The term settlements does not do justice to what Israeli Jews have built on the hilltops of the West Bank. Subdivisions comes closer in those whose winding lanes, red-tiled roofs, bougainvillea and tricycles create a suburban splendor of sorts. In other spots, industrial park would be more accurate, with Israelis having notched scores of factories making bagels, aluminum, chicken nuggets into stony slopes where for centuries commerce had consisted of shepherd boys and their flocks.
But if a French architect named Nissim had been looking for the merely comfortable, he'd have settled in "small Israel," as some settlers call the Jewish state minus the territories it occupied in the war of 1967. In fact, Nissim and his wife had been quite taken with Hadera, a city on the narrow coastal plain where three-quarters of Israelis live. But they changed their minds after a weekend in Eli, a hilltop settlement populated by a different breed.
"We liked the mentality of the people here, the idealism," Nissim says, drinking in the view from the place he has made his home. "Different story. They have another force. You have everyday life, but here there's something more."
That "something" threatens to derail the nascent peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even before they get to all the thorny issues that stand between the negotiators and an agreement to finally and totally end the stubborn conflict, the two sides must get past Sept. 26 the day Israel's 10-month partial moratorium on construction in settlements is set to expire.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he'll walk away from the table if Israel resumes building on the West Bank, whose territory would form the rump of any Palestinian state. Israel argues that the moratorium demonstrated its good faith and now it's Abbas' turn.
"I do hope the Palestinian side understand this is the test case for the idea of compromise," says Dan Meridor, a moderate in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meridor, the Minister of Intelligence, has suggested a specific compromise: to resume construction next week, but only in settlements that both parties, in previous talks, have agreed would remain on the Israeli side of a border with a future Palestinian state. The densely populated West Bank settlement blocs on the Israeli side of the separation barrier are home to 200,000 of the approximately 270,000 settlers. The Israelis argue that making those settlements denser would do no new harm to Palestinian aspirations.
In Meridor's proposal, the freeze on construction would continue in places like Eli, a town of 3,000 way out in the middle of the West Bank. A largish blob on maps, in reality much of Eli stands vacant, settlers having put up houses on the edge like pioneers circling wagons.
"We built at the perimeter with a plan to fill in," says Tamar Asraf, whose home overlooks the ruins of ancient Shiloh, where Jewish tribes are said to have worshipped for more than 300 years after arriving from Egypt. Asraf describes the thrill of finding pottery from their feasts on the hillside below her back door.
"We feel like we've returned home," she says. "There was a gap of 2,000 years."
Whatever the fate of the moratorium, the evacuation of most of Israel's settlements has been cast as something close to inevitable in any peace deal a difficult, even elemental sacrifice that might let negotiators ask the other side to give up the right of most Palestinians to return to ancestral homes inside Israel. Perhaps with that in mind, settlers lately are playing the security card, arguing that their presence on the hilltops of the West Bank helps ensure the safety of the coastal plain below. It matters now more than ever who holds the high ground, goes the argument, since missiles rained down from other areas from which Israel withdrew Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
But the sense of purpose that so impressed Nissim has deep roots in faith. What the world calls the West Bank is known to religious nationalist Jews as Judea and Samaria, land they say was promised them in the Scriptures that double as history here. In settling here, some believe themselves to be fulfilling a condition for the emergence of the Messiah Jews still await. But in the coffee shop at Shiloh plans for a more elaborate visitor's center being on hold by the freeze the elected head of the settlers argues only realpolitik.
"How'd we get here in the first place?" says Daniel Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, which formed in the 1970s as Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful). "We got here because of an Arab war they fought winner-take-all."
Though settlers account for a small fraction of Israel's population of 7 million, and what Dayan terms the "lunatics" who attack Palestinians a tiny fraction of that, forcing them out of their homes is not something Israelis take lightly. Israeli society remains bruised by the 2005 forced evacuation of 25 settlements, most from the Gaza Strip.
But the point that settler advocates are making now is that removing settlements would also mean evacuating most if not all of the 10,000 Israeli troops now stationed there to guard them. And in recent years, wherever Israel has pulled back its forces, the empty space has soon been filled by extremists Hizballah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and their missiles.
"There are people who say we're messianic and all this, but we are the people with our feet most on the ground," says Dayan. "The ones who say a Palestinian state will solve everything, they are messianic. They are the ones detached from reality."