A Bitter Prize

On June 13, 1967, a small group of Israelis traveled to an area south of Jerusalem. The land, on the west bank of the Jordan River, had just been conquered by the Israeli army in the Six-Day War, as had East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.

The visitors were looking for the remains of a group of Jewish villages known as Gush Etzion, which the Arabs had occupied and destroyed during Israel's War of Independence, in 1948. For the intervening 19 years, the West Bank had been under Jordanian control. But the survivors of Gush Etzion had never given up hope of returning, and now they planned to stay. So did the Israelis who, around the same time, moved into the newly occupied Golan Heights and Jerusalem's Old City -- forcing out hundreds of Arab families.

Today, nearly 40 years later, about 250,000 Israelis live in some 125 officially recognized West Bank settlements. Another 180,000 live in the annexed areas of East Jerusalem, and about 16,000 live in the Golan.

The most comprehensive book on these settlers is Lords of the Land, by the journalist Akiva Eldar and the historian Idith Zertal, which was published in Hebrew in 2005. Lords of the Land describes Israel's settlement of the occupied territories as the result of political and emotional pressure that the settlers skillfully applied to a largely unenthusiastic but weak Israeli government. Now, Gershom Gorenberg, in a careful and fluently written book, has produced a much more sophisticated analysis. In The Accidental Empire, Gorenberg depicts the settlements as the product not just of political maneuvering, but also of the Israeli identity itself. Settling the land had always been at the core of the Zionist experience, but by 1967, when the Six-Day War began, many Israelis had lost their confidence in the old Zionist dream. Israel's smashing battlefield success in the war reversed this trend, galvanizing many Israelis into taking up the Zionist mantle once again and making a fresh beginning in the newly captured land.

Gorenberg, a U.S.-born Israeli and a columnist and editor for the English-language Jerusalem Report, presents this drama with impressive skill. He fails, however, to accompany it with a clear analysis of how and why these settlements went from being an expression of Zionist enthusiasm to an existential hazard and a moral burden for the country.

THE UNNECESSARY OCCUPATION

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