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 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
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"
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
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.