Settling the question

A new book examines how settler zeal exploited official indecision after the 1967 War.

fence with flag 298  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
fence with flag 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 By Gershom Gorenberg Times Books 375pp., $30 Three months after the Six Day War, Israel's legal council Theodore Meron appeared prophetic when he warned that international law would view civilian settlement in the captured territories as illegal and in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The accuracy of his prediction would not be proven until 2004, when the International Court of Justice reached a similar conclusion. But according to Gershom Gorenberg's book The Accidental Empire, detailing the first 10 years of the settlement movement, policymakers back then discounted such prophecies even as they admitted they could be right. Settling Israelis in occupied territory contravenes international conventions, but there is nothing essentially new in that, defense minister Moshe Dayan said at the time. Dayan, Gorenberg writes, "wanted the West Bank as a benevolently run colony, one so close to home you could go there for lunch (or to steal antiquities) and be home for dinner." Published after last summer's pullout from Gaza and in advance of anticipated further withdrawals, The Accidental Empire seeks to explain how some 250,000 people moved into the West Bank without a clear policy decision on the part of the Israeli government. Throughout 374 pages, he chronicles the government's initial indecision and fear of confrontation which allowed inspired Israelis to settle these areas. The novice will be fascinated to learn that many of the issues under debate when it comes to the question of whether or not to relinquish the territories of Judea and Samaria were batted about by policymakers more than 30 years ago. Gorenberg shows how Israeli politicians were enthralled with the biblical connections to the land, but fearful of the demographic consequences of annexing it, often choosing the path of least resistance in the face of what appeared to be prophetic arguments for withdrawal. As such, finance minister Pinhas Sapir more than 30 years ago warned that continued possession of the territories without annexation would create a second-class citizenry. He added that holding on to them, with or without annexation, would also threaten the state's Jewish majority. Denying the Arabs equal rights "would put Israel in a class with countries whose names I don't even want to say in the same breath," said Sapir. And it wouldn't solve the demographic problem, because holding on to the territories meant Arabs would make up 48.5 percent of the country's population by 1998. His numbers were alarmingly close, according to Gorenberg. By 1997, Arabs comprised 44% of the population in Israel and the territories. Gorenberg's book, with its colorful language and anecdotal style, is a good introduction to the history of a problem that continues to bedevil us today. He sets out facts that run counter to popular mythology by reducing former prime minister Ariel Sharon, "the father of the settlement movement," to a minor player in the initial stages, and pointing instead at the Labor Party, former prime ministers Levy Eshkol and Golda Meir along with Dayan, former deputy prime minister Yigal Allon and Shimon Peres for cementing settlements into the Israeli landscape. But his thesis, explicitly stated in the book's title, The Accidental Empire - that actions which now appear intentional were often "a series of accidents" - has the unintended consequence of letting the actors off the hook for decisions which brought the nation to its current territorial dilemma. He paints a picture of policymakers who rejected well-argued reasons for relinquishing or annexing the territories without offering compelling counterarguments. He shows how Israel accepted instead a two-tiered legal system whereby Israelis in the territories were subject to the nation's civil law while Arabs lived as non-citizens under a military one. In doing so, he leaves the impression that these choices were a clear statement of intent, even as the policies themselves appeared indecisive. This is emphasized by his examples of policymakers who did indeed think through the consequences of their actions. Former prime minister Levy Eshkol, for example, pondered whether Israel was creating "a Palestinian people," and with them "a new enemy." Similarly, Gorenberg describes the well-known drama in which settlers exploit indecision to pursue their own agenda, with the reluctant support of the Labor Party. Gorenberg tells how in March 1975, 40 settlers were removed by the army after illegally setting up a water tower and prefab concrete building outside Jerusalem on the way to the Dead Sea. The army, well-practiced in these matters, removed each one by assigning four soldiers to every settler, he wrote. The state's efforts were futile, however; 30 years later 32,000 people live in the city of Ma'aleh Adumim. Similarly, he details the controversy around the settlement of Eilon Moreh, complete with a description of Sharon urging soldiers to disobey the order to evacuate. The extent to which Gorenberg holds the settlers accountable for their ability to exploit the system is shown in the tale of poet and reporter Haim Gouri, who momentarily left his role as observer to offer a compromise which he hoped would avoid bloodshed between the settlers and the army in Eilon Moreh. Gouri suggested that the settlers be allowed to withdraw to a nearby army base to wait for the cabinet to discuss the matter. It was only the next day, when he saw televised scenes of settlers dancing as if victorious, that he understood how he had been an unwitting player in a deliberate strategy. Absent again is government accountability. The books ends at the point where the Likud takes over from Labor. It summarizes the next 30 years in a matter of pages, noting that government support for the settlements was subtly institutionalized into all its ministries, with no way to trace the extent of the financial investment. For the more knowledgeable reader, what is needed is not an exploration of early decision making (albeit with some interesting new facts such as the Meron letter), but rather an explanation of how the settlements have blossomed in spite of an apparent lack of consensus. The question now for the Israeli public is not why the initial decisions were taken, but how public policy has been steered for so long in this direction.