Ron Nachman is the mayor of this settlement, if it can be called that. It is actually a city, complete with housing, stores, banks, schools and a college -- the College of Judea and Samaria. About 18,000 people live here, and the place, like a Starbucks, is totally wired in a wireless fashion. Plunk down a computer anywhere, and you can get the Internet. The streets are clean, the air is crisp, and Russian emigres sit in the parks taking the very un-Russian sun. There is nothing wrong with Ariel that a mere shift in location would not fix. It is in the middle of the West Bank.
Of course, Nachman sees nothing wrong with that. He is a blunt-spoken hard-liner who thinks his settlement is right where it should be and will remain a part of Israel no matter what some "peaceniks" -- and here he includes much of the Clinton administration -- would like. The town and other nearby settlements will be surrounded by a security fence and so will the highway leading out to it from Israel proper. "I call it a gated community," he says. "The whole state of Israel is one gated community."
He is not exaggerating. The so-called security fence -- here a fence, there a wall -- is slowly sealing off Israel and the settlements from parts of the West Bank and much of the Palestinian population. It is a mind-numbing enterprise, a reordering of the landscape -- roads and tunnels and fences and walls and barriers designed to separate Muslim from Jew. The fence appears and disappears, surfaces and dips, and although it does not yet extend as far as Ariel, it someday might. Even today, though, the road to it is only accessible from Jewish areas. It is easy enough to call the effect "apartheid," but to residents of Ariel and indeed much of Israel, it is tantamount to merely locking your door at night. What would you do?
When some talk of Israel simply yanking out its West Bank and Gaza settlements, they are not envisioning Ariel and others like it. They have in mind the scattered hilltop settlements, some of no more than a handful of families and others where the settlers have already had enough and are anxious to build a life somewhere safer. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is trying to pull out of Gaza, but he has been temporarily stymied by his own Likud Party. Still, it is impossible to imagine that Israelis will remain in Gaza. Earlier this week six soldiers were killed there and at least five more were yesterday. It's being compared to Lebanon, where an Israeli occupation produced a debacle. The place -- poor, densely populated and unloved by Israelis -- has already cost too much blood.
But the West Bank is different. It is bigger, less populated and of greater religious significance to devout Jews. A tour of the area proved to me that it is easier to demand an Israeli withdrawal than figure out how it could be done. Not only would both secular and religious settlers fight such a move, but so would their allies in the United States. A frequent visitor here, for example, is the head of Billye Brim Ministries. She lets you know right off where she stands. "I was strongly impressed of the Lord to study Hebrew in the Land," her Web site says, and she takes Christians to Israel at least twice a year. While she is in Ariel, her group and others like it sing Israeli popular songs in Hebrew and make spur-of-the-moment donations. At the senior citizens center, they know Billye Brim well.
So in a way that few people could once imagine, political support for Israel -- and for a muscular settlements policy -- is hardly limited to American Jews or others who merely look kindly on the lone democracy in the Middle East. Fundamentalist Christian groups are at least as zealous about the settlements as right-wing Israelis or their Jewish supporters in the United States. What's more, they have the ear of George W. Bush. This is an unlikely marriage -- one bound to hit the rocks come Judgment Day -- but for the moment it has huge political clout. Still, bit by bit, even a growing number of Israeli right-wingers are coming to terms with reality. Israel cannot remain a Jewish democracy and still retain huge swaths of land that the Palestinians consider theirs.
Here in Ariel, Nachman cocks his head in the direction of nearby Jordan and pronounces it "the Palestinian state" and tells me that his "master plan, for Mr. Bush's and Mr. Powell's information, is for 60,000 people." Could be. But as years of terrorism, particularly what's been happening in Gaza, have shown, the Palestinians have something of a master plan of their own.