Colonial Drift

WITH Hamas installed in the Palestinian Authority and Ariel Sharon dying in an Israeli hospital bed, Middle East peace now seems as remote as ever. Sharon’s great final project — extricating Israel from the occupied territories — risks coming undone; his near-term successors are unlikely to have the will or the political clout to complete the job. Which makes this the perfect time to look back at how Israel got into this mess in the first place.

Generally speaking, there have been two prevailing explanations: one of Israeli innocence, the other of guilt. In the first, the tiny state was forced into war in 1967 and grabbed Gaza, Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights in self-defense, planning to hold them only until they could be safely traded for peace. In the other, Israel used its victory in 1967 deliberately to expand its borders. It disenfranchised the locals, stole their land and settled the territories with religious fanatics.

Now Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli journalist, has produced a remarkably insightful third account. In “The Accidental Empire,” he portrays the first two decades after ’67 as a melancholy story of inadvertant colonialism. It’s a groundbreaking revision that deserves to reframe the entire debate.

According to Gorenberg, the Israelis did not quite acquire their colonies as the British were said to, in a fit of absent-mindedness — but just about. In 1967, Israel won an unexpected victory in a war it didn’t seek and found itself sitting on new territory three times its original size.

But Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was paralyzed by this unhappy prize. He refused either to annex the land (since this would mean either expelling or absorbing 1.1 million Arabs) or to return it (since Israel’s 1949 borders were deemed indefensible).

Instead, he and his Labor Party successors (Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin) pursued a policy of no policy. The tragedy of this dodge, Gorenberg reveals, was that it ended up amounting to a policy anyway, for “stalemate was the soil in which settlements grew.” As the deadlocked cabinet dithered, a decisive few — mostly young zealots dreaming of a biblical “Greater Israel” — took action.

And here the Israeli government made a tragic mistake: it acquiesced. The guns of ’67 had barely cooled when settlers began to stake wildcat claims throughout the captured land. At first the army was sent in to remove them, sometimes repeatedly. But the pioneers kept coming back, and Jerusalem, leery of confronting its own citizens, eventually gave in.

To be sure, the settlers had powerful champions in the government — not just strongmen like Sharon, but Eshkol himself at moments and even latter-day doves like Shimon Peres. The settlement question cut through the left-right divide in Israeli politics, severing friendships and forging unlikely alliances.

Still, Gorenberg underscores the leaders’ passivity. “More than deciding on settlement, the government drifted into permitting it,” he writes. Even Prime Minister Rabin — the great warrior who as a young officer had killed fellow Jews on the docks of Tel Aviv in 1948 (when the radical Irgun, defying orders, tried to smuggle arms into the country) — lacked the stomach for a similar fight this time.

Though this acquiescence may have been understandable, its effects were corrosive. From a few tiny seeds grew a pocket-size empire of suburban garrisons — some of them perhaps at one time necessary for Israel’s defense, but many with only historical, sentimental or economic value for Jews. They also carried a staggering price: all those Arab noncitizens Israel had just inherited, who soon began to make their presence felt.

Gorenberg takes pains to explain that almost everyone involved shares blame for what developed. In the decade after ’67, all the belligerents missed chances for peace, ignoring evidence that failed to fit their worldviews. Gorenberg shows Moshe Dayan, Israel’s one-eyed war hero, musing that the Palestinians would end up as grateful colonial subjects like the Togolese; Henry Kissinger overlooking obvious signs of Israel’s settlement construction; and Arab leaders rejecting Israel’s peace offerings in the faith they’d soon crush it on the battlefield.

Despite Gorenberg’s efforts at careful impartiality, the book has its soft spots. Though he tries hard to demonstrate the human cost of Israel’s nonpolicy, the Palestinians remain largely invisible and inaudible (this may be due in part to poor documentary evidence). Nor does he say enough about the weird ethos of the settler movement, which combined religious messianism, ultranationalism and an incongruous hippie aesthetic. At other moments, he overwhelms the reader with detail. Gorenberg overuses the reporter’s trick of providing color to flesh out historical fact; the many descriptions of weather or the landscape sometimes threaten to bog down the narrative.

Yet it still soars. The book works powerfully on two important levels: as a deeply informative counterhistory and as a mournful reminder of what happens when a democratic government acquiesces in the face of its own militants.

Gorenberg ends with a fast-forward to last summer’s Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a rare break from the deadlock the settlements have produced. Like the earlier pullout from Sinai, however, Gaza was relatively easy. Extricating Israel from the West Bank, where 250,000 Jews now live intertwined with Arabs in what Gorenberg calls “an artificially created Bosnia,” will be exponentially harder. Still, by showing the root of the problem — incompetence, not ideology — Gorenberg points to the direction from which an answer may someday emerge.

Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.
By Gershom Gorenberg.
Illustrated. 454 pp. Times Books/Henry Holt. $30.