SHILOH, West Bank — Israel's national election Tuesday will serve as the clearest referendum yet on whether Israelis are willing to relinquish their hold on far-flung biblical sites like this settlement built where the Old Testament says the children of Israel divided their land according to lots.
The election front-runner, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has announced his intention to gather Jewish settlers into a few large blocks and give up remote communities where the dream once flourished of a "greater Israel" stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon incapacitated by a massive stroke, Olmert has put forth an even more explicit blueprint of what the 78-year-old leader envisaged before being stricken: an Israel that lies largely within the armistice lines in place before the 1967 Mideast War.
Now, without the sheer force of Sharon's personality to nudge them along, Israeli voters will determine whether this is truly the path the country has chosen.
Polling is an inexact science, as those living in this region were reminded when the militant group Hamas unexpectedly triumphed two months ago in Palestinian parliamentary elections.
But as political parties held their final rallies and broadcast eleventh-hour commercials Sunday -- the last full day for campaigning allowed by Israeli law -- all indicators continued to show Olmert's centrist party, Kadima, holding a commanding lead over its nearest rivals.
Party strategists worried over signs of slippage, but remained confident Kadima would emerge from the elections with a victory.
Trailing behind are the left-leaning Labor Party, led by Amir Peretz; the conservative Likud Party that Sharon spurned in his last months of political life, now led by longtime rival Benjamin Netanyahu; and the resurgent Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right ideology and appeal to immigrants from the former Soviet Union appear to be siphoning votes from Likud.
Although the campaign may have lacked a sense of suspense, the outcome has momentous ramifications for the future of the country and the conflict with the Palestinians.
Last summer, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and a small swath of the West Bank. If Olmert is given a mandate in Tuesday's election, he intends to evacuate tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from isolated communities in the West Bank. Olmert has said he hopes to establish Israel's borders by 2010, reinforced by the security barrier it has been building over the last two years.
"Now we have a referendum for [the Gaza] evacuation and a further evacuation from the West Bank," said Hillel Cohen, a scholar at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At stake, Cohen said, is "an ideology for what kind of Israel you want."
In places such as Shiloh, perched on a rocky hilltop about 20 miles northeast of Jerusalem, the sense of betrayal runs deep, even before votes have been cast.
"I'm not just worried about my own home, I'm worried about our national home, the home of the Jewish people," said Shevach Shtern, a 55-year-old building contractor who with his wife, Sara, raised seven children in this settlement of about 200 families.
"When Jews in exile dreamed of the Land of Israel, places like this -- the places from the Bible -- are the ones they dreamed of," said Shtern, whose parents settled in Israel after surviving the Holocaust. "They didn't dream of Tel Aviv. This is the promised land."
But many ordinary Israelis feel only relief at the prospect of relinquishing the settlements, with their enormous financial costs and the military burden of defending Jewish communities whose inhabitants are outnumbered 10-1 by Palestinians in the West Bank. At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, polls showed that a majority of Israelis supported the move.
Commentators have noted the odd contrast between the tumultuous months leading up to the Gaza pullout and the relative sleepiness of the campaign.
"This is the first time that an incumbent prime minister is declaring his intention of dismantling dozens of settlements, and nothing is happening," political commentator Aluf Benn observed in the Haaretz daily. "No demonstrations and protests, no rebellion within the party, and no media uproar."
Everyone here is well aware, however, that the current calm is deceptive.
"This plan is fiercely controversial and, if the government pursues it, we are sure to have stormy years ahead, outbreaks of violent rebellion, vehement Palestinian resistance and tremendous costs that probably will not leave anything for our own welfare," columnist Yaron London wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
Hovering over the election proceedings is the still-vivid memory of Sharon, whose exit from political life will be symbolically ended by this vote.