The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977
Creating Settlements: Illegalities
Then and Now

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg. New York: Times Books, 2006. 454 pp. including notes and index. Hardcover, $30.

Benjamin Pogrund

Benjamin Pogrund is founder director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. He is co-editor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue and is a member of the Palestine-Israel Journal's Editorial Board.

Gershom Gorenberg quickly gets to the nub of it. On page 4 he says: "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."
As Gorenberg reminds us, Israel did not want the Six Day War in 1967, and did not plan to become an occupier. But the unanticipated victory gave it possession of the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, the "accidental empire" of the book's title. At the time, the dominant worry was the memory of 1956-57, when Israel had been forced to quit Sinai after its military success there. Israel's cabinet was again anxious about pressure from the United States and wanted to set its own terms: On June 19, only days after the end of the war, it offered to give up most of the land seized from Egypt and Syria. It set a price: full peace and security arrangements. It also wanted to retain the Gaza Strip; it made no mention of the West Bank.
Egypt and Syria rejected the offer. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol did not know what to do. His yes/no approach was evident in regard to Gaza: On one hand, he said Israel should keep it, "perhaps because of Samson and Delilah" but more because it would remove the strategic danger of an "Egyptian finger" stuck into Israel. On the other hand, he spoke of Gaza as "a rose with a lot of thorns" (46).
The cabinet members shared his indecisiveness. Hugely enlarge Jerusalem and unite it, they decided. This went ahead and the city's boundaries were tripled. But beyond that, uncertainty remained. A minority warned that occupation would mean turning Israel into a bi-national state in which Jews would eventually be a minority. Those who had an agenda, who passionately believed in what must be done, rushed to fill the vacuum created by irresolution.
Their motivations were not necessarily the same, but they had the same goal: create facts on the ground to ensure Jewish possession. For some, it was a continuation of the Zionist endeavors under British rule in staking claim to land; they brushed aside the objections of those who said that the Jews had achieved their state and the actions of before were no longer valid.
Gorenberg notes that for Yisrael Galili, who was in charge of settlements, this "was still the way the government wrote its real intentions on the landscape" (289). For Yigal Allon, the famed warrior general, securing the state's safety dominated all else. For fellow warrior and rival Moshe Dayan, the Bible decreed that the West Bank had been Jewish and must remain Jewish. Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon were among those who in due course played their part. Labor and Likud governments were the same.
It was a lot easier for them after the Khartoum Conference on September 1, 1967, when Arab leaders issued their three no's - no peace with Israel, no recognition, no negotiation.
The first settlement, on the Golan in July 1967, set the pattern for the methods used into the future: illegality and subterfuge, with the secret help of powerful politicians and officials who connived at what was done and also ensured the flow of money from government budgets. Then it was Hebron in April 1968, with brazen lying and outright defiance of the government by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who was given permission to hold a Pesach (Passover) seder in a hotel there, and refused to leave.
Gorenberg's meticulous research unearths the story of the first 10 years. This is no dry history, for not only do Israelis and Palestinians have to contend with the consequences, but his description of what was done and how it was done applies as much today as it did then. That is known from the revelations of researchers and the media, and especially from the March 2005 report by Talia Sasson, the former government lawyer appointed by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to investigate what are known as the "illegal outposts" on the West Bank.
Given Sharon's active support for the settlement movement, exactly why he appointed her is a mystery. Whatever the reason, Sasson's devastating report amounted to an updating of the findings of knavery, misappropriation of government monies and theft of land from Palestinians described by Gorenberg.