By Joel Greenberg
Monday, September 13, 2010; 11:01 PM
ARIEL, WEST BANK - From the four-lane highway linking central Israel to this sprawling settlement town on the West Bank, drivers can see the distant towers of Tel Aviv and, beyond them, the shimmering sea.
The enclave of Ariel, with its red-roofed homes, state-of-the art sports complex and tidy streets and parks, looks like an ordinary Israeli town, and feels that way to many of its 19,000 residents.
"We're part of the country," said Netali Zarbiv, a medical student who grew up in the settlement. "We're a half-hour drive from Tel Aviv. It's quiet here, a place where you can live in the center of the country without all the mess and the noise."
That sense of normalcy was jolted recently when a group of Israeli actors, directors and playwrights declared that they would not take part in productions at a new performing arts center in Ariel. Their letter drew a statement of support by a group of prominent Israeli authors and intellectuals, and more than 150 Israeli academicians announced that they would not lecture or join seminars at the Ariel University Center or in any other settlement, because they were in occupied territory.
The statement by the theater professionals caused an uproar and was condemned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a boycott "from within." But the debate raised the question of whether there was indeed a public consensus that Ariel, which appears on Israeli weather maps and highway signs, should become part of Israel in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
With its housing developments stretching across rocky hills about 12 miles inside the West Bank, Ariel and its adjacent industrial zone pose a challenge to the vision of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state - the goal of renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that are to resume Tuesday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The fate of Israeli settlements is one of the core issues in dispute to be thrashed out in the negotiations, which face an early test when a 10-month Israeli moratorium on new construction in the settlements expires on Sept. 26. The Palestinians have warned they will walk out if the building resumes, and Netanyahu suggested this week that some suspended construction would start up again. Israeli media reports said it would be restricted to large settlement blocs such as Ariel that Israel wants to keep in a future peace agreement.
The population of Ariel is largely secular, and about half the residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The town has traditionally attracted people looking for better housing at lower prices, rather than ideologically driven settlers claiming what they consider their biblical homeland. The settlement was founded in 1978 by a group of employees of Israel's military industries and has since mushroomed into one of the largest Israeli enclaves on the West Bank.
On a recent afternoon in town, customers lunched at a local branch of a popular Israeli cafe chain next to a swimming pool with a retractable roof in the John Hagee building, named for the American evangelical Christian leader who has donated large sums to Ariel. Commuter buses plied the streets, and as workers put finishing touches on the new performing arts center, a banner on the building invited residents to buy subscriptions for the coming theater season.
"This is a city like any other normal city," said Mayor Ron Nachman, who has worked hard to cultivate Ariel's mainstream image. "To call all of this a settlement is absurd."
Yet doubts about the future of the town linger. At the cafe, Ofra Shalev, a teacher who was among the first people to move here more than 30 years ago, said her son had taken a mortgage for an apartment inside Israel because of uncertainty about what would become of Ariel in a possible peace deal with the Palestinians.
"If I had the chance to move now to Ariel I wouldn't do it, because of the political seesaw and the feeling of instability," she said.
Netanyahu visited Ariel in January, planted a tree and promised that the town, along with other large settlement blocs, would remain an inseparable part of Israel.
But Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist who signed the academicians' letter, said that it, along with the declaration by the theater professionals, had revived public debate on the settlements despite efforts to blur the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank, known as the Green Line.
"We have reestablished an emotional, psychological and cultural Green Line between the settlements and us, between the occupation and us," Ezrahi said.
Yossi Polak, an actor who signed the statement by the theater artists, was more cautious about whether the declaration would have a lasting impact. "I think the word 'occupation' has somehow returned to public consciousness, but it can be submerged once again," he said. "We'll have to wait and see."
Greenberg is a special correspondent.