The Unsettling Struggle

Who is responsible for Israel’s settlements in the territories? Gershom Gorenberg’s just released history, “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977,” explores in gripping narrative the original interweave of political ambition, religious entitlement and military strategy that led to today’s continuing conflicts with both the settlers and the Palestinians. In the following three excerpts from his book, Gorenberg demonstrates how many of the greatest heroes of Israeli history helped create the current situation.

December 1975: North from Jerusalem

“We are divided,” Haim Gouri’s mother had taught him, “between those with meager spirits and those with torn souls.” That night, more than ever, Gouri counted himself as one of the raggedly ripped souls, and he envied the other sort.

A solitary Israeli army jeep growled north from Jerusalem on the road winding through the dark hills of the West Bank. A soldier drove, another carried a gun to protect Gouri and his wife, Aliza, who had insisted on coming along, though she could not understand how he had thrust himself into this madness.

The moon, only a narrow crescent, an accidental pencil stroke of light on the December sky, had already set when the jeep pulled out of its Jerusalem base near midnight. They rode though Ramallah and past the shadowed Arab villages strung out along the mountain ridge, and on through Nablus, where by daylight, Palestinian demonstrators had littered the road with burning tires, and headed on. Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, had insisted that Gouri — a poet and journalist turned negotiator on a moment’s whim — could not go this way at night in his own car to carry a message from the government.

Fifty-two years old, Gouri had a face made of sharp angles: sharp chin and nose, sharp brows above deep-set eyes. Eight and a half years before, on the third day of the Six-Day War of 1967, he had worn a uniform himself as he drove north in a convoy from Jerusalem toward newly conquered Ramallah, a platoon commander in the reserves called up for duty in a sudden conflict. That time, a June sun had drenched the hills. The land he passed through had been part of the British-ruled Palestine of his youth, but had lain, unreachable, beyond the frontier since Israel’s establishment in 1948. “It seemed to me I’d died and was waking up, resurrected,” he had written in June 1967. “All that I loved was cast at my feet, stunningly ownerless, landscapes revealed as in a dream. The old Land of Israel, the homeland of my youth, the other half of my cleft country. And their land, the land of the unseen ones, hiding behind their walls.”

The memory still shone, incandescent, whenever he came this way, though he had since concluded that the war had “liberated the land but torn the nation” — deeply dividing Israelis about whether the land taken in the battles against Jordan, Egypt, and Syria was liberated or occupied, about whether Israel must hold some or all or none of it, about how to see the “unseen ones” — the Arabs who lived there. On this cold night, Gouri feared the nation was on verge of brother fighting brother.

North of Nablus, next to the village of Sebastia, the jeep turned onto a dirt road lined with pines and cypresses. A two-story stone building, an abandoned train station at which passengers had last alighted when the British ruled Palestine, overlooked a narrow valley splotched with the glow of campfires.

“The scene was surrealistic,” Gouri would recall. Thousands of people waited in freezing cold. Most were Orthodox Jews, young men and women and teenagers, the armies of the night, camped out here in defiance of Rabin’s government, aflame themselves with the passion of demonstrators anywhere who are many and certain. They were there demanding that Rabin allow Jews to settle on the outskirts of Nablus, to stake a claim that would keep Israel from giving up part of the ancient homeland in return for peace. They sought to shatter a policy that said the hill country should be set aside, to be conceded when the time came, in order to avoid permanent Israeli rule over its Arab population. For a week, the crowd in the valley had grown and shrunk and grown, tense with the possibility of confrontation and the improbable hope of victory. Around them waited soldiers, ready for orders to pull them, struggling, onto buses and — as Gouri noticed with sardonic fury — meanwhile protecting the law-defying settlement supporters from the Palestinians demonstrating against their presence.

Gouri had come earlier that day as a journalist, to look and write. The would-be settlers conjured up passions he remembered from his own days in a socialist youth movement intoxicated with the land; and they conjured up fear of anarchy, the collapse of the state.

“Happy are the whole, and woe to the torn …,” he wrote that week, describing his visit. “In my life, too, there have been times when I’ve been at one with a deed. Today, too, I’m utterly at one with a few principles. But this time I wander torn among people swept up in messianic fervor.” He wanted this confrontation to end peacefully, within the rules; he feared the shock waves in a fractured nation if one pregnant woman were to miscarry as she was pulled to the buses. So he had stepped out of the role of journalistic witness and into the role of actor, proposing a compromise — to his old comrades-in-arms who now ruled the country, and now, with their approval, the handwritten terms scrawled by a senior Cabinet minister, to the organizers at Sebastia. Inside the train station, the leaders of the Gush Emunim, Israel’s most successful protest movement, argued through the night about whether Gouri’s compromise meant victory, as Gouri and his wife shivered outside.

In the uncertain memory of many Israelis and Israel-watchers, the issue of settlement in occupied land began in the struggle between Yitzhak Rabin’s first government in the mid-1970s and the young radicals of Gush Emunim. The story therefore becomes a simple one: On one side are the secular pragmatists of the left; on the other, the religious fanatics of the right. Or — in another telling that changes the labels without drastically changing the script — on one side are uninspired defeatists; on the other, the truest patriots.

In either telling, the confrontation at the Sebastia train station in the first week of December 1975 marks the point of departure for a long and contentious journey. Gush Emunim and its successors have gone on to build communities throughout the territories Israel overran in June 1967. Settlers have benefited from government support, especially after Israel’s Labor Party lost power to the right-wing Likud bloc in 1977- and yet, again and again, some have also clashed with the state, at times violently. The question of whether the settlement imperative or democracy takes precedence has threatened to rip Israel apart.

In accounts of Mideast diplomacy as well, the settlements first appear in the mid-1970s, as if from nowhere, with no explanation of how they appeared on the landscape. Since then, Israel’s settlements have seized an ever more prominent place on the international agenda. The most accepted approach to ending the entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians requires dividing the land that both consider their home. And the very purpose of settlements is to stand in the way of Israel forfeiting the land it took in 1967, or at the very least, to ensure that it will retain as much of that land as possible.

In his eighties, one of the most renowned poets in a country where poets achieve popular stardom, Haim Gouri says today that getting involved at Sebastia was “the greatest foolishness of my life.” His hope that a compromise would restore “the rules of the game” of civil discourse and law has proven vain. Long after Sebastia, he has watched Israeli soldiers struggle with defiant settlers. He has been accused, he says with pain, of being “the father of the settlements,” as if he will be remembered for that and his poems will be forgotten. The charge is unjust, and not only because he was badly used at the time, his compromise quickly twisted by politicians-particularly by Rabin’s defense minister and chief rival, who was then known for his pro-settlement views, Shimon Peres.

In fact, Sebastia was not the beginning of settlement, but the end of the beginning. It was the culmination of a story that began even before the guns of the Six-Day War cooled. Religious radicals, convinced they were fulfilling God’s plan for history, indeed played a central role — but alongside of, or even as understudies to, secularists identified with Israel’s political left. Some had torn souls. Some were certain of what they were doing, were “made of exclamation points,” in Gouri’s phrase. Without intending to do so, they helped beget the religious settler movement, and then were stunned by it.

There are ironies inside ironies. Those who began the process of settlement beyond Israel’s prewar borders believed passionately in the Jewish state. The older ones had helped create it. Yet they were inspired by the glory of their youth, the fervor of times before the state existed, when they were rebels, not officials. Now, impossibly, they tried to play both roles. The victory of 1967 represented a triumph of the state they had built. Yet it also yielded unplanned conquests, an accidental empire.

The process of settlement, of taking ownership of that empire, led to the state’s gradual unraveling, blurring its borders, undercutting its authority. It pulled Jews and Arabs back into an older kind of conflict — instead of a battle between states, a struggle between two ethnic groups struggling for control of the same undivided land — the conflict that existed before the partition of Palestine and Israel’s establishment. Victory faded into a tragedy of unending struggles, internal and external.

Sebastia was a crossroads, but the journey had begun years earlier, before anyone could drive north on the road from Jerusalem.

From Chapter 4: “Settling In”

In this passage, we see how diplomatic ambiguity did nothing to stave the press for new development, and that Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War-embattled president, refrained from becoming involved.

Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy team had reason to feel satisfied after the [United Nation] Security Council’s unanimous vote on November 22, 1967. Five months of excruciating diplomacy since the war finally yielded a resolution by the United Nations’ most powerful body on the Mideast conflict — and it was a restatement of Johnson’s Five Points [which Johnson had presented on June 19, 1967, in a televised speech: “the right of every nation in the region to live and be accepted by its neighbors; a solution for refugees; respect for maritime rights; ending the Mideast arms race; and maintaining the ‘independence and territorial integrity of all states.'”]. Formally, the vote meant that the Soviet Union and the United States had found an agreed formula; tacitly, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt were grudgingly willing to live with it. Resolution 242 would become the point of reference for future diplomacy.

The resolution called for ending “all claims or states of belligerency,” which was somewhat less than Israel’s demand for formal peace agreements. At the same time, it required “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” In sharp contrast to 1956, Israel’s pullback was conditioned on ending the state of war. The principle of reaching Arab-Israeli peace by trading land for peace became international policy.

As often happens in diplomacy, agreement was built on ambiguity. The reference to Israeli withdrawal “from territories” rather than “from the territories” was the key. For the Soviets and Arabs, that meant a full retreat to the prewar lines. In Israel’s reading, the absent “the” indicated that it needed to give up some land, but not necessarily all.

But the ambiguity also helped bridge the gap between the United States and Israel on the extent to which borders could be changed. It even papered over what White House staffer [Harold] Saunders called the “wide gap within our ranks” in the Johnson team over what the United States meant when it called for the “territorial integrity” of Mideast states. Secretary of State [Dean] Rusk, Saunders noted, was telling foreign ministers that America would like to restore the pre-June boundaries as part of peace. Other officials — left unnamed by Saunders — saw no reason to “go that far” in pushing Israel, in part because “we [in the administration] honestly feel that the Arabs asked for what they got by pulling the rug out from under our 1957 peace settlement.” Johnson himself seemed to lean that way, telling Arab visitors that the United States was unable to force Israel to pull back completely.

Without the crucial “the,” Resolution 242 allowed for both positions. It also moved the burden of negotiating between Israelis and Arabs to a U.N. emissary. Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring, innocent of any Mideast experience, was appointed to the job.

In January, [Israeli Prime Minister] Levi Eshkol flew to Texas to meet Lyndon Johnson at his ranch. Cold, bitter winds blew at the air base where Eshkol landed. The key subject on the agenda was Israel’s desire to buy arms, particularly fifty advanced F-4 Phantom warplanes, to match Soviet rearming of the Arabs. Johnson joked with Rusk that “it shouldn’t take the air that these people are here for the express purpose of buying bombs and threatening world security.”

The fat pads of briefing papers by Johnson’s Mideast hands recommended delaying the sale of the Phantoms, lest the military buildup end all chance of peace. But Eshkol should get other planes, to make Israel feel secure enough to agree to concessions. Johnson’s presummit reading described the danger of Israel sticking to a “narrow and rigid” insistence on face-to-face talks with the Arabs, but also cited Abba Eban’s assurances that Israel sought only “minor border adjustments.” The Israeli foreign minister remains an urbane mystery: Was he out of the loop in Jerusalem; or did he hope to lock his government into his own dovish stands with the promises he made abroad?

The briefing papers said nothing of settlements. The subject had come up briefly when Eban came to Washington and met Dean Rusk, but it was a technical problem, not one for the leaders of nations to discuss.

But in the long conversations in the warm living room of Johnson’s ranch, first Rusk and then Johnson asked Eshkol to describe “what kind of Israel we would be expected to support.” The line seems rehearsed, a friendly push for a commitment to peace rather than land. Eshkol evaded answering. Johnson posed the question yet again — “What kind of Israel do you want?” — in a one-on-one conversation with Eshkol. Afterward, Eshkol told [Yigal] Allon he had replied, “My government has decided not to decide.” The lack of an answer had no effect on the summit’s outcome: Johnson held out the possibility of supplying Phantoms later and promised lighter Skyhawk warplanes immediately. The Bundy Doctrine held sway; the United States would not use arms to pressure Israel.

From the Epilogue

On November 4, 1995, a radical young supporter of the Whole Land, Yigal Amir, assassinated Israel’s prime minister. It was the final, horrifying act of the tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin: The forces of chaos he had suppressed on the Tel Aviv shore in 1948, and to which he had yielded at Sebastia in 1975, now swept him away.

Rabin’s murder marked the start of unprecedented instability in Israel. The young and politically inexperienced new Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, narrowly defeated Shimon Peres in the next election. Unable to reconcile his hardline nationalism and his public promise to honor Israel’s signed commitments to Oslo, Netanyahu could not provide direction.

In October 1998, Netanyahu and [Ariel] Sharon, now the foreign minister, attended a summit conference with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland. Under pressure from Clinton, Netanyahu signed an agreement to continue implementing the Oslo accords by turning over another 13 percent of the West Bank’s land to the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Afterward, speaking on Israel Radio, Sharon urged settlers to “grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed, will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.” That accelerated a new kind of settlement drive, the rapid establishment of the improvised mobile home “outposts” on the hills of the West Bank, without official authorization. The outpost settlers, many of them young people who had grown up in the ideological settlements, were few in number, but their presence staked a claim to more land, filling in Sharon’s fingers. Government funding came via the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division; the Housing Ministry built roads; the Defense Ministry provided additional aid. Again, officials put a cause regarded as patriotic above the rule of law. And again, slow-motion diplomacy encouraged rapid settlement.

Nonetheless, the Wye accord led to the collapse of Netanyahu’s government. Promising a push for peace, Labor’s new leader, Ehud Barak, swept to a landslide election victory. In July 2000, seeking to reach the overdue final-status accord, Barak, Arafat, and Clinton met for an ill-fated summit at Camp David.

Amid accusations and self-justifications, the debate on the causes of Camp David’s failure will last many years. Two factors, though, deserve mention here. First, the Oslo process, meant to build trust, did the opposite. Palestinian terror groups continued their attacks in Israeli cities, undercutting the belief among Israelis that an agreement could bring peace, or that the Palestinian Authority was interested in ending the conflict. Meanwhile, between 1993 and 2000, the population of Israel’s settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (again, excluding East Jerusalem) rose from 116,000 to 198,000. The spread of red rooftops on the hills undermined Palestinian confidence that Israel would, indeed, leave the occupied territories.

Second, the summit revealed the gap in the two sides’ understanding of the entire process. Palestinian negotiators insisted on the Green Line [the “1949 Armistice Line”] as the basis for peace; they regarded their recognition of Israel within the pre-1967 boundaries as conceding most of historic Palestine, and saw no reason for further concessions. Israel saw the land up for division as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and insisted that the new border would run through occupied territory, leaving key settlements and strategic ground in its hands. It was the same disagreement that Yigal Allon and King Hussein had confronted in 1968, though without the urbanity of that meeting. “The Palestinian perspective was that Oslo was a compromise and that it was the last compromise. We were not aware of this,” Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s foreign minister at the Camp David summit, said later. “We … thought that somewhere down the road there would be another compromise.” The statement is striking, because throughout the Oslo years, Palestinian and Israeli leaders had stated their goals publicly. Each side, though, assumed that the other’s statements were bluff. Once again, they had been playing chess with themselves, believing that at the moment of truth, the people across the negotiating table would accept the inevitable.

Instead, the process collapsed. By the fall, a new and more brutal intifada began. The political pendulum soon swung yet again. Ariel Sharon, now head of the Likud, seventy-three years old, became prime minister, determined to put down the uprising with military force. Though he now spoke of agreeing to a Palestinian state, he said it would control just 42 percent of the West Bank’s area — the size of the divided territory that was already administered by the Palestinian Authority. In fact, the proposed state was an updated version of Sharon’s idea of self-ruling enclaves separated by Israeli fingers.

Then came an unexpected turnabout. At the end of 2003, Sharon announced his intent to carry out a “disengagement” from the Palestinians, a “redeployment of IDF forces … and a change in the deployment of settlements … [to] reduce … the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population.” Soon after, he explained his meaning: Israel would pull out of the Gaza Strip, evacuating all its settlements there, along with a handful of small settlements in the northern West Bank. The longtime architect of settlement now intended to remove settlers — albeit as a unilateral action, a new way to create facts, to impose the lines he regarded as most defensible.

Sharon’s goals remained veiled. One of his closest confidants, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, spoke of unilateral withdrawal as a way to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority — an acceptance of the argument against the Whole Land that dated back to Ben-Gurion’s decision not to conquer the West Bank in 1949. Another confidant, Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weissglas, described the pullout as “formaldehyde” for the peace process — in effect, a diplomatic shortening of the lines, a way to reduce international pressure for greater concessions. The pullout could be read as a response to Palestinian violence, Palestinian numbers, or U.S. concerns, or perhaps all three.

Sharon’s determination, however, was unquestionable. Surviving the fury of hard-liners in the Likud and other right-wing parties, ignoring protests and rulings by some pro-settlement rabbis that soldiers should disobey orders to evacuate settlements, the prime minister pressed ahead, winning Knesset approval and Supreme Court affirmation of the legality of his plan. Among the general public, he maintained the support of a solid, if unenthusiastic, majority for the pullout. One subtext was exhaustion with Gaza. Another was that settlement, once a secular sacrament, was now firmly identified with Orthodoxy in the long-running Israeli Kulturkampf.

While some settlers left Gaza quietly, others convinced themselves that with sufficient prayer and protest, the withdrawal would not take place. Young protesters, many from West Bank settlements and outposts, dodged roadblocks to reach Gaza. One of the journalists who went to see the settlement of Kfar Darom in its last days was eighty-two-year-old Haim Gouri. “It was a journey of one day in my life, just one. Yet my whole life was in it … all my memories and soul-searching,” he wrote. He looked at settlers who “really believed it was possible to continue to live like this next to the urgent poverty of the Arabs.” Yet when settlement had begun in the Katif Bloc and Kfar Darom, he recorded, “I cannot recall that I expressed doubts.” He met “the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of religious Zionism, which in days long past was so different,” and heard “the sacred mantra: ‘There will be no disengagement!’ because ‘The soldiers will refuse to carry out the orders’ and because ‘The Holy One will perform miracles for us.'” A settler invited him to return at the summer’s end, after the miracle, to lecture on literature. Politely, he accepted.

Twice, Jewish extremists tried to stop the pullout with terror against Arabs. An army deserter opened fire on a bus in an Israeli Arab town, murdering four people before he was lynched by the crowd. In a factory at the settlement of Shilo in the West Bank, a settler turned on his Palestinian co-workers, murdering four. This time, terror did not produce immediate conflagration, and the withdrawal went ahead.

On Wednesday, August 17, 2005, columns of uniformed men and women entered the first settlements to begin removing settlers. Only a handful of soldiers refused orders. The heavens did not open. In a scene played again and again on Israel television, a father pushed his young daughter at soldiers, screaming a challenge, “Expel her! Expel her!” Soldiers and police who had trained at taking insults listened with haunting calm. A few families stepped out of their homes wearing yellow stars, equating the pullout with a Nazi deportation. The next day, hundreds of young infiltrators chose the synagogue at Kfar Darom as the arena for their final struggle. As troops climbed ladders to reach the synagogue roof, protesters hurled lye in their faces. That was the worst confrontation. The evacuation lasted but a week, much less time than anticipated. The struggle postponed at Sebastia thirty years before at last played itself out.

The meaning of the denouement in Gaza would be determined only by its yet-to-be-written sequel. It could later be interpreted as the moment showing that the cost in tears and fury of dismantling settlements was too high to be paid again, on a grander scale, for evacuating the larger Israeli communities in the West Bank — or as the proof that settlements are indeed potentially temporary, and that the settlers had lost the support of the Israeli mainstream. It may be recorded as the act that revived peace efforts, or as the intermezzo before a new battle over the torn land. It did not yet answer the question posed to Israelis when the unexpected conquests of 1967 were fresh: What kind of Israel do you want? That answer still lay in the future.

From the book, “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977” by Gershom Gorenberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright 2006 by Gershom Gorenberg. All rights reserved.