The place called Amonah is on a windswept ridge 3,000 feet above sea level, just east of the flourishing West Bank settlement of Ofrah. An aerial photo shows mobile homes strung unevenly along the crest. Nine single-family houses stand in an arc at the ridge's south end, arranged for a view of Jerusalem, a developer's dream. The photo also reveals the stripped gray earth of lots cleared for more homes.

The infrastructure at Amonah, according to an Israeli official report, was financed by the Israeli housing ministry. On the Web site of a movement that builds West Bank settlements and that in the past worked closely with the government, homes in Amonah are advertised at $121,400. The Web site -- unlike the official report -- does not mention that Amonah stands on what is apparently private Palestinian land. Nor does it inform prospective buyers that the Israeli Supreme Court recently gave Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz until Jan. 5 to present plans for demolishing the existing houses by the end of January.

The legal confrontation has put Amonah in the spotlight and brought new attention to more than 100 so-called "outposts" scattered across the West Bank -- small Israeli settlements, often consisting of a few mobile homes, built since the mid-1990s. The official report on the matter, issued in March by former senior government attorney Talya Sason, says that over half the outposts sit at least partially on private Palestinian land or ground of unclear title. All were built after the Oslo peace process and international pressure led the Israeli government to cease approving new settlements. Yet, as Sason documented, various ministries and the army tolerated, aided and abetted the outlaw settlers, in a long-running and diffuse rogue operation -- in violation of the government's stated policy.

Under the U.S.-backed 2003 "road map" for peace, Israel committed itself to "immediately" dismantling all outposts built since Ariel Sharon became prime minister in March 2001. The Bush administration has spent 21/2 years doing little -- at least publicly -- to push Israel to keep that commitment. In the meantime, according to Dror Etkes of the Peace Now Settlement Watch, houses have begun replacing mobile homes. Were it not for the Amonah case -- the result of a suit brought by Peace Now -- the outpost issue would have been put off at least until Israel's elections in the spring.

The Sason report does contain a critical historical error: It described official bodies helping unauthorized settlements as something new. In fact, such rogue operations date back almost four decades to the very start of settlement in the occupied territories. So do government subterfuges meant to evade foreign and domestic criticism. The settlement enterprise has not only blurred Israel's borders, it has damaged the Jewish state by corroding the separation between legal and illegal and undercutting the government's credibility.

As for the gap between U.S. words and actions on settlement, that is also an old pattern. The outposts represent not a crisis, but the latest stage of a long process. If there is a new element, it's that the upcoming election could finally bring decisions -- about the outposts and the entire settlement effort.

The first Israeli settlers in occupied territory arrived in the Golan Heights in July 1967, just five weeks after the region was taken from Syria during the Six-Day War. They did not know that Israel's government had secretly offered to withdraw in return for full peace (an offer Damascus rejected), but their explicit goal was to prevent a pullback and to tie the 5ation's hands diplomatically.

Ironically, given today's political alignments, the settlers then came from a far-left kibbutz movement that historically regarded Israel's borders as an imperialist imposition. Top army officers allowed the settlers to establish a commune on an abandoned Syrian base, and sent soldiers to guard it. The local government of the neighboring area inside Israel provided funds; it wanted to ensure that Syrian artillery would not return to the Golan. Labor Minister Yigal Allon, a member of the same kibbutz movement, funneled cash from a work-projects budget for the unemployed. At summer's end, a cabinet committee decided to let the commune stay. It became Kibbutz Merom Golan, which still sits on the Heights. The rogue operation had paved the way for official policy.

By 1975, religious rightists from the Gush Emunim movement were the most militant supporters of settling occupied land. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin opposed establishing settlements on the mountain ridge north of Jerusalem, the part of the West Bank with the largest Palestinian population. One night that spring, Gush Emunim activists quietly moved into an old Jordanian army base near Ramallah, intent on breaking Rabin's ban. From Shimon Peres -- then defense minister and the leading hawk in the Israeli Labor Party -- they received permission to stay, supposedly as a temporary "work camp." Peres became the camp's patron as it grew into the settlement of Ofrah -- the first bridgehead of today's large network of settlements in the area. The young settlers at Amonah are simply following Ofrah's example.

Even when the government approved of settlements, it often evaded any debate about whether the moves were intended to alter the country's borders. The first settlement in the West Bank -- Kfar Etzion, between Bethlehem and Hebron -- was announced in September 1967 as a paramilitary outpost, implicitly temporary. Despite what unhappy Israeli diplomats were ordered to tell U.S. counterparts, though, it had no tie to the army. The decision to establish the first settlement in the Gaza Strip included instructions to use the military censor to prevent publicity. These settlements may have been legal under Israeli law (international law is a separate question), but the dishonesty about them violated the social contract between government and public.

There is a tragic dimension to this story. Israel's leaders after 1967 were men (and, rarely, women) who came of age before independence, during Zionism's revolutionary days. Laws had been a weapon used by foreign rulers against Jews; breaking them was a matter of survival, evidence of a healthy disregard for limits or proof of idealism. Israel's early years brought a slow passage toward the rule of law -- until 1967, when leaders reverted to the old rebel methods to create settlements. Those tactics are still being used in the outposts.

For its part, the United States has opposed settlement, but ineffectually. The Bush administration's recent inaction is a variation on the old theme. While Sharon was engaged in a political battle to take down the settlements in Gaza, no one pushed him to open a second front against West Bank outposts. Whether because of the road map or because of Sharon's political shift toward the center or because of greater domestic attention in Israel, few new outposts have been set up -- but existing ones look ever more permanent. The building of houses at Amonah began after the road map was announced in 2003.

The political cataclysm of the past month could bring a change. Not only has Sharon walked out of the rightwing Likud, but Israel's left-center Labor Party finally deposed Peres as its leader.

The rump Likud, without Sharon and those he has persuaded to join him, is dominated by people opposed to taking down even a single settlement. Only a court order, and perhaps not that, would force a new Likud government to dismantle an outpost. For now, though, the party is running a distant third in the polls.

In Labor, the election of union leader Amir Peretz as its candidate for prime minister -- and Peres's departure to support Sharon -- has finally brought clarity to the party's position. "This isn't tactical or strategic, it's a moral stand," says Tom Wegner, Amir Peretz's spokesman. "He doesn't want to rule over another people." A negotiator rather than a general, Peretz, he says, aims at a peace deal with the Palestinians that would lead to evacuating all but the largest settlements, and compensating the Palestinians for letting Israel keep those. The unanswered question is whether Peretz would have the mandate or will to take down outposts even before a deal.

But the real enigma is the front-runner, Sharon. The location of the outposts fits the map that Sharon has long sought to impose on the West Bank, with the high ground in Israeli hands. In the fragmented enclaves that are left, the Palestinians would receive autonomy or even "independence" of a sort.

Last summer's Gaza pullout showed that Sharon still believes that Israel must unilaterally impose its final borders -- and that his picture of those borders has shifted significantly. The most common estimation of his current plan for an imposed border is the West Bank security fence being built on his watch. That would still leave big chunks of the West Bank in Israeli hands, including a finger effectively dividing the territory into two cantons. It would not leave room for a viable Palestinian state, argues Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher. But it would mean removing many more settlements, including nearly all the outposts.

Yet while building the fence, Sharon has let the outposts develop -- perhaps picking his political battles, perhaps still making up his mind. Sharon's views, says Alpher, are "a work in progress." So if reelected, which map will he use -- the one drawn by outposts, or by the fence, or another that concedes even more land?

No one knows. But the voters' choice, and perhaps Sharon's, could make removing nine houses at Amonah only the first step in rolling back the settlements. If so, the era of rogue operations might finally end.

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Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977," forthcoming from Times Books.

Showdown at Amonah? Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the small West Bank settlement, built on a crest 3,000 feet above sea level, demolished by the end of January. But history shows that even temporary outposts have a way of becoming permanent.