Monday, February 18, 2008

Book Review: The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977

On my recent hiking trip through the Negev, there was plenty of time during bus-rides to and from the dusty hills and canyons to finally complete a book I've been reading, "Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." A brief teaser reads:

"The untold story, based on groundbreaking original research, of the actions and
inactions that created the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories After
Israeli troops defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967, the
Jewish state seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success. But far from being
a happy ending, the Six-Day War proved to be the opening act of a complex
political drama, in which the central issue became: Should Jews build
settlements in the territories taken in that war? The Accidental Empire is
Gershom Gorenberg's masterful and gripping account of the strange birth of the
settler movement, which was the child of both Labor Party socialism and
religious extremism. It is a dramatic story featuring the giants of Israeli
history--Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yigal Allon--as well as more
contemporary figures like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres.
Gorenberg also shows how the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations turned a
blind eye to what was happening in the territories, and reveals their strategic
reasons for doing so. Drawing on newly opened archives and extensive interviews,
Gorenberg reconstructs what the top officials knew and when they knew it, while
weaving in the dramatic first-person accounts of the settlers themselves.
Fast-moving and penetrating, The Accidental Empire casts the entire enterprise
in a new and controversial light, calling into question much of what we think we
know about this issue that continues to haunt the Middle East. "

Gorenberg's central thesis is that the settlements grew as a result of a small and dedicated (or fanatic, as he puts it) group of settlers drove government policy and Israel's leadership, which had grown up decades earlier on the premise of establishing new settlements in order to determine borders, was torn between their own youthful settlement passions and their feelings of responsibility to uphold international and state law, which Gorenberg argues settlement construction violates. In the end, the leadership decided not to decide, a choice made easier by the Arabs' solid refusal to negotiate, regardless of a return of the territory they had lost in 1967.

Most in Israel would consider Accidental Empire to be center-left, although it's hard to say exactly as the center has been drifting precariously leftward for some time now. From a foreign perspective, the book is solidly right-wing, as Gorenberg does not take the time to voice the requisite pro-forma pity for the Arabs. For me, anyone who refers to a country thirty miles wide as an "Empire," as Gorenberg does in the title, exhibits some serious mental warpage.

The quality of writing, for a historical work, was excellent. Rather than merely listing dates and facts, Gorenberg takes up the biographies of several key players and ordinary people in the early years of Israel's internal struggle over the settlements. Poets and patriots, the left and the right, religious and secular, are all given an empathetic treatment. As a person interested in history, I found it a treasure trove of information, something newer than the simple re-hashes of the Six Day War, or the endless anti-Zionist "historical" tracts that come out of Tel Aviv University and Europe every few months. Still, much of his dry analysis of the mechanics of settlement is also fascinating. Most interesting was to see how each of the three major government ministers of the time, Shimon Peres (Israel's current President,) Mosheh Dayan (Secretary of Defense in 1967) and Yigal Allon (Chief of Staff in 1967) each had their own plans for the land. Yigal Allon sponsored the Allon Plan, including the building of the Allon Road, which sought to annex the largely unpopulated Jordan Valley and other empty areas, and leave the more densely populated hills of Judea and Samaria, plus Gaza, unsettled, in order to prevent taking on enough Arabs to eventually throw Israel's demographics into an Arab majority.

Moshe Dayan, on the other hand, was more the Military thinker, and wanted permanent army bases on the easily defended hilltops of Judea and Samaria, including in the Shchem/Elon Moreh area. The existing Arab population could then be supplied with clean drinking water, medical care, electricity, education, and jobs in Israel, and would become so dependant on Israel for their middle-class status that they would be economically incapable of rising up against Jewish rule.

Peres wanted a wall of settlements around Jerusalem to prevent its redivision. While all three of them had areas where they favored settlement and areas they wished to leave empty of Jews, between the three of them every square inch of Judea and Samaria, which would later come to be called the "West Bank," was on someone's wish list. As a result, every time the settlers took a new hilltop, there was always at least one of these three who could be counted on to sponsor the new settlement and protect it in the government.

Despite his detailed appraisal of the origins of settlement policy, one of Gorenberg's failures is to comprehend the true nature of Israeli society. He details every violation of international and government law, but he doesn't seem to understand that Israel, as a middle eastern country, is far more a government of men (and in his case, a woman, Golda Meir,) then a government of laws. This holds true throughout middle eastern society where ideological passions are so strong that political reconciliation, which always requires a measure of ideological surrender, is impossible. Instead, all sides hold true to their ideals, while a working accommodation is reached on the ground. On an individual level, endless bureaucracy results in an corner-cutting society. When I look around in my sub-code apartment building, I see most of the balconies have been enclosed to make extra rooms. How many homeowners actually went to the city and got a permit? There is a lawlessness to this place that spills over onto the roads, the line at the grocery store, and the government. The settler movement didn't invent this chaos, it harnessed it, and Gorenberg's exclusive blaming of the settler movement for undermining the foundations of democratic government hints he spent a bit too much time looking through manuscripts and not enough negotiating a rental contract in this country. Additionally, Gorenberg, like Dayan, Peres, and Allon before him, and like Israel's leadership today, fails to grasp the depth of Arab hatred of Israel. Gorenberg sees the trees, the individual grievances which the spokesmen for Israel's Arab adversaries offer after every terrorist atrocity. But he misses the forest, the deep and implacable tribal hatred the Arabs direct towards Jewish freedom anywhere. While their spokesmen may issue demands, the final videos suicide bombers themselves issue before committing their atrocities seldom list demands, but tend to focus on gore, blood, revenge, and the simple joy of killing.

Gorenberg, like the numerically dwindling but politically strong left which rules Israel to this day, lays blame for the settlements, and by implication the endless torment of the Arabs, at the feet of a group of religious messianists. As one of the right-wing religious extremists Gorenberg blames for the "problem" of the settlements, the slings of "Messianism" weren't particularly insulting. In Gorenberg's universe, the Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, who enter the political fray only to gain money for their institutions and otherwise keep to themselves, are no threat and barely mentioned. The National Religious Jews who have established the majority of the settlements are deemed "Messianist," with the idea that building settlements will hasten the coming of Moshiach (roughly, the "Messiah.") Yet both groups believe firmly in the immanent arrival of the Moshiach. In fact, this belief is one of the thirteen basic principles of Judaism as elucidated by Rambam (Maimonides,) and one who lacks this belief is considered by Orthodox Jews worldwide to have a flawed understanding of the entire Jewish faith. We are all "Messianist." Because Gorenberg does not properly define this term, it looks less like an argument and more like a slur.

As far as the controversy over whether or not Israel is justified settling Jews in Judea and Samaria goes, Gorenberg quotes the opinions of several experts of international law who claim that this is illegal under international law. Yet he doesn't recite Israel's position, at least its position back when the settlement movement was still in line with mainstream government policy, that the areas in question were mandated by the League of Nations to be part of a sovereign Jewish homeland. While the later UN Partition Plan divided the remaining sections of the Holy Land into a Jewish and an Arab state, the Arabs rejected this plan and invaded, thus rendering it null and void, and re-activating the League of Nations' Mandate. Jordan's annexation of territories they conquered during their invasion of 1947-48 was unrecognized internationally, and when Israel recaptured these areas, by right of the League of Nations Mandate, Israel already had the right to settle here. One would think these facts of history would have been recited by Gorenberg, even if only to refute them, but he remains silent.

Reading Accidental Empire was like reading Peace Now's monthly settlement report detailing, in horrified tones, which outposts got new trailers, where new cowsheds were built, and who new houses. Likewise, Gorenberg has detailed the birth of the settler movement far more thoroughly than anything that the settlers themselves could produce. I read them both and smile quietly to myself. It's only a shame that Gorenberg dedicates his life to secular history, where he contributes his talents to undermine his people's endeavors, rather than in some other vocation, like yeshiva study, where he could strengthen them. In spite of his anti-Zionist views, I still have a great deal of respect for Gorenberg, who chooses to make his home in Israel. At least he shares the risks of life here with the rest of us. One can only hope that some day Gorenberg's spirit will follow his body and come home at last.

1 comment:

NormanF said...

I enjoyed your book review. In a sense, Israel's creation was without a plan. The country grew helter skelter, in fits and starts. Everything was just thrown up all over the country and gradually the Yishuv took root and the same process resulted in the development of what might be termed the New Yishuv in the rest of the Land Of Israel after the Six War.

Yet Gershom Gorenberg, I think misses the divine import behind Israel's birth and explosive growth. The land seems to give the Jewish people strength just much as by their deeds they renew and revive it. Its beauty blooms both by human effort and divine blessing.

This is a concept quite alien to the Arab Muslim an Western secular mind. In a way as it were, while Israel is a part of history, Israel is also beyond history. The very idea of the Jewish people clinging stubbornly to a small land in a region filled with millions hostile to their very presence, filled with a depth of violent bloodthirsty hatred that leaves one gasping, should be impossible. Yet somehow, they manage to grow and the same time to thrive.

I feel Gershom Gorenberg's book misses this completely. The settlements - or revanants if we want to employ a less loaded term - came about not out of this or that secular policy but because they embody as it were, the naturalness of Jewish life in Israel, that organically grows out of the country's being. More to the point, that naturalness explains why much of the debate about where Jews live - and where they should live - misses the point.

It is rooted in the spirit of the Jewish people and transcends a particular space and claims all of time and the Galut was merely a series of hiccups, not a decisive break in the flow of Jewish history. That is is perhaps the real untold story about the remarkable rebirth of the Jewish people's sovereignty in their own land in our lifetime.