Edith Zertal and Akiva Eldar end their exhaustive study of Israeli settlement policy with a poignant question: Is it possible, they wonder, that Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will become a “first step in Israel’s journey of liberating itself from the enslavement to the territories that it occupied in 1967, and which have occupied [it] since then and have brought it to the verge of destruction”? Negotiations that have been set in motion by the Annapolis peace conference in November will likely provide a partial answer. Zertal, a leading Israeli historian, and Eldar, a chief political columnist and a former Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, have recently published Lords of the Land: The War for Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. It is a detailed history of Israel’s nearly forty-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank with a painful contention at its core. The occupation, say Zertal and Eldar, has wounded Israel’s very psyche, damaging both its sense of self and its moral standing in the world. “The prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have toppled Israeli governments,” write the authors, “and have brought Israel’s democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss.”

The Hebrew version of this book was a best-seller in Israel, and sparked a debate there on the devastating realities and consequences of Israeli settlement policy. It would be useful to replicate that debate here in the United Statesin the belly, as it were, of the enabler. The book’s unflinchingly provocative title is matched by a narrative that pulls no punches, and the cast of villains (there are precious few heroes) runs the gamut from Jewish militia terrorists and their supporters in the Rabbinate to Labor Party apologists for the settlers and feckless judges who looked the other way as settlers created illegal outposts within Palestinian territory.

There are two sides to the settlement coin. The first is the settlers themselves, who are for the most part religiously inspired, unswervingly motivated, and highly effective. Religious Zionism was very much in the backseat of the Zionist enterprise until 1967, but once Israel assumed control of Judea and Samaria (as the settlers refer to the West Bank), the national religious camp saw its moment to seize the ideological steering wheel of state.

Their method was to create facts on the groundthat is, to quickly build settlementsand then get the political system on board by a number of means. The first step was persuasion (“We are all Jews surrounded by a sea of enemies”), followed by integration (the settlers’ tentacles reached into all branches of government), and then coercion (the use of intimidation, threats, and violence). Any dubious action could be “koshered” by a shared appeal to Jewish history and Zionist destiny. If all else failed, there was the threat of Arab terror, which the settlers had a key role in encouraging. For believers, there was a religious justification and meaninga theology of settlement, if you like. The final ingredient was an approach to the Palestinians that was at best colonial and at worst murderous. The new Lords of the West Bank arrogantly dismissed the region’s indigenous population, and when the Palestinians showed opposition, settler militias and terrorist groups were formed (yes, Jewish terrorist groups). In 2001, an Israeli group named the Committee for the Defense of the Roads claimed responsibility for the drive-by killing of a six-month-old Palestinian baby and her family. Similar groups carried out additional attacks, and between 1980 and 1984, before the First Intifada began, twenty-three Palestinian civilians were killed in violent attacks by settlers, mostly involving firearms (often army issue). American readers might be shocked to discover that a religiously sanctified cult of martyrdom and “redemptive death” among elements of the Israeli settler community even exists at all, and then horrified at the extent of its destructiveness.

The other side of the settlement coin is the State of Israel, and the keyword here is complicity. Nothing would have been possibleor permanentwithout the cooperation of Israel’s army, legal system, and government bureaucracy, and the political leadership of all mainstream parties. The heroes who have fleetingly appearedformer Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chiefs of Staff Haim Bar-Lev and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Head of Intelligence Shlomo Gazit, human rights attorney Talia Sasson, and principled opposition politicians Yossi Sarid, Dedi Zucker, and Avrum Burghave been no match for the huge cast of villains, facilitators, and mute bystanders. The banality and bureaucracy of the settlement enterprise carriedand continues to carrythe day.

There are approximately 460,000 settlers (including those in East Jerusalem) in the settlements; they nearly doubled their numbers during the fifteen-year-long failed peace process. Given all this, the question for American peace conference planners is whether the settlement project can in fact be rolled back. Despite repeated requests and occasional assurances, the expansion of the settlement and control system in the occupied territories has never been stopped. The settlement advocates have always had other rabbits to pull from the hat: distinguish a broadly defined “natural growth” from overt expansion; call a new settlement an “outpost”; build a security barrier deep inside Palestinian territory.

During U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s October visit to the region to plan the peace summit, Rice suddenly faced media headlines (and considerable embarrassment) about new Israeli land confiscations east of Jerusalem. Former Secretaries of State Kissinger, Baker, and Albright (among others) would all have sympathized.

As for the Palestinian leadership, they have neverwhether from weakness or naivetedemanded a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, and neither has the United States.

Of the three towering figures on the Israeli political stage for most of the post-1967 eraPrime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Shimon Peresonly one emerges with any credibility, or even decency. If this entire story has a tragic hero, it is Rabin. He was the settlers’ nemesis, popularizing opposition to them in his 1992 election campaign, promising to divert funds from settlements to education, and describing their movement, Gush Emunim (“Block of the Faithful”), as “a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy.” Rabin fought (and usually lost to) the settlers’ establishment facilitators at every turn. Ironically, Lords of the Land comes out almost exactly a dozen years after Rabin’s murder, just as right-wing religious settler groups are mounting their first concerted campaign for the pardoning of Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir.

Predictably, opposite Rabin stood Ariel Sharon. Sharon was the father of the settlement project in the army and the Knesset, but most of all in the various ministries he controlled at different times. As great facilitator, Sharon allocated land and water rights to settlements. As agriculture minister in the Menachem Begin government from 1977 to 1981 during sensitive negotiations with Egypt, he authorized new settlements. As infrastructure minister under Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Sharon defended the Israeli system of control at a time when new settlements had become a huge diplomatic headache. And even as Netanyahu was holding talks with Yasser Arafat at the Wye plantation near Washington, D.C., Sharon commanded his West Bank followers to “seize every hilltop” in the Palestinian territories.

As prime minister in 2004-05, when Sharon finally championed the disengagement from Gaza, Sharon’s erstwhile supporters turned on him and vilified him as a Judenrat leader and a Nazi. But in the historical balance sheet, as Zertal and Eldar make clear, the 7,000 settlers he evacuated from Gaza barely register when they’re set alongside his “accomplishments” in the West Bank.

Perhaps most unexpectedly to an international audience, Shimon Peres also stood opposite Rabin. If anyone is still taken in by the heavily self-concocted image of Peres as visionary peacemaker, this book will serve as a myth-shattering antidote. Peres, who became Israel’s new president on July 15, 2007, undermined Rabin’s efforts to reign in settlements. The settlers flattered Peres with appeals to the timeless Zionist pioneering spiritand, it seems, he could never resist flattery. (He famously celebrated a tree-planting ceremony with the settlers of Ofra in 1976, one year after they illegally established the first settlement in the heart of a Palestinian population center.)

Zertal and Eldar’s otherwise marvelous book is sometimes difficult to follow and has a tendency to be somewhat disjointed thematically and chronologically. It also examines the territories from an almost exclusively Israeli perspective: the Palestinian and American angles are largely beyond its scope. The international, and especially American, reader would have benefited if this book had been edited for a special American version rather than published as a straight translation from the Hebrew.

Several themes of interest are teasingly touched on but not elaborated. We are reminded, for instance, that Baruch Goldstein, the man who indiscriminately opened fire on Palestinian worshippers in Hebron (killing twenty-nine and wounding more than a hundred) and around whom a cult of hero worship has developed, was from Brooklyn, New York. But there is no discussion here of the overrepresentation of American Jews among the ideological settler hard core. The financial and political support from certain U.S. groups (both Jewish and evangelical) that is enjoyed by the settlers makes a frustratingly truncated appearance. The book’s most glaring problem is the lack of a systematic discussion of U.S. policy toward the settlements over the last forty years. (In the run-up to Annapolis, for instance, a repetitive historical pattern of Israeli behavior was on show againa pattern that flits between humiliating provocation and polite avoidance but never amounts to the cessation of an activity that contravenes U.S. policy.)

What we do get from Eldar and Zertal is a highly informative, accurate, and well-sourced account of Israel’s own March of Folly. We learn that there are already “two separate states for two hostile peoples” and that they exist in the West Bank itself, “[where] the Palestinians and the settlers have separate systems of roads, services, and laws.” The whole story is there, from the first act of settlement just three months after the conclusion of the 1967 war to the most recent construction of outposts, bypass roads, and separation barrier.

The record of the second Bush administration on the subject is incredibly inauspicious, with regard not only to settlement policy but also the entire Mideast peace process. During George W. Bush’s tenure, the White House has made several public plays on the issue, has been snubbed each timeand then has retreated. First, the 2001 Mitchell Report called on Israel to “freeze all settlement activity.” President Bush’s much-referenced June 2002 speech repeated the call. (“Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop,” he declared.) The “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” launched in 2003, defined a settlement freeze as including natural growth and the dismantling of outposts. Then, when Bush and Sharon exchanged letters in 2004, the American commitment was watered down to “restricting settlement growth” to within “defined construction lines” and “removal of unauthorized outposts.” Coming out of Annapolis, the Bush administration has shown no signs of getting any tougher on the settlement issue.

There is one final point, and it should give Zertal and Eldar’s book an appeal beyond the club of Israel-Palestine specialists: Lords of the Land can be read as a “How-Not-To” guide on counterterrorism. The story of Israel and the territories shreds the playbook on the global war on terror, presenting a world in which real grievances and injustices crucially matter. Far from any glib division of the world into good and evil, terrorism has roots, reasons, and a pastindeed, there is a direct link between settlements, military occupation, and terrorism. Zertal and Eldar explain in great detail why the Al-Aqsa Intifada (the Second Intifada), launched in 2000, might also be called the Settlements War. Massive, disproportionate firepower and military hubris (using the Israel Defense Forces as a club against the enemy, apparently against the wishes of ministerial-level leaders, including the defense minister’s appointed ceasefire negotiator) led to an escalation of violence and the Palestinians’ use of suicide bombings. Similarly, in 1994, Hamas violated their own prohibition against using suicide bombings that indiscriminately target civilians only after the Goldstein outrage against Muslim worshippers in Hebron. In 1996, Hamas ended an ongoing informal truce only following the Israeli liquidation of a leading militant, Yihye Ayasha sequence that was to tragically repeat itself during the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

By the beginning of the new millennium, many Israelis began to understand the absurdity of viewing the occupation as simply a war on Palestinian terror. They understood the urgent need to address legitimate Palestinian grievances. Then along came an angry post-9/11 America, with a stunningly simplistic and misguided framing of the war on terror. This framing is a mistake in whose shadow we all continue to live.

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