ELON MOREH, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — ELON MOREH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The Promised Land is for rent here. A two-bedroom flat with a spectacular view of Abraham's old neighborhood goes for $100 a month.
The question is, to whom is the land promised?
Jewish settlers who lay claim to that biblical testament have moved inexorably onto the land, subsidized in part by the U.S. government, which for 2 1/2 decades has condemned the settlements.
The settlers at Elon Moreh were among the first. Fifteen years ago, a small band of zealous Jews provoked a clamor from the Arab world, Washington and even Jerusalem when they moved to a site near Nablus, the West Bank's most populous Arab city.
Since then, more than 100,000 have followed to other settlements, even as U.S. presidents have complained, Arab leaders have howled, and the Palestinians have watched as land they considered theirs disappeared.
"This is our place," Eliyahu Levy explained of the sweep of the Nablus Valley overlooked by the Jewish settlement. The wiry 43-year-old with a Baretta strapped to his waist added generously, "Foreigners can stay here, if they have no political aspirations."
By "foreigners," he means the Arabs whose ancestors also walked the land with Abraham -- the patriarch of both Arabs and Jews -- and who now live in Nablus.
Mr. Levy's Jewish companions came here 13 years ago, after stirring up an international furor in an encampment closer to Nablus.
There are now 144 such settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and they are at the heart of one of the world's most troublesome conflicts.
It seems a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.
Peace between Israel and 220 million Arabs is in reach if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is solved. That conflict could be solved if the issue of Jewish settlements is defused.
But 2 percent of Israel's population -- about 120,000 settlers -- stand in the way of that solution.
"It's true. If you just looked at the short history, we are a pain in the rear to the Middle East," said Mr. Levy, the secretary of the Elon Moreh settlement. "Why is there a war between Arabs and Jews? Because we're here. But if you look at the long history, this is our place."
The United States, Israel's chief financier, staunchest supporter and military supplier, -- has long viewed Jewish settlements on Arab lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war as a significant obstacle to peace.
Several presidents considered them illegal. All opposed, at least in principle, subsidizing them with U.S. aid. All, essentially, to little avail.
And two weeks ago, the massacre of Arab worshipers in Hebron by a Jew from one of the first and most zealous settlements brought U.S. policy-makers face-to-face with the consequences of their 2 1/2 -decade failure: the threatened derailment of momentum toward a comprehensive peace that could finally halt the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Some Israelis seemed to have foreseen as much. They surprised even themselves in 1967 when their armies burst out of the narrow strip of the country's 1948 borders and in six days swept into Jordan, Syria and Egypt.
After the war, military hero Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion, the founding leader of modern Israel, advocated trading back the territories they had captured in return for peace.
"Sinai? Gaza? The West Bank? Let them all go," said Mr. Ben-Gurion. "Peace is more important than real estate. We do not need territories."
But a decade later, Menachem Begin and his militantly nationalistic Likud bloc were in power with precisely the opposite idea in mind. In 1979, Israel traded the Sinai back to Egypt for peace. The desert peninsula had little religious significance; demilitarized, it posed no threat. But the West Bank and Gaza were the land of Israel. "West Bank" was replaced with the biblical names, Judea and Samaria.
There, Mr. Begin promised Israelis, a million Jews eventually would be settled. At the time, there were fewer than 4,500 Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza. Only a few of them were part of the Gush Emunim or "Bloc of the Faithful," religiously motivated settlers who provided the nucleus of the avalanche that Mr. Begin anticipated.
Yitzhak Shamir, who took over from Mr. Begin in 1984, was equally committed and even less tolerant of international complaints. By 1992, Likud had added 112 new settlements to the 32 already started when it came to power.
Some of these were a few flimsy mobile homes planted on barren hillsides, ringed by barbed wire, peopled with hard and dedicated Zionists. Others were virtual suburban towns, with California-style ranch homes, irrigated lawns and kids playing soccer in the streets.
Ariel "Arik" Sharon, the burly warrior, had served Mr. Begin as minister of agriculture in getting the settlements program on a fast track. Returning from disgrace as the architect of Israel's devastating military experience in Lebanon, he took over his old job for Mr. Shamir with the title of housing minister.
Mr. Sharon poured a fortune into the settlements program. The extent of what he spent has never been completely uncovered: Under pressure from the Bush administration to stop the building, Mr. Sharon and his Housing Ministry "cooked" the books, according to later reports of Israel's comptroller.
They spent money without budgets, made fiction of their reports the Americans, and hid the true extent of their crash program even from fellow Israelis. When Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party regained power in 1992, there were reports of documents being shredded in the Housing Ministry. Mr. Sharon's successor had to hire a plane to try to learn what had been built in the territories.
"They were trying to cheat the American administration constantly," said Dedi Zucker, a liberal member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, who dogged the Likud government on the issue.
In an interview he came to regret, Mr. Shamir acknowledged that he entered the peace talks with Palestinians in 1991 just to placate the Americans, and then dragged his feet to win time to build more settlements.
"Tens of thousands of Jews are needed to settle here in these places so that there won't be room for a Palestinian state," he told Jordan Valley settlers in May 1992. "We have to guarantee that the state will be ours and only ours."
Tens of thousands did move into the occupied territories. From 4,400 in 1977, the settler population grew to 112,000 in 1992 -- nearly doubling in the last five years under the Shamir government's frantic efforts.
The 20-to-1 ratio
But that surge of population did not fulfill their dream of making the land Jewish. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are now nearly 2 million Palestinians, almost 20 Arabs for every settler, despite the billions spent by the Israeli government to attract Jewish settlement at a time when the state's economy was in serious trouble.
Mr. Rabin campaigned on a promise to redirect the money going into the territories and spend it within Israel. And he said he would make peace with the Palestinians.
But with a fragile majority in his governing coalition, Mr. Rabin is unable to take firm action against the settlers and the result has been more misleading signals.
Mr. Rabin promised not to abandon any settlement, a direct contradiction to his promise to turn back the territories to the control of Palestinians. He announced a "freeze" on settlement building but then added significantly to the stock of homes in the settlements already in existence.
He has derided settlers. But he has helped extend Jerusalem's urban reach into occupied territory, flaunting long-standing policy by the United States the United Nations, and outraging the Palestinians.
"Declarations are one thing, and reality is another," concluded Ya'ir Fidel, who studied the expenditures for the Hebrew daily Ha--ot. "The Rabin government has only slightly, if at all, reduced the previous budgetary allocations for the settlements."
The U.S. government, too, found money still flowing into the settlements. In September it reduced the first $2 billion installment of a $10 billion loan guarantee by $437 million. It said Israel was spending that much in the territories, and made the reduction to avoid subsidizing those expenditures.
Israel complained about the size of the cut, but reports later suggested the government was secretly relieved the United States had not found evidence to cut even more.
Others say, numbers aside, the Rabin government has managed to send the message that settlements will no longer be looked on in favor.
"For the first time in 25 years, the figures [of settler population] will start to go down," said Knesset member Mr. Zucker.
Last week, Mr. Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres hinted that some settlements are expendable. Observers saw this as the first move of a careful campaign.
"There's a big question mark on the West Bank," said Emanuel Gutmann, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University. "One of the major effects of the changed voice of the government is that [settlers] are in a quandary. They feel they don't get support and are being pushed into a corner. So they become more radical, more ferocious."
The mass murder of Muslims in Hebron on Feb. 25 by settler Baruch Goldstein seemed evidence of this, and some Israelis wonder if there is more to come.
"I think there will be violent resistance. There will be shootouts and people getting killed -- Jews by Jews," predicted Mr. Gutmann. "It will be a terrible shock. The repercussions will be enormous."
Others are not so pessimistic. Amiram Goldblum, head of the Settlements Watch Committee of Peace Now, estimates that nearly two-thirds of the settlers moved into the territories to take advantage of heavily subsidized housing. Those settlers will move out if economic and political uncertainties continue, Mr. Goldblum predicted.
Already, the change of government has started to dry up some of the more remote settlements. More than 4,000 houses in the territories are vacant, said Ofra Preuss, an official of the Housing Ministry.
"No one wants to move there. There used to be a lot of incentives. Now there is nothing," she said. "We don't build settlements anymore."
Yechiel Leiter, spokesman for the settlers' Judea and Samaria Council, disputes this. "There's a positive immigration. Since the [Israeli-Palestinian] accord was signed, 350 families have moved he said.
"The government's cutbacks are choking the communities," he acknowledged. "But the nuts and bolts things are still here. The air hasn't been shut off. We're taxpayers. They can't take those things from us."
After the Hebron massacre, some settler families said openly that they will move rather than risk Arab retaliation. "There is enormous anxiety, fear and insecurity prevailing among the settlers," said Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on Jewish right-wing groups. "The vast majority are upset. They feel evacuation is coming. There's going to be a mass exodus back" to Israel.
But many want to be paid. In 1982, Israel evacuated Sinai settlements as part of the Camp David agreements with Egypt. To remove 10,000 settlers, Israel paid $300 million in compensation. Mr. Rabin has said bluntly that the government cannot afford a similar financial lure to remove 10 times that number.
Despite his stand, the Israel Housing Authority acknowledged last week that it is providing some financial help to move settlers out of the territories "for humanitarian reasons."
There have been suggestions that the U.S. loan guarantees could be used to finance such a solution. That would put U.S. taxpayers in the ironic position of underwriting the disbandment of settlements established over U.S. government objections.
At Elon Moreh, there is little talk of disbanding. In a quiet living room overlooking a misty blue-green Nablus valley, Yusef Porat, 48, keeps a picture of his 14-year-old daughter Tirtsa. She was killed six years ago, apparently shot by a guard in a confrontation with Arabs.
Despite his loss, and despite what he feels is abandonment by the government, Mr. Porat remains dedicated to settlement. Like many of the 1,400 here, he believes a larger biblical calling will overcome opposition.
"Right now we have a period of confusion, of finding out who we are and what we are," he said. "But these difficulties give us strength to understand there are ups and downs. If right now we are in a down, I know things will go up."