The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977

Gershom Gorenberg, Author . Times $30 (454p) ISBN 978-0-8050-7564-9

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Sarah F. Gold

Midway through Gorenberg's revelatory account comes a striking irony, one of the many that emerge from this troubling history of Israeli settlements in the territories occupied after the 1967 Six Day War. In 1970, army commander Ariel Sharon said settlements would "wean the Arabs of the Gaza Strip from the illusion that we will eventually get out of there." Who could foresee that 35 years later, Prime Minister Sharon would bow to reality and spearhead the dismantling of those settlements and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza?

The power of another illusion—the Israelis' belief that "creating facts" by establishing settlements, could cement their sovereignty over contested lands and help guarantee its security—is a defining element of this tragic tale. It's an illusion that led to Israel's knowing violation (despite the warning in a top secret legal memo that Gorenberg cites) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It led to the eviction of peaceful Bedouin from their land to make way for Israeli settlers. It led, according to Gorenberg, to the awakening of militant Palestinian nationalism. Ultimately, says Gorenberg, the settlements fed the escalating passions and violence that created the stalemate we know today.

Militant, messianic nationalism was also the motivating force of the Israeli settlers, and Gorenberg dramatically describes this fervor's spread. Awakened by Israel's stunning 1967 victory, it led young religious Israelis to defy a government crippled by internal conflict over what to do with the occupied territories, and to settle in what the activists called "Judea and Samaria."

The first settlement in the Golan Heights, however, was not founded by religious extremists, but by secular followers of socialist nationalist Yitzhak Tabenkin. One of Gorenberg's strengths is his deep knowledge of Zionist history and his skill in illuminating the emotional and ideological roots of all the settler factions.

These emotional roots also help explain the paralysis of Israel's leaders in the face of defiant settlers. While brutally honest about the failings of Golda Meir (intolerant of dissent), Moshe Dayan (who thought occupation could be benign) and other Israeli figures (as well as those of their Arab opponents), Gorenberg, an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report , understands their secret sympathy for the settlers. Leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Levi Eshkol were among Israel's founders, and the settlers' love of the land evoked their own pioneering youth and the heroic struggle to create a Jewish state. Nostalgia for the past clouded their vision and prevented the formulation of a sound policy for Israel's future.

Today, with Ariel Sharon critically ill after a massive stroke, that future remains very much in question, and Gorenberg's book is an even more essential guide to understanding Israel's own contribution to its current tragic pass. 8 pages of photos; maps. (Mar. 9)

Reviewed on: 01/16/2006
Release date: 03/01/2006
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 480 pages - 978-1-4668-0054-0
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