Unsettling Israel

Tamar Goldes lives in a shipping container on a rocky cliff in the West Bank. She and a handful of other Jewish settlers claimed this remote outpost, Ahuzat Shalhevet, two months ago. From her simple home, Goldes has a commanding view of three Arab villages in the valley below. A lone Israeli Army sentry sits nearby, engrossed in a Russian sci-fi novel, his M-16 resting on his lap. Goldes, who is six months pregnant, says she feels a "sacred duty" to settle this craggy, desolate bit of earth. "All places in the land of Israel are holy places--but especially the places inhabited by Arabs," she says.

That defiant attitude has long been the hallmark of the Israeli settler movement. But these days, it belongs to a shrinking minority. Last week settlers began an unprecedented voluntary evacuation from a few new outposts deemed illegal in the West Bank; more are scheduled for this week. The exodus is the result of a bold deal concocted by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who persuaded settler leaders to give up 10 tracts--some little more than a smattering of prefabricated houses and a water tower--while holding onto an additional 32. It was a valiant attempt to please everyone: the Palestinians, who view the settlements as a major obstacle to final-status negotiations on the disputed territory; moderate Israelis eager for peace, and even some of the hard-core settlers, who were relieved, for the most part, that they got to stay put.

Barely 100 days into his term, Barak is proving to be a formidable negotiator. He faced down Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat at Sharm el-Sheik in September, insisting on renegotiating the Wye land-for-peace accord. He has held his ground in a battle over financing for a religious school system run by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. And now he appears to have won the first round over the settlements. Persuading settler leaders to back the dismantling of even a few remote villages is something no Israeli prime minister has ever managed to do. Indeed, the image of Jewish settlers packing up their dusty belongings and abandoning their makeshift homes is a powerful one, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The evacuation agreement is the clearest indication yet that Barak is trying to drive a wedge between the movement's moderate leaders and its hard-liners. "Barak is co-opting the mainstream and isolating the radicals," says Ehud Sprinzak, a political-science professor at Hebrew University who calls the agreement a "masterstroke."

Barak's task has been aided by the rise of a more pragmatic settler leadership. In the past, leaders were captive to the movement's extremists. (Many Israelis still believe the militants' caustic rhetoric led to Yitzhak Rabin's 1995 assassination by an ultra-Orthodox Jew.) But ever since Barak won a decisive victory in May's election--and his government showed a renewed commitment to the peace process--the new climate has allowed more moderate settler leaders to emerge. "We don't want to divide the people of Israel," says Benny Kashriel, chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlers' governing body, and mayor of the Ma'aleh Adumim settlement. "We want to talk and negotiate." The settler leadership clearly knows where its bread is buttered: next week, Barak adviser Haim Ramon told NEWSWEEK, the government will propose slashing "hundreds of millions of shekels" in subsidies to the settlements. It's a powerful sign that Barak is willing to use his purse strings to force the settlers to bend to his will.

Not that many of them need much convincing. Residents of well-established settlements, in particular, have nothing to lose by going along with the government. Under any scenario contemplated by Barak, several large settlements--including Ma'aleh Adumim, an affluent bedroom suburb of Jerusalem--would be annexed by Israel. In essence, Barak is sacrificing the newest and most remote settlements for the better-established ones. And that's fine with the settlers who get to stay. "If the price of peace is having to give up some of our settlements, it's worth it," says Bernice Brownstein, a resident of Ma'aleh Adumim who emigrated from Wales 13 years ago. Barak is betting that when he and Arafat sit down to negotiate a final-status agreement, he will have successfully marginalized the settlers who are violently opposed to trading land for peace. With the blessing of the Israeli public, Barak will leave those settlers with two choices: remain enclaves in a sovereign Palestine, or pack up and join one of the settlement blocs that will be incorporated within Israel's borders.

Not everyone believes Barak is in command of the situation. Some, indeed, think that the settlers have actually outmaneuvered him. By calling for the dismantling of only 10 outposts, some settlers believe, Barak has implicitly legitimized the other 32, many of which were claimed hastily in the past few months. David Newman, a political geographer and settlement expert at Ben Gurion University, says Barak walked into a well-laid trap. "They knew what they were doing when they put these outposts up," he says.

Furthermore, variables beyond the prime minister's control could derail his plan. Terrorist violence remains a real threat on two fronts: from Palestinians who may become embittered if Israel annexes even a small piece of the West Bank, and from militant settlers who feel their leadership is making too many concessions. "Yesha has been too soft," says Hanan Porat, who quit the Knesset last week to protest the evacuation agreement. "Barak's plan was to get them to agree to evacuate five families as a precedent. Next time it will be 50 families, then 500."

Defiance was already on display last week at Maon Farm in the southern hills of Hebron. As many as 1,000 settlers, mostly young members of a group called "Next Generation," protested the evacuation agreement. Maon is slated to be dismantled this week, but its residents were busily erecting a makeshift synagogue and a farmhouse. "We will not go quietly," says resident Yehoshufat Tor. "We won't leave here. It's that simple." Nothing in the Middle East is ever that simple.

MAP: ISRAEL,We won't go: Maon residents are busily building a new synagogue(map shows: PALESTINIAN AREAS OF CONTROL, ISRAELI CONTROL, JOINT CONTROL, also locations of: Maon Farm outpost and Ahuzat Shalhevet outpost)