Reporting from Ariel, West Bank — Ron Nachman had waited 10 months for this day. But when Israel's West Bank construction moratorium expired a week ago and settlers celebrated with balloons and bulldozers, the mayor of the fourth-largest Jewish settlement was nowhere to be found.
Nachman, 68, was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy for recently diagnosed bladder cancer.
It was a bitter twist of fate for the hard-charging founder of Ariel and one of Israel's most outspoken proponents of Jewish expansion in the West Bank. Since the day 32 years ago when he pitched a tent near some Palestinian villages 12 miles beyond Israel's border, Nachman has spent his career building a settlement that he hoped would become too big to give up.
Now, as he fights for his life, Nachman also faces what could be the ultimate challenge to Ariel.
With Israel's renewed settlement construction threatening to torpedo U.S.-sponsored peace talks, there's a growing call for negotiators to focus on establishing permanent borders for a future Palestinian state. Once borders are set, the settlement dispute becomes moot because Israel will know where it can build and where it should not.
That means it's crunch time for Ariel, a settlement deep inside the West Bank that the U.N. and international community consider illegal.
Despite Nachman's efforts, there's still no clear consensus, either among Israelis or Palestinians, about whether Ariel will be absorbed into Palestinian territory or remain part of Israel. Over the years, some peace plans have put Ariel within Israel, others called for its evacuation. Because of its size, nearly 17,000 people, many assume Ariel and the other large settlement blocks will become part of Israel. But that could prove difficult for Ariel, an island of Jewish residency surrounded by Palestinian land.
Palestinians complain that Ariel isolates about seven Palestinian villages, partially divides the northern West Bank and sits atop a coveted water supply. Some Israelis also question whether Ariel is worth keeping, spurring a group of Israeli artists last month to announce a boycott of the settlement's soon-to-open performing arts center.
If Israel wants to keep Ariel and the long strip of land needed to access the city, it remains unclear how much Israel will have to give up in terms of land swaps, and whether the Israeli public, or even Ariel's residents, will deem it worth the price. Over the last decade, many residents have been voting with their feet. Unlike in other large settlements, people often are moving out more quickly than they are moving in, government statistics suggest.
"Why would anyone in their right mind want to live there when they realize how far away it is and that they'd be surrounded by a Palestinian state?" says Akiva Eldar, a Haaretz newspaper columnist who describes Ariel as a "finger in the eye" of a future Palestinian state.
To Nachman, there is no question that Ariel will remain part of Israel.
"It's not a settlement. It's a city that is key to the future of Israel," he says. "Show me the government that would give it up."
Just the same, he acknowledges that the nagging question over Ariel's future energizes him to keep fighting.
"This is my life's mission," he said during an interview in his office, back at work just hours after chemo and following a close call with kidney failure. "Now I need to protect the city that I built."
Like a proud father, he pulls out a well-worn photo album and begins thumbing through the pages. Here's Nachman sporting 1970s sideburns and a turtleneck, on the rocky terrain amid camels. There are early settlers carrying water by buckets.
"See, here I am," says Nachman, the fourth generation in a line of Israeli-born Zionists. Though non-observant, Nachman says the Holy Land, including the West Bank, was given to the Jewish people by God. He once tried to force Palestinian workers in Ariel to wear badges until critics compared them to the yellow stars forced upon Jews by the Nazis.
As Ariel's first and only elected mayor — now in his sixth term — Nachman has been a tireless cheerleader and promoter of the settlement.
In the 1990s, he doubled Ariel's population by personally flying to Moscow to attract Russian immigrants because official Jewish resettlement agencies were reluctant to move newcomers to the West Bank. (Some Russian families later lamented that no one told them they'd be moving onto disputed land.) With financial help from many U.S. Jewish and Christian groups, Nachman later campaigned to give Ariel infrastructure and institutions rarely seen in settlements, including a university, sports center, resort hotel, industrial park and the new $8-million performing arts center.