Forty-five years after the Six Day War the territorial debate it triggered seemed this week alive and well, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the far Right were sparring over the fate of several houses in Beit El. Yet this clash is not over settlements.
The original clash was about the general future of the newly conquered lands. “This victory,” wrote poet Natan Alterman on June 16, 1967, “isn’t only about restoring to the Jews their most ancient and exalted national sanctuaries, the ones etched more than anything else in [the nation’s] memory and in the depths of its history. This victory is about the erasure of the difference between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel. This is the first time since the Second Temple’s destruction that the Land of Israel is in our hands. The State and the land are now one substance, and from here on this historic convergence lacks only the People of Israel that will weave, along with what has been accomplished, the threefold cord that will not be broken.”
And on the Left, literary promise Amos Oz, then 27, wrote in summer ‘67: “We should tell the inhabitants of the occupied territories these simple and clear things: We do not covet your land.... We will sit and rule here until the signing of a peace agreement. A year, a decade, or a generation, and when the day comes – the choice will be yours.”
Even so, down in the field the settlement effort was done in a way that retained a broad consensus. Avoiding the densely populated parts of the territories, that original effort was joined by the Labor movement’s youth, who in fact initially dominated it.
The first Israelis to settle beyond the prewar horizon were youngsters from the kibbutzim at the Golan’s foothills, who now climbed the previously menacing slopes to their east and stayed there. And during the following years secular Israelis also settled in the Sinai, where they established the resort towns Di-Zahav, Neviot and Ofira opposite Saudi Arabia; Shalhevet, opposite Africa; and the fishermen’s village Nahal Yam off the Mediterranean, where flamingos habitually glide between azure waters and golden dunes. And in between the Golan and the Sinai Israelis of all backgrounds also settled along the Jordan River, establishing 22 mostly secular settlements, including one named after Labor movement co-founder Yitzhak Tabenkin.
There were observant settlers, too, and there were the special cases of of Gush Etzion and Kiryat Arba, but on the whole the settlement project was in those early years a matter of measure and consensus. “Settler” was not a charged term and “settlers” were actually admired even by the majority who did not join them, and often also by the minority who disputed them. This was the first phase in the history of the post-67 settlements, and it ended in 1981.
THE SECOND PHASE came when Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon set out to blanket the West Bank with scores of settlements, and thus severed Zionist settlement from the Zionist consensus, for the first time since the movement’s establishment.
The conscious effort to settle in the middle of the Palestinian population was a matter of deep controversy, and the cynical deployment for this purpose of settlers driven by a messianic version of Zionism was tragic.
Sharon, Begin, Shamir and the rest of the secular politicians who peppered the mountaintops of Judea and Samaria with settlements never went to live there themselves.
And unlike most of their settlers they also didn’t think that we are living in the times of the messiah. Rather, they were thinking that the land at stake is a national sanctuary that the nation must treasure, as it was put by poet Alterman, a hopelessly secular womanizer, bohemian and drinker.
Placing the already controversial settlement drive in the hands of messianic activists produced settlements that were not only physically but also spiritually a light-year away from the mainstream majority. And so, while they thought they were expanding Israel, they were in fact dividing it.
The scorn for consensus was not limited to the settlement effort. It also overshadowed the 1982 misadventure in Lebanon, which was launched at the same time as the settlement drive and split Israeli society even more deeply. Now Right and Left were not only growing mentally and socially apart, they were also staring at fresh graves while flailing fingers in each other’s faces.
And yet, while history will judge the longterm damage all this did to Israeli society’s delicate fabric, history will also assert that Menachem Begin upheld the law. Begin was a legalist, and it was unthinkable for him to disparage the courts, or to swindle them.
That is what he meant when he famously said “there are judges in Jerusalem.” Indeed, the Justice Ministry official who at the time was in charge of mapping the West Bank’s available land, Plia Albeck, was seen by the settlers as an adversary despite having actually identified with their cause.
This phase ended last decade.
The third phase of the West Bank settlement effort saw the emergence of a sweeping lawlessness, as some of the founding settlers’ sons and daughters stormed hilltops throughout the West Bank and planted on them some four dozen unauthorized outposts, some on privately owned land. Begin must be turning in his grave.
Now, standing where Jacob’s ladder once stood, Netanyahu and ministers Bennie Begin, Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Meridor and the rest of those who care for the law are seeking ladders with which to reach the likes of MK Miri Regev, who this week reportedly said: “Ninety-four coalition members are more than nine High Court justices.”
What an ignoramus. This lawmaker really has no idea what the separation of powers is, and what nibbling at the law and its institutions means to a society, and in fact to her own cause. Zionism, whether Herzl’s, Jabotinsky’s or Ben-Gurion’s, made sure to settle legally purchased land only. But she and her ilk don’t understand that what began with an abandonment of the consensus, and then proceeded to an abandonment of the law, will ultimately end in disaster, for all of us, but first and foremost for the settlers themselves.
In the Zionist Congress in Basel in 1946 Chaim Weizmann delivered a fiery speech against a violent clash with Britain which he ended by pounding on the lectern and shouting Isaiah’s timeless words: “Zion shall be redeemed in judgment.” The elder statesman was in a minority, but by the time he ended his speech all delegates had risen to their feet, in reverence for a leader who took his inspiration from Isaiah and cared for the law no less than he cared for power.
Good thing Miri Regev and the rest of the far Right weren’t there that day in Basel. Hearing Weizmann they might have said: “There are that many of us, and only one Isaiah.”
The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.