The consular rep didn’t want to announce his mission by actually entering the community, so he decided on a quiet drive-by instead. He reported back to his superiors that those alarming tales of settlement growth were standard-issue media exaggeration, a “somewhat distorted picture of reality.” In any case, he argued, Kalyah was too far from the highway and the Jordan River to offer the new residents much of a military advantage. To the United States, it was simply incomprehensible that these makeshift communities were anything more than some sort of temporary security measure, albeit a diplomatically inconvenient one.
If that embassy rep made the same desert drive today, he’d encounter some 4,000 residents living in at least two dozen communities on the Israeli-controlled side of the Jordan River. In all, there are at least 261,000 Jews still living in lands conquered by Israel during the Six Day War. They live in orderly government-planned suburbs north and east of Jerusalem; in more isolated, far-flung towns surrounded by barbed wire and heavily-guarded highways; in small, fortified enclaves in and near the ancient biblical cities of the West Bank. These settlements are filled with the second and even third generations of those early post-war pioneers, who would have told that U.S. official, if he had only asked, that in their view there was nothing temporary about their new home.
If U.S. officials, blinded by regional Cold War considerations, were deceiving themselves about Israel’s intentions in 1969, they weren’t alone. As journalist Gershom Gorenberg demonstrates in his new book, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, their Israeli counterparts were doing the same. A few may have entered the post-war period with a determination to create “facts on the ground,” but two years after Israel first entered the area, even many government officials were still under the impression that their exit from most or all of the West Bank would arrive sooner or later. Through arguments equal parts intellectual and emotional, Israeli leaders wound up locking a state unprepared for the scale of their military success into a disastrous policy after the fact. The Middle East is full of desert mirages; Israel has already spent a generation chasing theirs. The United States has just gotten started.
By any standard, it was never much of an empire–at its height, just 26,000 square miles–but by the time the dust cleared on June 4, 1967, Israel controlled roughly four times as much land as it had just a week earlier. The new land had an intoxicating effect on the Israeli public. For young people who had come of age after the legendary battles of 1948, it offered an unexpected chance to play a part in the drama of nation-building. For what remained of the socialist pioneers of the secular left, it meant a return to an earlier era of national adventure paired with the possibility of a security the state of Israel had never known. For the right, particularly the previously marginalized religious Zionist movement, it represented nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Even many who felt uneasy with their nation’s new occupying role still felt an emotional tug that bound them to the soil, almost against their will, through some special alchemy, the Six Day War transformed even die-hard agnostics into believers. Nathan Alterman, a legendary writer and Labor partisan who had publicly dismissed the importance of Jews returning to the precise outlines of their ancient homeland, underwent a sudden metamorphosis of the spirit, emerging a passionate settlement supporter. “I’m a Tel Aviv man,” he said of the newly-acquired territory, “but anyone who returns these pieces of land will first have to write a different Bible.”
There was a surreal exchange of dazed pilgrims from both sides during the summer weeks after hostilities ended. Palestinians–including Sabri al-Banna, later known by the terrorist nom de guerre Abu Nidal–made day trips back to visit family homes in Jaffa and West Jerusalem they’d left behind two decades earlier, and sought steady work in Israel proper. And Jews driven variously by nostalgia, piety, and curiosity filtered in the opposite direction over the suddenly porous Green Line. In the midst of the chaos, newly-empowered religious Zionists adopted a strategy of their secular pre-Independence counterparts, defiantly creating more “facts on the ground” than even their government sympathizers had bargained for. Prospective settlers often made their move across the former borders quietly in twos and threes, occasionally in conflict with flustered military authorities, other times with their tacit approval, encouragement, or even their direct support. A burgeoning government bureaucracy soon developed to regulate outposts that, for the most part, did not officially exist.
The American-born Gorenberg–who moved to Israel around the time settler patron Menachem Begin was elected–meticulously recounts the genesis of the settlement movement, tracking a sort of creeping chaos. From the start, there were deeply-held and often contradictory opinions at play in Israel over the settlement idea–not only in the population at large but often within individuals themselves–though it took years for the controversy to begin to dominate the national debate. This tortured duality tragically found its truest expression in the person of Israel’s leader, Levi Eshkol. The ailing prime minister told some officials that negotiations with the Jordanians would soon bring Israeli control of the West Bank to a close and assured others he was determined to maintain a presence in the area that would forever end the nation’s geographic vulnerability. He spoke wistfully of a scriptural heritage tying the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria, and pragmatically of the unsustainable reality on the West Bank–sometimes in the same conversation.
His colleagues and successors found their own personal weaknesses magnified by the territorial dilemma. An overconfident defense minister Moshe Dayan misjudged his adversaries, assuming Palestinians would adapt easily to occupation and that a new Arab offensive was unlikely. Eshkol’s successor, Golda Meir, bristled at the slightest criticism from troubled advisers, and refused to confront the implications of long-term Israeli control of the conquered land. They were all under the impression that they could harness the passions created by the Six Day War for their own purposes, not realizing they’d unleashed forces they couldn’t hope to control. By the time these miscalculations proved too glaring to ignore, none of the nation’s leaders had the political will–or perhaps, the heart–to confront the growing settler movement. It’s a tragic portrait of ambivalence writ large.
Governing may be a messy business, but the decision-making process laid out by Gorenberg defies any attempt at a linear explanation. Anyone looking for the masked man behind Israel’s settlement policy will be disappointed. In this telling, nobody’s really in control of the situation, not even the nation’s leaders. During this period, there never seems to be a single moment of clarity when the final goal becomes apparent, no development of a coherent long-term territorial policy. That oversight was partly due to the schizophrenic nature of the debate, and partly because the illegality of settlement-building was never much in question: By the time the heady summer of ’67 gave way to autumn, the Israeli government’s top legal minds had concluded that the entire enterprise violated international law.
So the country’s leaders, by necessity, decided it was wisest they knew without fully knowing. They drew a veil over activity in the territories so opaque that government ministers themselves were often taken aback by developments. The United States found itself almost unconsciously adopting a similar approach: American officials, convinced that the Middle East was a rising Cold War battlefield, alternated between discounting inconvenient or contradictory information on settlement activity in favor of overly optimistic assumptions and proffering sharp but toothless reprimands to their regional ally.
For those Israelis who assumed the new territory meant long-term security–and for others who believed its acquisition signaled the dawn of a messianic age–the Yom Kippur War provoked a crisis of faith. The staggering losses from the surprise attack accelerated the decline of the public appetite for occupation. But the 1973 conflict left an unlikely legacy for settlement supporters as well: Religious Zionists coalesced into a defiant new group that would blaze a fiery trail through the next three decades of Israeli history. Gush Emunim–the Bloc of the Faithful–soon grabbed headlines via increasingly ambitious clashes with Israeli authorities desperate to maintain control over settlement growth. Meanwhile, international pressure on Israel (like the United Nation’s infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution) had a perverse effect on the nation’s politics. The popular passions it released helped reveal the extent of the Labor party’s long decay just 10 years after their summer of triumph. When the Likud era began with the elections of 1977, the nation’s new, conservative leaders were far less tortured in their defense of settlements; their ascent marked the dawn of an explosive period of government-sponsored building in the territories. But, of course, there was no need to start from scratch. Begin’s leadership may have allowed settlement policy to reach full bloom, but the roots had already been growing for a decade.
It’s almost too easy, at this point, to look back and cluck at the epic missteps, shake our heads at misplaced settler optimism, and wince at the brash assessment by then-Gen. Ariel Sharon that settlements would somehow “wean the Arabs of the Gaza Strip from the illusion that we will eventually get out of there.” Some of the Israeli government’s stumbles were unavoidable, the inevitable result of an intractable conflict and legitimate security concerns. (Arab leaders, for their part, proved unable or unwilling to use the diplomatic tools that might have short-circuited the settlement process until both the concept and the reality were too established for Israeli politicians to dislodge, even had they wanted to.) But it’s also true that the most serious wounds were self-inflicted. Through its continued presence on the other side of the Green Line, the Israeli government birthed some unlikely political stepchildren.
Abu Nidal wasn’t the only one of Israel’s enemies to draw inspiration from the events of ’67. The Six Day War marked the end of any realistic possibility of a Middle East without a Jewish state. But the complete rout of Arab armies was a humiliation that, following the dictates of their culture, ruled out any logical turn to diplomatic solutions. For the Arab world’s humiliated leaders, Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank and Gaza proved a godsend, conveniently allowing them to deflect and redirect domestic anger that might have resulted in large-scale regime change.
The victory itself may have flipped the script for the international community, but the continued occupation solidified the worst impressions that fueled the new Middle East storyline–perceptions the region’s oil states, just beginning to adjust to their new power on the world stage, were eager to exploit. More importantly for Israel, the permanence of the Jewish presence resulted in a sea change in how the Palestinians viewed their situation. No longer did they believe that their Arab brethren would ride to their rescue and deliver the house keys to the old family home in Haifa. Their destiny was now in their own hands, and their only armed options against a conventionally superior foe would be terrorism and guerilla warfare. In the soil of the accidental empire, the seeds of the intifada were sown.
In Gorenberg’s view, Israel won the Six Day War but barely survived the peace. The nation was prepared for a stalemate, but victory proved its undoing–a few summer weeks of frenzied celebration followed by a four-decade hangover. The cost of the particular fusion of nationalism and faith birthed four decades ago has been steep: Settlements consumed resources at an epic pace (upwards of $14 billion for West Bank locations alone, according to one recent study) and gave the country’s enemies an automatic excuse to avoid the bargaining table. Why waste time talking when Israel was busy building up facts on the ground?
In the end, says Gorenberg, the settlement venture has resulted in severe long-term damage for the conquering nation itself. The outposts that were supposed to guarantee Israel’s security ended up fostering an increasing sense of national insecurity. “The process of settlement… led to the state’s gradual unraveling, blurring its borders, undercutting its authority,” he writes.
There was no one willing or able to save Israel from itself. It’s obvious the historic fallibility of U.S. intelligence played a part in the American reluctance to press Israel on its settlement policy; but given Cold War considerations and domestic distractions, it’s far from clear a definitive assessment of Israeli intent would have changed American actions all that much. Gorenberg describes some sternly-worded communiqus from State Department officials to Israel’s leaders. The Americans worried (presciently, it turns out) about the long-term security and diplomatic consequences if settlement-building continued. But their words often seemed framed more like suggestions than warnings –there were never any looming consequences if their wishes were disregarded. And back in Washington, Watergate kept an increasingly uninterested Richard Nixon from pressuring the Israelis into compliance. An ultimatum from Washington might have spared Israel from learning over the next thirty years the same costly lesson the United States has learned over the past three: that foreign administration of Arab land, no matter the motivation or might of the forces involved, inevitably ends in disaster for both occupied and occupier.
The comparison to the American experience in postwar Iraq may not be perfect, but the similarities are striking. Take a handful of ideologically-driven thinkers with a few well-placed government allies, a longtime interest in the area in question, and a national leader famously resistant to criticism (in Israel’s case, a surprisingly thin-skinned Golda Meir). Add the deep-rooted fears of a nation under siege, an unexpectedly easy rout of opposing military forces, and an overly optimistic view of the feasibility of foreign occupation in an Arab culture. Throw in an obsession with policy secrecy, a growing willingness to test the limits of international law, and a post-war planning process–hampered by political considerations–that didn’t take shape until after the occupation had already begun. Finish off the mix with a continued failure to develop a clear exit strategy. For Israel, at least, this toxic brew has festered for nearly four decades. Gorenberg’s account of how that mess began is a classic case study of the arc of foreign policy misadventure in a democratic society.