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Exclusive Book & Movie Reviews: Placing Settlements in a Vacuum The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, by Gershom Gorenberg, NY: Times Books, 2006, 480 pages, $30

by Mitchell Bard

The Accidental Empire focuses on the period from 1967 until 1977 when the Labor Party was still the dominant political faction in Israel. It is during this period that the first Jewish communities were established in the territories, but before the great expansion that began following the Likud’s victory in 1977. Gershom Gorenberg is a journalist, not a political scientist, so the narrative is stronger when it comes to description than analysis. Gorenberg is also not a neutral observer who set out to examine the evidence to see where it led. He started the project with a clear axe to grind as a vocal opponent of settlements and this influences his narrative.

The principal contribution of his research is to demonstrate that Israeli leaders did not have an agenda for “colonizing” the territories. Nevertheless, like Jimmy Carter does in his more recent book, Gorenberg suggests otherwise on the basis of the definition of colonialism he provides from British scholar Stephen Howe. In fact, Howe’s definition proves the opposite. According to Howe, colonialism is a system “of rule by one group over another, where the first claims the exercise exclusive sovereignty over the second and to shape its destiny.” Israel, however, never has suggested it has sovereignty over the Palestinian people. Israel has laid legitimate historical claims to the land, but always expected the Palestinian people’s destiny to be shaped by either their leaders or those of the surrounding Arab countries.

Gorenberg says settlements were established, as his title implies, accidentally, because of the weakness of Labor Party leaders. They were not products of democratic policy making with a clear vision or purpose. Hebron is a good example. He says “more than deciding on settlement, the government drifted into permitting it.” Even the idea that the settlements contributed to Israeli security, he shows were ex post facto rationalizations.

For the Jews who moved to the territories, the issue was simple: this was the Land of Israel. They were the ones who drove the government’s policy. Labor officials went along because they believed they were sending a message that Israel would not be cowed by the UN vote equating Zionism with racism. They also could not reconcile removing “patriots settling the land” when the Labor Zionists had done the same thing during the pioneering period before Israel was established. Moreover, as the poet Nathan Alterman said, no nation in history ever gave up its homeland (Alterman later said reasons of state may require unfair compromise). Gorenberg blames Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for not having the courage in 1975 to act against the settlers.

A major flaw is that Gorenberg presents history in a vacuum. Israel is portrayed as taking unilateral actions in the territories and the Arabs have no relevance. He says, for example, that Golda Meir and her coterie saw no Palestinians, but he is just as myopic and leaves the unspoken impression throughout the book that the only obstacle to peace are those darn settlements.

He rushes through the Oslo period in one page in the Epilogue, suggesting that both sides were at fault for the agreement’s failure. He ignores, however, that the Oslo agreements did not call for an end to settlements, but they did call for an end to terror. Israel nevertheless kept giving up land, but did not get peace in return.

The book describes the method by which the first settlements were established in excruciating detail. This gives the descriptions authenticity, but also makes the book mind numbing at points.

One valuable part of the book is the explanation of the psychological factors that influence the conflict. For example, he correctly notes how Israelis were euphoric after the victory in 1967, but the “prewar fear of impending annihilation did not vanish.” In an earlier section he describes the reaction of a Palestinian who saw an Israeli soldier on the street after the victory in 1948. The Israeli was about the same age and had trained as a soldier and fought while the Palestinian had been doing marching exercises. “I felt more ashamed than I had ever felt in my life,” the Palestinian says. “I felt my manhood compromised.”

The history is interesting for those who associate settlements with the right-wing in Israel. In fact, it was mainstream Labor Party thinking that the land could be settled. Consider this quotation from Shimon Peres: “I don’t understand why it’s okay to settle in the [Jordan] Rift and not in the Samaria mountains....I don’t understand why settling in the Golan Heights is considered something left wing and settling at Ofrah next to Jerusalem is a right wing act.”

It is not until the next to last page of the book that Gorenberg acknowledges that the Arabs played a role in the settlement issue. “Whatever the intent of the Khartoum decisions, their bellicose language convinced Israel’s government that peace was out of reach. Direct negotiations, recognition, and peace – what Khartoum rejected – were precisely the tools that Arab leaders had in their hands to sway Israeli opinion. Waiting to use them allowed and encouraged the growth of the settlements.” Not only did these Arab attitudes encourage settlement growth, but the converse was also true; that is, the expansion of settlements ultimately stimulated the Palestinians to engage in negotiations at Oslo. The Palestinians were afraid that if they waited much longer, so many Jews would be in the West Bank, no land would be left for a state. Even now, however, the Palestinians could have a state in more than 90% of the West Bank and 100% of Gaza if they were to choose negotiations over violence.

Gorenberg is right about the need for Israel to refocus on building the state rather than settlements. The disengagement from Gaza was the first step. Unfortunately, that experience, coupled with the aftermath of the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, has convinced most Israelis that settlements are irrelevant to relations with the Arabs, and that any exchange of land with the Palestinians will bring terror rather than peace.

Sources: Mitchell Bard is the AICE Executive Director