For decades, under Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, the Likud was the ideological and practical partner of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank.
As Netanyahu's foreign minister in the late 1990s, Sharon even memorably issued a call to Israeli Jews to "grab the hilltops" of Judea and Samaria, so that no future prime minister would be able to relinquish that land. But in time, Sharon underwent a radical policy shift: the settlement "bulldozer" became the very prime minister he had warned against, overseeing the forced evacuation in 2005 of every last Jewish resident of the Gaza Strip and a partial dismantling of settlements in northern Samaria, and planning for further unilateral withdrawals - possibly to the line of the security barrier - as he vowed to finalize Israel's permanent borders.
When Sharon was felled by his failing health, Ehud Olmert, another former Likud hardliner - who as mayor of Jerusalem had resisted routing the security barrier to sever fringe Arab neighborhoods from the expanded, post-1967, Israeli-sovereign Jerusalem - intensified the shift. As prime minister, Olmert, who had accompanied Sharon on the ideological journey from the Likud to Kadima, declared that Israel had to separate itself from the Palestinians if it hoped to maintain its international legitimacy, and if it hoped to remain both a Jewish and a democratic entity.
To that end, Olmert and US President George Bush pursued what became the Annapolis process, ultimately convening regional and international leaders late in 2007 in the cause of a dramatic bid for regional peace. So desperate was Olmert for a deal with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and so convinced that one was at hand, that he offered to trade all of Judea and Samaria (with limited land-swaps to maintain the major settlement blocs), to divide Jerusalem, to relinquish Israeli sovereignty in the Old City in favor of a joint oversight arrangement, and to pursue a solution to the Palestinian refugee claim that would not remake Israel's fundamental demographics.
But Abbas walked away. And the Israeli electorate, which largely recognized the logic of a genuine accommodation with the Palestinians but which had also largely doubted Abbas's desire or capacity to serve as an effective partner, delivered its skeptical verdict via an election result in February that brought Netanyahu back to power.
NETANYAHU, TOO, has shifted positions. He too has endorsed Palestinian statehood, setting out no less than a "vision" for an independent Palestine, with the provisos that such a state be demilitarized and that it accept Israel as a "Jewish state" - accept, that is, that Israel's 76 to 24 percent, Jewish to non-Jewish population balance will not be remade by an influx of Palestinians.
In an international climate increasingly unsympathetic to any Israeli sovereign expansion beyond the hard-to-defend, pre-1967 borders, however, Netanyahu remains ideologically committed to the settlement enterprise and has vowed to drive a better bargain than Olmert sought with the Palestinians.
For months, at the cost of increasing friction with Washington, Netanyahu resisted President Barack Obama's demands that he freeze all construction over the pre-1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem. Now, even in the absence of promised steps toward normalization from Arab states, and in the absence too, thus far, of any sign that Abbas is coming back to the negotiating table, he has reluctantly sanctioned a 10-month suspension of new building, east Jerusalem excepted.
That Netanyahu assented to the moratorium even at settlements where Israel expects to ultimately expand sovereignty can only reflect the intensity of the pressure he is facing - not only from Washington, but from most of the international community, emphatically including self-perceived strong supporters of Israel in western Europe.
The dismay in the "national camp" is understandable. A moratorium, even with all its caveats and the promise of a resumption of building 10 months from now, is not what it anticipated from a Likud prime minister.
And yet, his hawkish critics may want to reflect, Netanyahu, acting today with the support of ministers like Bennie Begin and Moshe Ya'alon, determined to preserve as much of the settlement enterprise as he can and wary about the prospects of peacemaking, is the best defender of the settlers' interests they are likely to see in the Prime Minister's Office.