BETAR, WEST BANK -- The first families moved this week into the concrete-and-tile apartment houses of this Jewish settlement, steering truckloads of furniture around the bulldozers paving the streets. But no ceremony, and only passing publicity, have marked the launching of the latest Israeli outpost in the occupied territories.
A new right-wing government has returned settlement to the center of Israel's domestic and diplomatic politics. Yet, like hundreds of other Jews now moving to the territories, Betar's pioneers have so far succeeded in exempting themselves from controversy.
"This is not really a new settlement. It was authorized by the government many years ago," Moshe Leibowitz, Betar's interim mayor, explained to a visiting journalist. "And to answer your most important question: no, there are no Soviet immigrants living here."
Betar's inconspicuous growth on a windy hilltop southeast of Jerusalem helps explain the deliberately low profile and mild rhetoric that Israel's settlement movement has adopted as a government favoring its aims takes power.
So far, the new coalition of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has tended to draw attention to two central issues: the creation of new Jewish communities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the transfer of immigrant Soviet Jews to the territories. In both, Shamir has adopted a relatively conciliatory stand: This week, he affirmed that there are no plans for new settlements.
Yet while these issues are of central importance to Israel's ability to sustain the Soviet immigration as well as relations with the United States, they are of secondary significance to those Israelis who dream of establishing permanent control over the occupied lands. Of far greater import than new sites or new immigrants, the settlers' leaders say, is the steady, continuing expansion of the 160 settlements that already exist, driven by past government decisions as well as powerful economic forces.
Betar, for example, has attracted little attention in Israel this week. Even though it is only now being occupied, its construction was officially approved long ago. So, like the new neighborhoods being built in existing settlements, it falls outside the usual parameters of Israeli and U.S. debate on the settlements.
If Shamir's new government allows this less-conspicuous development to quietly proceed, the settlers say, they may achieve the goal of making their presence in the territories unassailable by the time of the next scheduled elections in 1992.
"Even if we record the same level of growth over the next several years as we have had in the last three -- and I think we will be able to do at least as well as before -- we're going to come to a state where the situation is irreversible," said Pinhas Wallerstein, chairman of the Matei Benyamini Regional Council, which oversees 30 settlements in the West Bank. "So we don't need dramatic decisions by the new government. All we need is continuity."
The settlers' dream is to establish a permanent Jewish presence and Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza, which were captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
Politicians and analysts have been debating for years the degree of "irreversibility" of the settlements, and Wallerstein's conclusion would be disputed by many.
Still, the numbers appear to show a trend of steady growth of Jewish population in the territories.
According to a survey published this week by the liberal newspaper Haaretz, the Jewish population in the territories grew from 70,000 at the end of 1987 to 87,000 now, and it is expected to reach 94,000 by the end of the summer. The rate of population growth doubled from 8 percent in 1989 to 16 percent this year, it said. The newspaper said its figures were based on reports by government councils in the territories.
Wallerstein said that in his area immediately north of Jerusalem, four new settlements had been added since late 1986, when Shamir took office as prime minister. The overall Jewish population expanded from 5,800 to 10,500. "In the next 12 months we plan to start 1,800 new housing units, all in existing settlements," he said. "So even if the new government doesn't help us too much we should be able to nearly double our population again."
Other settlement councils have similarly ambitious building plans. In Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, with a population of 14,000, the local council is planning to start construction on 1,000 new units next year, raising the population by more than a quarter. In Ariel, with a population of 8,000, there are plans for 800 new units.
The survey by Haaretz showed that 7,700 new housing units were being planned in the settlements, which, it said, would make possible a population increase of 33,000 people in the next several years.
A few of the settlements need government funding for their construction. But many finance their own and need only the government's approval to develop new lots and government construction of sewers, electricity and water facilities, and roads. In seeking such expansion, they will have a powerful advocate: Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the original architects of the settlement drive, who in his new post will control both land allocation and new construction permits.
Sharon, the settlers' leaders point out, can facilitate much of the new building simply by having his ministry issue the necessary permits. No potentially controversial cabinet or parliamentary debates are necessary, and media are unlikely to notice many of the decisions.
Shamir's intention appears to be to pursue this course of quiet expansion. Faced with the Bush administration's strong opposition to new settlements, Shamir has said that none are now planned. In answer to demands from the United States and the Soviet Union for guarantees that Soviet Jews will not be resettled in the territories, he has responded that the government has no policy of encouraging such moves but will not prevent them and that only a few hundred of the Soviet immigrants are living in the West Bank and Gaza.
At the same time, Shamir has made clear that he intends to encourage the growth of existing settlements, and has been funneling money toward the building of necessary facilities ever since the left-wing Labor Party leader Shimon Peres left the Finance Ministry in March. So far, $30 million in additional funding has been approved for new roads, sewers and other infrastructure.
Moreover, the government has made no move to change programs providing financial incentives, such as cheaper mortgages, to Israelis who choose a home in the territories over one in the center of the country. Those programs have combined with rapidly rising housing prices inside Israel to create a powerful economic motive for new settlers.
"Here a three-room apartment costs $60,000, and you can get a mortgage for $40,000," said one of the new buyers in Betar, a white-bearded man who, like all the new settlers here, belongs to an ultra-Orthodox religious community. "In Jerusalem the same apartment costs $120,000, and you can only get a mortgage for $20,000. So it depends on what benefits the government gives. This is the only apartment that a lot of people can afford."
While homes in the West Bank and Gaza have always been cheaper than those inside Israel, the disparity has increased significantly in recent months. The wave of Soviet immigration has had the effect of provoking a sharp inflationary spiral in rents and housing prices inside Israel, while prices in the occupied territories have been largely unaffected.
"Almost all the Soviet immigrants who come want to start by renting an apartment," Wallerstein said, "but there are almost no rental apartments in the territories. Almost everything here is self-financed homes. So the Soviet immigrant rents a place somewhere else, but maybe after a year, if he wants to live here, he will build his own place."
Moved by these calculations, even some of the most ambitious settler leaders have welcomed Shamir's seemingly modest policies. "We are not demanding any wave of new settlements," said Elyakim Haetzni, a settler leader and member of parliament whose right-wing Tehiya Party is in the new governing coalition. "There are a few locations where gaps have to be filled, but not at an accelerated pace."
As for the government's insistent claims that Soviet immigrants are not moving to the territories, Haetzni pointedly asked: "Do you hear us saying anything? We have not even reacted. When I speak about expansion, I don't speak about these immigrants. We are not like missionaries trying to convert them."
Haetzni said that if the settlers' population could be expanded to 250,000, "that would be the end of the story. It would mean that the American administration would stop bothering us, that the issue would be over."