In This Review

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements
The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements
By Gershom Gorenberg
Times Books, 2006, 480 pp.

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.


Although the Six-Day War resulted in the occupation of Gaza, the Golan, and the West Bank, grabbing the West Bank was hardly Israel's priority when the fighting began; at the time, most Israelis probably would have settled for peace on the basis of the 1949 armistice lines.

Many Israelis, however, had never stopped dreaming of a Greater Israel. Some justified their desire for more territory on strategic grounds; others were motivated more by national and religious sentiments. Although they remained outside the mainstream, both camps exerted considerable moral and political influence during Israel's first 20 years.

Gorenberg writes with great insight about such forces, including radicals within the ruling Labor movement who had opposed the idea of partition since the 1920s and continued to do so after Israel's independence. He quotes leading rabbis who prayed that the Jews would recapture the Western Wall and other holy sites that had fallen under Jordanian control in 1949. He gives scant attention, however, to another important force: Menachem Begin's right-wing Herut (Freedom) Party, which, after 1948, did more than any other group to keep the hope for a Greater Israel on the political agenda. As a member of the war cabinet, which was hastily formed in June 1967, Begin played a major part in the fateful decision to occupy East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

This decision was by no means a natural or necessary consequence of the war. In 1967, the primary military threat to Israel came from Egypt. This threat, however, was effectively eliminated during the first hour of the war, when the Israeli Air Force wiped out almost all of Egypt's warplanes before they even took off. From that point on, Israel no longer had reason to fear for its existence. Why, then, did it nevertheless proceed to occupy the West Bank? Only six months before the war, Israeli intelligence experts had warned the government against seizing the area, since doing so would require Israel to control a large, hostile Palestinian population. Yet the government ignored this advice. True, the Jordanian army provoked Israel by disregarding warnings not to shell the Israeli sections of Jerusalem. But fending off Jordan's attack did not require occupying the West Bank. Taking that land was an irrational act contrary to Israel's national interest.

The explanation for this folly seems to lie in the euphoria that seized Israel's war cabinet following the quick military conquest on the Egyptian front. Reason and strategy were forgotten. None of Israel's government ministers even asked whether it was really in the nation's interest to seize the West Bank and Jerusalem's Old City; the value of such land was treated as self-evident.

Victory, in fact, seems to have driven the entire country into a frenzy. Many Israelis acted as though they had been miraculously rescued from annihilation and had reached the age of redemption; they interpreted winning as a sign from God. The army's own chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, demanded that the mosques on the Temple Mount be blown up; David Ben-Gurion (Israel's first prime minister) wanted the Old City's walls destroyed; and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol seriously considered transferring hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of the territories and to Iraq.


After the war, the Israeli cabinet split over how to proceed. On one side stood the doves, led by Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, who favored returning most of the captured land for peace; on the other were the hawks, including Begin, Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who wanted to keep most of the land. Eshkol himself was indecisive and hesitant. And Israel's citizens were divided over what to do. The majority agreed, however, that East Jerusalem and Gaza should be permanently incorporated into Israel, and most also favored keeping at least a section of the West Bank.

The idea of settling these lands came from deep within Zionism. The notion of shiva (return) is firmly rooted in Jewish and Zionist tradition. According to the Zionist vision, the state of Israel was born when the Jews returned from exile to the land of their biblical forebears, and many Israelis felt they had an unchallengeable right to the land -- all of it. The settlement ethos had been the cornerstone of Zionism ever since the first pioneers came to live in the area.

Gorenberg points to another, novel source for the zeal that drove Israel's new settlers after 1967. Writing with neither contempt nor approval, he draws on in-depth conversations he had with many of these settlers, whose experiences he places in the context of the unrest that marked the late 1960s in Europe and the United States. The young people around the world who went on to found the New Left suffered from an "illegitimacy complex," Gorenberg writes: raised in comfortable surroundings on stories of their parents' Old Left heroism, the generation of 1968 (or, in Israel's case, 1967) must have felt like failures. Israeli schoolchildren had been weaned on stories of prestate pioneers braving Arab and British antagonism; their own lives seemed soft in comparison. By the 1960s, when these people were coming of age, Israel's early challenges seemed to be fading, and the Zionist drama was being replaced by Israeli routine. Many young Israelis felt that their country had stopped offering them mythological adventures; not only did immigration to Israel virtually cease during this time, but thousands of young Israelis began leaving the country for good, most settling in the United States.

According to Gorenberg, the victory of 1967 changed all that. Many young Israelis suddenly discovered a "New Zionism," just as young people elsewhere were discovering a New Left. Radicals but not revolutionaries, these new settlers regarded themselves as disciples of the early Zionist pioneers. And like their role models, many of them chose to farm the new land: agriculture was seen not merely as a way of life, but as a moral and patriotic calling.

Although Gorenberg's parallel between the New Left and the New Zionism is interesting and original, it explains little in the larger context of Israeli history. To be sure, Israel did experience its own generational crisis in the 1960s. But the struggle there never became part of the apocalyptic upheaval that shook the industrialized West. Moreover, Israelis continued to settle the West Bank long after the fervor of the 1960s had faded; indeed, they continue to do so today.

Understanding the settlers, in fact, does not require a generational thesis. Many of them were religious and were driven by messianic nationalism. Indeed, as Gorenberg explains, the triumph of 1967 had the effect of turning messianism into a mainstream belief among some religious Israelis, particularly young ones. Like their more secular kibbutznik colleagues, the New Zionists believed that Jews must shed their supposed weakness, return to the land, and embrace physical labor and military strength. But after 1967, these New Zionists refused to relinquish traditional Judaism in the process (as the kibbutzniks had). The events of 1967, in other words, created a new fusion of Israeli patriotism and religious faith, producing a particularly fanatical brand of settlers in the process.


Regrettably, by limiting himself to the first decade after the war, Gorenberg largely misses the story of the nonideological settlers who came later. The religious die-hards were not the only ones to relocate to the territories after 1967. Many Israelis moved into new housing projects in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza simply because homes were cheaper there and the settlements offered a higher quality of life than they could afford elsewhere. A large portion of these settlers were new immigrants to Israel, especially from the Soviet bloc, who saw little difference between Israel proper and the occupied territories.

Gorenberg's limited focus also restricts his attention to the Labor governments of Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin. Gorenberg seems to accept the conventional view that these prime ministers permitted the settlements not out of any innate enthusiasm for the project, but as a way to keep themselves in power. In Israeli memory, Gorenberg writes, Begin's rise to the prime ministership in 1977 is often seen as the moment when settlement building began in earnest. But "a more accurate description" of Begin's policy, Gorenberg argues, "would be an escalation of existing trends."

This claim is not quite right. Although by 1977 settlers had already started moving into the territories, at that point they numbered less than 60,000, and about 40,000 of them lived in East Jerusalem. These numbers increased dramatically under Begin, creating a new strategic reality. By ignoring this period, Gorenberg provides only the first half of the settlement story. The second half has been much more disastrous.

Still, Gorenberg is right to emphasize Labor's significant role. The truth is that all Israeli governments encouraged the settlements, as did most Israelis. After all, in every post-1967 election, Israelis were offered a selection of anti-settlement parties, but they never voted them into office. Instead, they chose governments that acted against Israel's national interest and that violated a long tradition of Zionist restraint.

Although the Zionist movement had long advocated settlement, it had always done so with one major caveat: capturing more territory would mean serious demographic dangers. Accordingly, the movement had adopted a basic strategy known as "maximum land, minimum Arabs," and most of its thinkers had favored maintaining a solid Jewish majority in Jewish-controlled land over ruling vast areas populated by Arabs.

Gorenberg fails to explain what led so many Israelis to abandon this logic after the Six-Day War. To be fair, it is a difficult question; the answer cannot be reduced to colonialist hunger or fundamentalist religious faith. Strategic considerations alone are also not sufficient explanation. The real answer probably lies in the paradox inherent in the Zionist dream itself, which, in order to be realized, must be partly abandoned. Zionism holds that all of the biblical Promised Land belongs to the Jewish people. But Zionism is also a democratic vision. Many of its proponents have long recognized that to maintain a viable state that is both Jewish and democratic, they must give up territory populated largely by Arabs; incorporating these areas into Israel would make Israel less Jewish, less democratic, or both. For years, Israelis have struggled with the questions of where to draw the line and, as Gorenberg's book highlights, how much new land can be settled without endangering Israel's Jewish and democratic character.

Gorenberg maintains that the settlements have "undone the [1949] partition of the contested land" such that Jews and Arabs now live "intermixed" in the same territory. This is a curious way of describing the constant violence that surrounds the settlements and the harsh oppression of the Palestinians they entail. According to Gorenberg, "While the settlements are not the only reason that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been frustrated, they have complicated the task of drawing new partition lines as part of such a resolution." This is an understatement -- in fact, the settlements have become a major obstacle to any reasonable agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The settlements have also caused more harm than Gorenberg acknowledges, to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Financially, settlement building has eaten up considerable resources that could have been used to improve social services in Israel proper. As a consequence, in recent years the quality of Israel's educational and health services -- once among the state's major achievements -- has dropped. Big pockets of poverty have replaced social equality, another erstwhile source of pride.

At the same time, continued human rights violations in the occupied territories have brutalized Israeli society in almost all spheres and badly damaged Israel's image abroad. The conflict has also dangerously deepened the rift between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. And it has led to repeated waves of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli reprisals, which have killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians.

Since 1967, more and more Israelis have come to understand the risks of occupation, which is why most Israelis supported the dramatic event that Gorenberg uses to close his book: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's August 2005 pullout from Gaza. But Gorenberg, noncommittal to the end, carefully avoids judging the wisdom of Sharon's move. "It may be recorded as the act that revived peace efforts," he writes, "or as the intermezzo before a new battle over the torn land."

Nobody will ever know where Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke in late 2005, would have taken the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next. It is unlikely, however, that he would have come to terms with the Palestinians, especially after Hamas swept the Palestinian legislative elections in January. All his life, Sharon has regarded the Palestinians as enemies, not potential partners. The unilateral pullout from Gaza was the act of a general withdrawing under fire, not that of a statesman suddenly operating in the name of peace.

Nevertheless, the pullout was the first evacuation of settlements from what is considered to be the biblical land of Israel. Breaking that almost sacred taboo may be Sharon's most important achievement. Some withdrawal from the West Bank is now likely to follow, although certain settlements (especially around Jerusalem) are unlikely to disappear. Such changes may not resolve the conflict, but they might make life somewhat easier for both Palestinians and Israelis. Israelis can thank Sharon for showing them that giving up settlements can be relatively painless; although the Gaza settlers themselves suffered considerable hardship, the rest of the country experienced no national trauma. In the long run, the Gaza settlements will have left no imprint on Israel's national endeavor; in the history of Zionism, they hardly deserve a footnote. If anything, dismantling them may have been the first step in a return to the Zionist realism that Israel abandoned after 1967.

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  • Tom Segev is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper
    Haaretz. The English edition of his most recent book, on Israel in 1967, will be
    published in the spring of 2007.
  • More By Tom Segev