‘Empire’ Conquers Monstrous Task

“The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977” by Gershom Gorenberg, (Times Books).

It is not accidental that Gershom Gorenberg limited his substantial study, “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977,” to the first decade of the settler movement, for by 1977, when Menachem Begin and the right gained power for the first time in Israeli history, 80 settlements housing more than 11,000 Israelis already dotted the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Though the assumption of power by the right is often seen as heralding the settlement movement, in fact the rightists only escalated activity already well under way. The first settlements were the progeny of Israel’s founding pioneers: Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yigal Allon and Shimon Peres.

In a coincidence of history, by 1967, Galilee and Negev settlement had ceased to draw adherents. The abrupt war gain of so much historic land awakened the dormant pioneering ethos of the Labor Party leaders. This first generation had suckled on Zionist songs and literature, and as young adults they poured those dreams into drained swamps and concrete kibbutzim.

Moderately fractured along different ideologies — Dayan quoted biblical passages, while Peres argued the security need to widen the waist above Tel Aviv and draw a line of armed outposts across the West Bank — all of these leaders were looking backward to their youths. But in gazing in that direction, somehow they did not see the Arabs dwelling in front of them. All except for David Ben-Gurion, who demanded immediate withdrawal from the territories, even without a peace agreement, lest absorbing so many Arabs poison Israel from within. He was quickly returned by the party to his desert home at Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Gorenberg is not the first to unearth the roots of the post-1967 War Labor land grab, in part out of nostalgia for these leaders’ pioneering youth. Historian Arthur Hertzberg, for example, argued the same in a long thought piece in The New York Review of Books on May 28, 1987, titled: “Israel: The Tragedy of Victory.” Where Hertzberg gave us the black-and-white outline of the settlements’ rise, Gorenberg has fleshed out the story in vibrant color.

On June 20, 1967, a little more than a week after the war’s end, a settlement survey team began work in the Golan Heights, investigating locations for Jewish farming communities. In mid-July, Carmen Bar, a shepherd at Kibbutz Mahanayim and Labor Zionist volunteer, was driven up to the empty Syrian army base at Aalleiqa in the Golan Heights. He met several Bedouin there, paid by the Israel Agriculture Ministry, and they began collecting abandoned Syrian livestock.

Bar was joined by a handful of other government-sanctioned volunteers, young people rounded up from northern kibbutzim, who formed the first settlement in the new lands. Interestingly, the women cooked and the men herded cattle on horseback and shot Syrian sheep to supplement the Chinese tin rations found on the base. Less than a month before, the Cabinet had voted that Israel would withdraw for peace.

Nevertheless, on Aug. 27, the Cabinet approved Aalleiqa and several other outposts. Gorenberg observes, “Small decisions, made bit by bit, with authority stretched beyond its intent, were adding up to a new policy neither articulated nor admitted.” It might be noted, too, that these Golan border settlements proved militarily useless during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They suffered heavy losses and were entirely abandoned in the initial retreat.

The failure of Arab diplomacy contributed mightily to building in the captured territories. After the three “no’s, (no peace, no negotiations, no recognition) were issued from the Sept. 1, 1967, summit at Khartoum by leaders of eight Arab countries, those Israeli leaders who wanted to withdraw in exchange for peace were silenced. The resurrection of the settlements of the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank, planned in September 1967, came ironically not from the survivors of the 1930s massacre of the original kibbutzim there, who were now flourishing in kibbutzim in the Negev, but from their children, who had not yet become pioneers in their own right. By February 1968, 10 settlement flags waved in the wind, marking housing for 800 people; simultaneously seven more outposts were approved.

In April 1968, rightist Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented rooms in the Park Hotel in Hebron, with government permission to stay one night to conduct his seder. He arrived with his wife, four children and a truck with his refrigerator, washing machine and household items. He never left nor was he ejected. Gorenberg explains, “By allowing settlement at Hebron, Israeli leaders were swayed by ancient and recent history; more than deciding on settlement, the government drifted into permitting it.” Settlement in Gaza began in October 1970.

I fault Gorenberg’s massively documented work in one important journalistic area. Throughout the book, he recreates the dialogue of deceased participants in direct quotes. For example, Ben-Gurion speaks at length within quote marks during a meeting at his home in 1949. The source is Gorenberg’s contemporary interview with someone present at that meeting. Authors do this to bring the reader closer to events. Although I don’t doubt the accuracy of the quote, this now-common stylistic device does detract from the book’s authority.

The first decade under Labor rule created precedent, established methodology, blurred legal and illegal construction and thus flung open the door to the more massive settlement that followed under the leadership of the right. Today, approximately 250,000 Israelis live in 150 officially recognized settlements. Their future fate will be read in tomorrow’s headlines. An overwhelmingly impressive work, “The Accidental Empire” charts how they got there.

Howard Kaplan is the author of three novels on the Middle East.