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Tension on West Bank Rises As Jewish Settlers Get Restless

In this well-armed Jewish settlement just outside the Israeli-occupied town of Hebron, an aerial photo on the wall of the council office shows a red line around the existing community, and a blue line encompassing twice as much territory.

Tsuriel Popovich, a spokesman for the 6,000 ultranationalist Jews here, dismisses questions about the map. But he's happy to explain why settlers here are heralding the election of Likud leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. The new prime minister has promised to expand many of Israel's 150 settlements - fortified communities scattered among Arab towns in Gaza and the West Bank.

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"Shimon Peres told the world that the settlements were on sale," says Mr. Popovich, of the outgoing prime minister and Labor Party leader. "Now that we have Bibi, people will come to live here."

Since his election victory on May 29, Mr. Netanyahu has yet to detail how much he aims to expand the settlements. He may be weighing whether the United States might withhold aid if he pushes ahead. Two relevant Cabinet appointments point up the conflicting pressures being exerted on him.

The critical Finance Ministry post will likely go to a moderate who may balk at government bankrolling of massive settlement expansions. The top candidates are Bank of Israel head Jacob Frenkel and Likud moderate Dan Meridor. The choice of either man would please many moderates who see expansion as costly, both in money and in the possible loss of further progress in peace talks.

But the likely appointment of a conservative as Housing Minister - either hard-liner Ariel Sharon or a religious leader - signals a potential return to an aggressive expansionist policy. Such conservatives see settlements as a Biblical birthright and as key to ensuring Israel's security. And both sides see the settlements issue as a litmus test for Nentanyahu's commitment to their cause.

For Palestinians, the issue is critical too: They would take any massive increase beyond the 150,000 Israelis living in fortified outposts as provocative and illegal at best - and at worst, cause for another intifada (protest). Settlements are the most painful thorn in the Palestinian side because logistically they wreck visions of independent statehood.

"Settlements make it impossible for us to erect a state which is geographically coherent," says Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian Council member and former peace negotiator.

One plan reportedly being floated in the Netanyahu camp would have the new government pour $3.8 billion into the settlements, thus returning Israel to the aggressive housing ideology that has dominated Likud policy since Israel won control of the land in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

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As Likud spokesman Michael Stoltz says, the historic Israel-PLO peace accords brokered in Oslo, Norway, do not "mention any restriction on settlement activity."

BUT if Likud's settlement policy is slow to emerge, Uri Ariel already has his plan charted out. This director general of Yesha, a Hebrew acronym for the settler movement, hopes that the settlements will grow another 100,000 Israelis. Feeling vindicated by Netanyahu's win, he says, "Obviously, it was a development of the Labor government to stigmatize and delegitimize us." Now he wants more roads that allow settlers to bypass Arab population centers.

Settlers say they are not rattled by the threat of a Palestinian intifada. "If that's what they want, OK," Mr. Ariel says. "He who chooses a path of terror will receive terror."

Last week, terror visited the settlers. Efrat and Yoram Unger, a young couple from the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron, were gunned down in an attack linked to Palestinian militants. No group has claimed responsibility.

Though a majority of Israelis voted to put hawkish Netanyahu in charge, a majority of them may not be behind the settlers' designs. A poll published recently in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper shows that 57 percent of Israelis think their government must uphold its promise to redeploy from Hebron. The move, due last March, was delayed by Mr. Peres after a spate of suicide bombings by Muslim militants.

The postponements have many Palestinians doubting Israel's commitment to peace - and the difference between its old and new governments."Peres and Netanyahu are two sides of the same coin," says Isa Ibrihim, a Palestinian, as he watches settlers in Hebron constructing a third-floor annex to their compound.

But to Yeshayahu Yechieli, the deputy mayor of the Gush Etzion settlements near Jerusalem, the differences between Peres and Netanyahu are monumental. Raising his eyebrows toward the mountainous desert landscape stretching out wide behind him, he smiles. "With Netanyahu, the sky is the limit."

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