LOOKING thoughtfully from his settlement of Kfar Adumim at the spires of Jerusalem in the distance, Muni Ben-Ari expresses readiness to accept Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank where he has made his home.
Mr. Ben-Ari, one of the more moderate Israeli settlement leaders, is skeptical about the feasibility of the autonomy that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin proposes, but is willing to attempt it on the chance that it might lead to peace. "The most important thing is to be able to tell our children that we truly tried."
Thirty miles to the north, Benny Katzover looks down from his settlement of Elon Moreh at the large Arab city of Nablus filling the valley below. Mr. Katzover's hawklike visage befits one of the most hard-line of the settlement leaders. If the Arabs are given broad autonomy, he warns, a clash with the settlers is inevitable.
Between Ben-Ari and Katzover, and on their respective flanks, 120,000 Israelis living in the territories alongside 1 million Palestinians are bracing for the new era ushered in by the Labor Party's election victory. For the first time since the Likud took over 15 years ago, the momentum which has seen the creation of more than 140 settlements is to be blunted. There is already a blunting of the psychological momentum that had lent a sense of inevitable triumph to the settlers as they watched their dreams
of Greater Israel taking shape on the hills of the West Bank.
Mr. Rabin has pledged to freeze new settlements and swiftly reach an agreement for a five-year interim period of Palestinian autonomy. The Israeli Army would remain in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during this period, but the Palestinians would run most of their own affairs. During this interim period, the two sides are to conclude a peace agreement that would define the final status of the territories.
"If the Palestinians are given autonomy only within their cities and villages, that's one thing," says Katzover. "But if they are given regional autonomy, we couldn't accept that."
With regional autonomy, he says, the Arabs could make a mockery of the detour roads built for the settlers around Arab villages to avoid the danger of stoning and firebombs by straddling them with new Arab housing. They could build close to the fences of existing settlements to impede future growth. Katzover says he would use force against any Arab policeman who tried to stop him on the road.
HOW then will it all end?
"If we don't break, the Arabs will," says Katzover. "I believe we won't break."
In Kfar Adumim, Ben-Ari takes a less apocalyptic view of the future. "Those opposing autonomy say it is our finish. I say it is not because we will make sure it is not."
The Likud's great achievement, says Ben-Ari, was to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table by an unrelenting settlement program that was rapidly filling in the open spaces of the West Bank. "They understood that in another 10 years there wouldn't be anything left to talk about."
Says Ben-Ari: "I believe the interim agreement will be the final agreement. No Arab will put his signature to our rule in Jerusalem, and there can be no final agreement for us without Jerusalem."
This open-ended "interim" agreement will not be called peace, but it would improve the Palestinians' present situation and be better for Israel than its pre-Six-Day-War situation.
"Our children must be sure that we did all that was possible to achieve peace," says Ben-Ari. "Meanwhile, we need our rifles. We will need them to the end of days."
On the surface, nothing appears changed in the territories. In the fields of the West Bank, Arab women this week bundled straw onto the flanks of patient donkeys. In Israeli settlements, building continued unabated. But Arabs and Israelis recognize that their world is about to take a dramatic turn.
Both peoples understand that they are heading for a moment of truth and that it is likely to be epic in nature.