especially those active in leftist or Arab nationalist movements, also remain skeptical about future relations with Jordan, which for years suppressed political dissent on the West Bank.
''You know our feeling toward Jordan,'' said one nationalist lawyer from Nablus. ''But what can we do. We are cornered. I'm sure people will accept federation if the PLO approves.''
In the final analysis West Bankers will probably accept whatever decision is arrived at by the PLO. If the decision is negative, the repercussions in the West Bank-PLO relationship will only become evident later, when West Bankers decide if they feel betrayed.
But for the present, the West Bankers appear to want to leave the decision to the PLO according to a poll taken by the West Bank weekly magazine Alawda (The Return). The polls, which was unscientific (301 people were interviewed in town and village squares around the West Bank and Gaza), found 88.7 percent of respondents supported Yasser Arafat's leadership, while 4.7 percent wanted his authority limited. As to confederation with Jordan, 27.2 percent warned about it , 28.2 percent supported it and 44.6 percent preferred to leave this sticky question to the Palestinian leadership to decide.
When asked if he thought the respondents were all telling the truth, a Palestinian staffer for the magazine said, ''No, of course not - most are afraid.'' Pausing, he added, ''But it is true that they want the Palestinian leadership to decide.''