Lords of the Land By Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal Nation Books 576 pages; $29.95 As ambitious scholarly studies go, this looks like a comprehensive and critical volume about one of the most controversial issues in Israel - the settlements. The writers are known from their journalistic work. Undertaking a full-fledged book obviously requires more discipline than producing a weekly column, though one has to admit that their indictment of the settlements beyond the Green Line appears to be well substantiated. What interests us on this occasion, however, are not their views but their source material - the facts and figures and the relevant statements on record. We can endorse or challenge the views of the authors, but can't disavow the facts. Let us first cite some of the basic statistics. At the end of 2006 the number of settlers stood at 270,000. To this we may add some 220,000 in neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. A report published last year based on official data indicated that more than 40 percent of settlement land had been privately owned by Palestinians, and that 130 settlements were built entirely or in part on land defined by Israel as "private." The settlers took control of these lands, but it was the state that confiscated them. The expansion of the settlements during the past 40 years would not have been possible without massive aid from state institutions, and the government's legal sanction. Nor could it be achieved, say the authors, without "expedient and effective ties" between the settlers and the military. We find material reminding us that the first "legal" settlements began between 1967 and 1977 - years of Labor-led governments. In theory, most of the Labor Party opposed the idea of settling in the West Bank and Gaza, but for political convenience and sentimental feelings - as well as wavering leaders - the pressure of the nationalists prevailed. It's not surprising that the settlements flourished during the Likud's time in office. After all, this was the Likud's beloved ideology, whatever price the country would have to pay. But the Labor-Likud rotation governments between 1984 and 1988 in effect followed Likud policy. All the subsequent governments have approved new settlement construction, though ostensibly only within the boundaries of existing settlements. Yet Menachem Begin himself felt the need to declare that "Judea and Samaria must not be annexed." Declarations apart, settling scores of new sites each year in contravention of both international law and the pledges given to US presidents was somehow perceived as kosher. While Begin was at Camp David in 1978 negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt, he was desperately searching for a magic formula to find a compromise that would allow both peace and the continued establishment of settlements. Ariel Sharon, then the agriculture minister, was pushing the settlement drive, but when Begin called him from Camp David for suggestions on balancing peace prospects and the settlements, Sharon was reported to have said "peace was preferable." But this was a sheer deception, perhaps the first sign of Sharon's ability to break from the long-established settlement obsession a quarter of a century later. Gush Emunim, as is well known, had a different agenda; it was imbued by messianic fervor to build more and more settlements, perceiving such expansion as a sacred mission. Two days after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt - which included a commitment to establish an autonomy for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a promise to lift military government in the territories, and a "freeze on all settlements" for a period of three months - Gush Emunim embarked on its largest operation thus far. This time, say the authors, the entire settlement lobby was mobilized - "a real battle cry." One of the interesting observations the book reveals is the gradual but steady shift of Likud's settlement advocates to a more moderate and pragmatic approach. Since most of them had no claim to speak on behalf of God, their position was that of secular nationalists. But when they gained power for the first time, they were exposed to international reality, with all its complexities. Growing criticism of Israel's policy was not only unpleasant, but sparked acts against the nation's vital interests. Likud leaders thus started to be aware of the cost of isolation, and discovered that the demographic prospect of having to cope with a country full of hostile Palestinians was unbearable. This new experience brought minister of defense Ezer Weizman to declare that "now is the time to engage in fortifying existing settlements, not in building new ones." Dan Meridor was the other minister to show signs of settlement heresy, and as we know, Sharon made an even more dramatic deviation in 2004, which led to the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. In the past year or two, we have all witnessed how formerly zealous Likud loyalists such as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni have, step by step, dropped the orthodox settlers' ideology and are now hoisting the flag of pragmatism and moderation. The hard core of the settlement lobby is left mainly to the fanatics. Most of the traditional nationalist verbiage relies these days on the "security" vocabulary, not on God. Since Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister negotiated with Arafat on the basis of dividing the land, little fervor is left in his camp - the secular proponents of Greater Israel. The book offers a comprehensive and mostly balanced narrative that has not been available before. For the believers in the sacredness of the doctrine of keeping all the settlements, the book is a serious challenge. For those who accept that an eventual peace agreement would have to be based on the coexistence of the two conflicting national aspirations, the book provides ample material arguments. The writer is a former ambassador to Mexico and the Netherlands.