Israel as an obstacle to peace? Outrageous. The settlements as the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Ridiculous. For years, many defenders of an ultimately moderate Israel have argued ferociously against the mischaracterization of the Jewish state as closed to the notion of viable territorial compromise. For years, those defenders have stressed that separation from the Palestinians is vital for a Jewish, democratic Israel, and that the overwhelming majority of Israelis are both committed to that goal and, should the opportunity arise, would be capable of democratically imposing it upon the minority who think differently. For years, those defenders have rejected the argument that the settlement enterprise is an immovable fact on the West Bank ground that has grown such deep roots as to obviate any possibility of a territorial accommodation with the Palestinians. By way of evidence, they have cited the fact that as soon as Yasser Arafat purported to be ready to abandon the armed struggle and work for the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel, the Israeli public elected a prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who went more than half way to meet him, and that subsequent peacemaking efforts by Israel have foundered in the face of Palestinian intransigence. Furthermore, they have stressed that successive Israeli peace offers have explicitly involved the dismantling of the overwhelming proportion of settlements, and that the disengagement from Gaza and a small part of Samaria in 2005 demonstrated Israel's capacity to carry out such traumatic reverses - a capacity that, were the day to come, could be replicated, albeit still more wrenchingly, in parts, even most, of Judea and Samaria. As of this week, those assertions are being put to the test. WHEN PRIME Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced the 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank nine days ago, he did so with a show of great reluctance. He stressed that imposing the freeze was painful for him personally, but that he was acting in the wider national interest. He highlighted his desire, in that Israeli interest, to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in the cause of a permanent peace accord - indicating that this simply wouldn't be possible without the temporary suspension of construction. And he closed off his brief appearance by declaring that, once the 10 months were over, previous government building practices would resume. Few supporters or opponents doubt that Netanyahu, a steadfast proponent of the settlement enterprise, spoke from the heart when detailing his ideological reservations over the moratorium. Few doubt that he has been facing intensive American pressure to give ground, literally, in order to create a climate in which the tottering Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would resume a substantive dialogue; it was only last month that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the US attitude to all settlement activity crystal clear, declaring in Cairo, "We would like to see everything ended forever." But many people, again supporters and opponents alike, wonder about the veracity of that final pledge, 10 months from now, to resume settler-home building where it left off. And Netanyahu's reiteration of that promise on Wednesday and again in his meeting with settler leaders on Thursday - his explicit declaration that this is a "one-time, temporary" halt - will not have changed many minds. Plainly, a precedent has been set in the West Bank that has potential long-term relevance. The Likud leader, who so often derided more dovish rivals over the years for their willingness to give without receiving, has been forced by what he called "the mix of national interests" along a similar route - declaring the freeze without his long-favored "reciprocity," without immediate parallel progress from the Palestinian side. Moreover, the prime minister who protested so bitterly that the US administration was seeking a freeze even in areas where it has indicated it has some sympathy for a permanent Jewish presence - namely, the major settlement blocs such as Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion - has agreed to the moratorium even there, uniting settler moderates with more hawkish voices in their opposition to him. To modify the old Cat Stevens song, the first halt is the hardest. Ten months from now, Iran will likely be a more urgent threat; internal Palestinian rivalries will be still more acute, possibly following Hamas electoral successes; the international community will probably be yet more critical of Israel and still more supportive of unilateral Palestinian moves to statehood; and American pressure for positive Israeli measures will be even more intense. For all Netanyahu's protestations to the contrary, it is hard to conceive that, 10 months from now, the man who gave us 2009's West Bank Moratorium would resist 2010's Moratorium II. Netanyahu, as is his wont, is trying somehow to keep everybody happy - or if not happy, then at least away from his throat. To President Barack Obama, he has delivered a complete freeze, everywhere. To the Council of Jewish Communities, it is merely a short-term suspension, never-to-be-repeated, with thousands of buildings where work has already begun serenely proceeding to completion, and a few new schools and synagogues thrown in too. But experienced Netanyahu-watchers - and that emphatically includes both the leaders of the settlement enterprise and the rank and file - are probably more inclined to listen to someone like Uzi Keren, the veteran prime ministerial settlement adviser who has resigned his post and so has no qualms in telling it precisely the way he sees it. And the way Keren so succinctly sees it, he told Army Radio this week, is that "after the freeze comes the evacuation." NETANYAHU MAY be insisting that, by next fall, the bulldozers will all be on the move again. He may even believe it. But US opposition won't have changed. The mainstream Israeli support for viable compromise with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu has so firmly endorsed, won't have shifted. Keren's assertion that "you can't sit on every hilltop; you have to have two states for two peoples" will resound as widely. And so the settler leaders have decided, rather than waiting to see whether the prime minister will keep his word in late September 2010, to start digging their heels in now - and they made this clear to the prime minister in their fraught meeting on Thursday. Rhetorically, they are seeking to delegitimize the freeze, and by extension its prime ministerial originator, as unlawful, undemocratic and anti-Zionist. Practically, they have vowed to prevent enforcement of the moratorium - initially, in these first few days, by legal means and by seeking to block Civil Administration inspectors delivering stop-work orders. And they have found certain allies in government - in the shape of ministers like Gilad Erdan and Eli Yishai, who have refused to loan out any of their inspectors for the thankless task - even though other, anticipated supporters such as Bennie Begin and Moshe Ya'alon are siding with Netanyahu. IN CONTRAST to the defenders, the swelling chorus of Israel's critics over the years has argued that the Jewish state has long since lost the capacity to impose mainstream majority will on the settlement enterprise. The critics have claimed that the Gaza disengagement was not reflective of what would unfold in Judea and Samaria - that the Gaza settlements had the shallowest religious roots and were so physically remote from Israel's population centers as to constitute an exception. The rule, they have asserted, is that, were a Gush Katif-style evacuation to be attempted in significant parts of Judea and Samaria, many Orthodox soldiers would put fealty to the land and to their rabbis above their duty to their commanding officers, and there simply wouldn't be enough resolute manpower to get the job done. That test, if Uzi Keren is correct, may lie just around the corner. For now, it's a freeze, not a demolition program, that has been ordered. But by consenting to a freeze even at those settlements whose continued existence is supported by the Israeli mainstream, Netanyahu has empowered a wider swathe of domestic opposition than may have been necessary. And because the prime minister is so plainly being squeezed between the angry Israeli right and the frustrated international community - and is so plainly susceptible to that pressure - the battle of wills over Judea and Samaria is already being joined in earnest.