BIG, HISTORICAL shifts sometimes show up in small news items, between the lines. Like the recent report in an Israeli daily on new requirements for high school students majoring in the Bible: Henceforth, they will have to take at least four field trips to places where key biblical events occurred.
Because the Bible is taught in Israel as the national epic connecting Jews to their land, that's not surprising. But all four trips are within the Green Line, the pre-1967 borders of the state. None are in the West Bank.
Intentionally or not, it's a sign of change.
Israel's conquest of the West Bank in June 1967 spurred a popular romance with land seen as the biblical heartland, by secular as well as religious Jews. A friend once told me of how her left-wing mother took her for trips through the West Bank that summer, Bible in hand, reading verses aloud.
It fit the zeitgeist. Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, described the West Bank as "part of the flesh and bones -- indeed the very spirit -- of the land of Israel," and he related each landmark to a biblical story. Official documents replaced "West Bank" with the biblical name "Judea and Samaria."
Now the romance with the West Bank, and with the settlements intended to keep it in Israel's hands, is fading.
Like many a divorce, the end of this relationship is slower than the infatuation at the start. New homes are still going up in Israeli communities in occupied territory. Settler ideologues still insist that the West Bank mountains are the real biblical homeland and describe Tel Aviv as the land of the Philistines. The practical difficulties of disentangling from the West Bank are huge. But for the Israeli mainstream, disenchantment has set in.
Biblical history was not the only spur to settlement after 1967. The war underlined Israel's vulnerability. For many politicians, especially in the ruling Labor Party, security became the primary value. Each had his own map of what parts of the land Israel had to keep to provide strategic depth. Settlements would stake Israel's claim to those areas. For Israel's founding generation, then in power, settlement also had a powerful mystique: It expressed the Jewish return to the soil. And for the Orthodox settlers who took the lead in the 1970s, the effort was part of a "process of redemption," fulfilling prophecy.
From the start, dry, dissenting voices challenged the infatuation. At a Cabinet meeting in June 1967, one minister warned that keeping the West Bank and its Arab population would create a binational state. Nearly all the territory must be relinquished, he said, or "we're done with the Zionist enterprise" of building a Jewish state.
The next winter, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was toying with letting Jews settle in Hebron, the editor of his party's newspaper admonished him that "our boys will have to serve an extra three months" to guard the settlers. Settlement would be a military burden, not an asset.
Soon after, when settlers moved into the town without government permission, dissidents warned that letting them stay would undermine democracy. That warning was also ignored.
In the years that followed, to avoid fringe status, a political party had to state where it favored settlement. When the right took power in 1977, the process accelerated. As settlement czar, Ariel Sharon worked with Orthodox settlers to dot the West Bank with small Israeli communities. Closer to the Green Line, the government built heavily subsidized suburbs.
Now a quarter of a million Israelis live in the West Bank. Yet arguments once voiced by isolated critics are now accepted by the political center and moderate right. The bloodshed of the last five years has shown that trying to hold the entire West Bank and defend isolated settlements is an insupportable yoke on the military.
Exactly as prescient critics suggested years ago, the Arab population in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza has risen toward parity with the Jewish population. Two and a half years ago, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- a lifelong rightist -- declared that Israel would have to withdraw from much of the occupied territory in order to remain a Jewish state. Olmert's belated but essential realization apparently spurred Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza last summer -- which further legitimized the idea of giving up land.
The last year has also brought home the extent to which the settlement effort has eroded democratic decisions. A government-sponsored report explained how more than 100 tiny outposts have been established in the West Bank without legal approval but with the connivance of officials -- a massive rogue operation. When Olmert, now acting prime minister, decided to go ahead last month with demolishing homes at an illegal outpost, his spokesman lectured me passionately on the need to uphold the rule of law.