WHILE interim peace arrangements with the Palestinians leave Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip intact for now, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appears to be uprooting the ideology of Greater Israel that propelled settlers onto the hilltops of the West Bank.
``I believe the Zionism of today is not judged by how we expand the territory under Israeli sovereignty,'' he said recently. ``I believe the real Zionism is the return to Zion of most of the Jewish people from all over the world to build up a society that can serve as an example of traditional Jewish values coupled with Western civilization.''
That remark, coupled with a policy of curbing settlements and the decision to sign the Declaration of Principles (DOP) with the Palestinians, represents a dramatic change of course for Israel, analysts say.
``He has certainly made a radical break from the previous 15 years,'' says Ehud Sprinzak, a Hebrew University political scientist. ``But the break actually started with his election in 1992 on a peace platform and not with the DOP agreement with the Palestinians.''
During that election campaign, Mr. Rabin put settlers on the defensive by coining the phrase ``political settlements'' to highlight his view that many of the settlements had no military value and were a drain on taxpayers' money.
The previous decade and a half of Israeli politics had largely been dominated by powerful settler groups such as Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and their right-wing Likud party allies. Their priority was to expand Israel's borders to encompass most of biblical Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel).
This plan was carried out through a massive settlement drive on the West Bank - the Biblical Judea and Samaria - the most important areas of Eretz Yisrael and home to more than 1 million Palestinians.
Today, 144 settlements and about 120,000 settlers are in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many of them lured by generous housing grants that were offered as part of the settlement drive.
Under Rabin's policy, new construction has been halted in most of the West Bank, but 15,000 new units will be built in the next two years in East Jerusalem, says Amit Dobkin, Housing Ministry spokesman.
``It is not a secret that we are building in greater Jerusalem to strengthen our hold on our capital,'' Mr. Dobkin says. ``We do not want to occupy 2 million Palestinians, but we want to at least have our ancient capital.'' Rabin has thus far declined to discuss compensation for settlers as a way of inducing them to return to Israel, stressing instead that the DOP allows for them to stay on for at least three years under Palestinian self-rule.
RABIN'S acrimonious relationship with the Gush dates back to his first tenure as prime minister from 1974-77. The fledgling settlement movement was then illegally squatting on land near the West Bank city of Nablus, straining the coalition government. Under subsequent Likud governments, the goal of a Jewish state that encompasses Judea and Samaria became official policy. The Gush's goal of Biblically driven expansion across Eretz Yisrael clashed with the demography-minded outlook espoused by Rabin.
For years, the Labor party had been guided by a settlement blueprint known as the Allon Plan. It called for Jewish settlement along the border with Jordan and in the vicinity of the city of Hebron - all in the name of security. According to the plan, the most densely populated Palestinian areas of the West Bank were to be returned to Jordan with the aim of preserving Israel's character as a Jewish state.
Even leaders of the Gush concede that few Israelis pined for Judea and Samaria during the state's earliest years.
But when the Old City of Jerusalem and the cities of Hebron and Nablus fell to Israeli troops during the 1967 war, the future founders of Gush interpreted it as a divine act of liberation. In their view, it was not only natural but imperative to extend the accomplishments of Israel's founders by settling Judea and Samaria.
By scaling down the settlements program and agreeing to the DOP, Rabin has pushed the Gush's approach to the margins and moved toward a redivision of so-called Greater Israel, analysts say. They point to the agreement's provisions for Palestinian self-rule and withdrawal of Israeli troops as steps toward an independent Palestinian state that will exercise sovereignty over part of that territory.
``We are definitely headed toward a repartition,'' says Yoav Peled, a Tel Aviv University political scientist. ``Rabin has been forced to be realistic, even though he does not like it. Israel was unable to suppress the Palestinian uprising and to go on ruling over the Palestinians,'' he says.
But Saeb Erakat, a negotiator for the Palestinians during the Washington peace talks, says Rabin's insistence on retaining East Jerusalem under Israeli control proves he has not accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood or clearly broken with his hard-line Likud predecessors.
``It is as if there is a part of him that wants to enter history as a peacemaker and another part that does not want to relinquish land,'' Mr. Erakat says.
For the Gush and its supporters, Rabin is viewed as trying to relinquish Jewish history, not just territory. ``What we are witnessing is an attempt to create a new culture of Madonna, Michael Jackson, money, and computers instead of a culture drawn from ancient Jewish roots and the heritage of our forefathers,'' says Noam Arnon, a settler leader who lives in the West Bank city of Hebron. But turnout at demonstrations called by the Gush leadership in the West Bank and Gaza has been declining.
The decline in the Gush's appeal is linked by many analysts to a generational change in Israel, distrust of overambitious policies like the failed 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and a shift in the public's priorities toward personal economic well-being.
``The kind of pioneering labeled `Zionist pioneering' does not speak to the average Israeli anymore,'' says Daniel J. Elazar, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
``If people think they can have a peace with security, they will want peace with security. If they think they have to fight on to survive, they will fight on,'' says Mr. Elazar.