Israeli Vote Leaves Settlers Wary

The outgoing Likud government made Jewish settlements in the occupied territories a privileged spearhead of national policy. Its ouster could curb drive for expansion.

JEWISH settlers in the occupied territories, fearful for their future, are bracing to do battle with the Labor-led government that is expected to take office in Israel in two weeks' time.

After 15 years of political support and generous financial aid from Likud administrations, the settlers who have established their towns and villages around the West Bank and Gaza strip will now have to deal with Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who has little sympathy for their "Greater Israel" ideology.

Mr. Rabin's pledge to reach quick agreement on autonomy for Palestinians in the territories has made the settlers anxious that the government will soon regard them as a problem, rather than as the privileged spearhead of national policy.

But they are also confident that the massive wave of settlement-building launched in the past two years will provide enough momentum to make a complete settlement freeze, as demanded by Washington and the Palestinians, impossible.

"We have suffered four and a half years of Arab intifadah [uprising]," says Ron Nachman, the irrepressible mayor of the settlement of Ariel. "We can stand four years of Jewish intifadah" from a hostile Labor government.

Rabin is not opposed in principle to Jewish settlement in occupied territories, and has repeatedly said his government will reserve the right to establish new communities and expand existing ones in areas considered vital to Israel's security, such as the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley, and the perimeter of Jerusalem.

But he has promised to freeze what he calls the "political settlements" that outgoing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has encouraged, and which "block any option of launching a meaningful political process, such as autonomy," in Rabin's words.

Rabin has refused to specify exactly which settlements fall into which category, but told reporters last Friday that "the freeze is on building new settlements in areas I call political" and on "all the incentives, everything that is given at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer to the political settlements."

That suggested he intends to abolish the mortgage subsidies and tax breaks that settlers enjoy, and to annul the investment incentives from which Jewish businesses in the territories currently receive.

He did not clarify, however, whether he plans merely to halt new housing starts or to stop all construction now underway.

Neither prospect unduly worries Batya Medad, a resident of the clearly "political" settlement of Shillo, as she looks out of her window at the dozens of new homes being built in the valley below.

"In this area we have four years of housing to fill," Ms. Medad says with satisfaction. Likud Housing Minister Ariel Sharon "signed an amazing number of contracts, and he signed them in such a way that it's in the government's interest to continue. It would cause massive unemployment and great financial losses in terms of penalties to cancel the building."

In Ariel, Mayor Nachman is equally confident about the town he has made into the fastest growing settlement in the West Bank.

"All the new housing here has government guarantees," he explains. "If it's not sold it will become government property. What will they do with 1,500 empty apartments? I don't see any possibility to stop it."

The prospect of living in the middle of an autonomous Palestinian region, however, even if the settlements themselves remain under Israeli law, is more worrying to the settlers.

Some radicals have threatened to resist any Palestinian authority by force. "We will do everything in our power, including physical measures, in order to ensure that [the proposed Palestinian authority] cannot impose itself on us as Jews," settler leader Benny Katzover warned last week on Israel Radio.

"If an Arab policeman stands in my way, I'll make sure he doesn't stand in my way," he boasted.

The prospect of coping with that sort of situation, however, does not appeal to the majority of settlers, who live in the territories because of the cheaper housing and more attractive lifestyle, not out of ideology.

"One of the fears is that they'll return the land to Arab rule," says Ariel resident Adie Gellman. "And then either this city would be right on the borderline, and therefore make people feel more unsafe and they'll start leaving in droves, or they'll give it totally over to Palestinian rule, and then you'll be here at your own risk."

Even Nachman, normally ebullient, voices worries about how attractive his town would be if the surrounding land fell under an autonomous Palestinian regime. "People don't want to live in troubles. And if they don't have moral support from the government of Israel, they will leave."

For the time being, however, nobody is packing his bags. "They are going to wait and see," says Ms. Gellman. "People have invested their heart and their soul and their time, and they have homes that they probably couldn't afford anywhere else in Israel."

Meanwhile, many settlers are expecting to bear the brunt of increased Palestinian attacks as autonomy negotiations progress.

"My fear was that the minute Labor was victorious, the Arabs would feel more confident, and when they are confident, they attack," says Medad, citing the two Israeli civilians stabbed to death in Gaza last Thursday.

Should such attacks mount, settler insecurity will mount with them, and "the concept of shooting first and asking questions later," will prevail, she warns. "Everybody feels that it's safer to take preventive action, and unfortunately there may be innocent Arabs killed."

The prospect of greater violence is also on Nachman's mind, as he prepares to "adjust ourselves to very flexible political conditions.

"We have to be cool, we have to be resolute, and to see how we can swim in this sea. If the government treats us in a proper way, not threatening our lives in this region, we will wait until the next elections. But if they don't do that, I don't know...."

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