HALAMISH, Occupied West Bank -- The Jewish settlers who say God promised them these hardscrabble hills wait in glum trepidation to see if Israel's next government agrees.
Next week's Israeli election could give them a government that supports their claims and nourishes their barb-wired compounds or a government that sees their passion for the land as an obstacle to peace.
"I'm terribly, terribly upset" that the current polls show a slim victory for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, says Ruth Radberg, 45, at this settlement on a hilltop equidistant from Jewish Tel Aviv and Arab Nablus. "How can they so glibly say some settlers will be under Palestinian rule?"
The fate of many Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is at stake in Wednesday's election, when voters will elect a prime minister and Knesset, or parliament.
The settlers may be the most directly affected Israelis, but the underlying choice facing voters is whether to continue the peace process with the Arabs at its present pace, as Peres would do, or put on the brakes and reconsider the negotiations, as the Likud party candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, has indicated that he would do.
Both candidates have shied from putting the choice in such stark terms. Peres, who won a Nobel Prize for his peace efforts with the Palestinians, is trying hard to be seen as tough on Arabs. And Netanyahu, a persistent naysayer to the government's peace moves, vows to continue some form of a peace process.
Both are jockeying for position in the political center in hopes of winning the 5 percent to 10 percent swing vote that declares itself undecided.
"Don't be fooled. Labor and Likud are miles apart," says Hirsh Goodman, editor of the Jerusalem Report. "Both parties must think us dumb if they think they can pass themselves off as the same thing. This election, like none before, will decide Israel's future."
The single issue in this campaign is the peace process, and its subsidiaries: safety, terrorism, settlements, territory. The crucial differences between the candidates are on this issue; there is virtually no debate, for example, on economic policies.
But what has been done puts constraints on what can be done or undone in the future. No one talks, for example, of amending the peace treaty that Israel signed with Jordan in October 1994 or of scrapping the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, which was negotiated by a Likud government.
Netanyahu has said that a government he heads would honor the 1993 Oslo agreement that lays out a plan for peace with the Palestinians. But he adds a huge caveat: The Palestinians first must fulfill all of their obligations, including the stopping of terrorism.
Israeli voters understand this caveat. They know it is a loophole by which a Likud government would slow negotiations to a crawl and block expansion of Palestinian authority.
"If Likud sets up a government, you can assume they will offer the Palestinians proposals that are totally unacceptable," said political analyst Joseph Alpher.
Similarly, Peres has constraints on what he could do. He already has promised not to uproot any Jewish settlements, not to allow Palestinian authority in East Jerusalem, and to bring any fuller peace agreement with the Arabs to a public referendum.
But the differences between the candidates are real. Peres wants to finish negotiations with Syria. If he is re-elected, and can form a supportive government, he will push for a deal with Syria. If he gets it -- a question also up to Syrian President Hafez el Assad -- the pact would require Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu has said he will not give up the Golan Heights and that he is satisfied with the status quo with Syria.
On the Palestinian front, Peres helped write the Oslo agreement under which "permanent status" negotiations were begun. Peres' Labor party removed from its platform an objection to a Palestinian state, a clear signal that some such entity would be an acceptable part of the conclusion of the talks.
Netanyahu rejects the possibility of a Palestinian state and has said until recently that he would refuse to meet Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu opposes Israeli troop redeployment in Hebron, to which Israel's government has agreed, and any further relinquishing of territory.
"I think it would be wise to say to the Palestinians, 'You have not kept your side of the agreement, so we are not vacating Hebron,' " Netanyahu said. (The U.S. government has declared that the Palestinians have fulfilled their pledges. Israel has broken numerous written promises, including those on withdrawal deadlines, prisoner releases, economic freedoms and the right to passage between Palestinian areas.)
Netanyahu has said Israel's army and undercover forces should have the right to enter areas controlled by the Palestinian authority to capture violent opponents, which would make a mockery of Arafat's authority.
"I'm not going to send the tanks back into Shechem," Netanyahu said, using the Hebrew name for Nablus. "But there are many actions that could be done that aren't being taken now."
Netanyahu's supporters argue that a tough line taken by Netanyahu would force the Palestinians to renegotiate, not to react violently. Others say the United States would not allow him to scrap the peace process.
"Even a Netanyahu victory will not necessarily be a catastrophe," conceded Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus, a supporter of Peres. "He would be stupid or mad to bring on an immediate break in relations with the U.S. by halting the peace process, taking us back to armed conflict with Palestinian terror, this time very violent."
Netanyahu has promised swift change from the Peres government's course in the settlements, whose expansion in what is regarded as the biblical land of Israel is an essential part of Likud philosophy. He has vowed to continue to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territorial acquisition that helped spark the Palestinian "intifada" in 1987.
About 140,000 Jewish settlers live among 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Asked how he would pay for settlement expansion, Netanyahu said he would transfer funds from the Palestinians and spend it in the settlements. That prompted Finance Minister Avraham Shohat to reply that not a cent of Israeli money goes to Palestinians, only some reimbursement of taxes collected from Palestinian workers.
Peres vowed yesterday to continue the partial freeze on Jewish settlements. His campaign position is that no settlement will be dismantled and that most settlers would remain under Israeli control after the end of negotiations with the Palestinians.
That is of little comfort to Yusef Rimel. He lives with his wife and four children in Halamish, a settlement of red-roofed houses 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Areas now under joint Palestinian-Israeli control come within a half-mile of the settlement. Rimel fears the consequences if those lands become part of a Palestinian state.
"If you start dismantling Israel by giving away lands, you're asking for a war that Israel may not be able to survive," he said. If negotiations give the Palestinians control over the surrounding area, he might leave, Rimel said.
"If it means I have to go through a Palestinian checkpoint and present my identity papers, I strongly question if I could stay here."
Pub Date: 5/23/96