The Issue that Won’t Go Away: Interview with Gershom Gorenberg


Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist, is author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977" (2006, Times Books). Forty years after the war that ignited it, Gorenberg talked to The Jewish Week about the rise of the settlers’ movement and what it has meant for the Jewish state.

The Jewish Week: You write that the extensive network of settlements represents an "Accidental Empire." What do you mean by that?

Gershom Gorenberg: Basically, that the Six-Day War was not something that Israel planned or expected. The lands ended up in Israel’s hands without advance
planning, without a real strategy. In addition to that, in the first years after the war the Israeli government suffered from strong political paralysis in terms of coming to decisions about the future of those territories.

There were people in the government who clearly wanted these lands, there were others who wanted settlements only in some areas and there were still others who had great doubts about it. But the tremendous advantage that the advocates had was that they could do something about it.

They knew they could follow the old pre-state Israeli method of creating facts on the ground. Once a settlement existed, it would continue being developed. But opponents were in the position of just speaking, and words were never as strong as houses and fields and fences.

In a situation of indecision, there was a very strong tactical advantage for the advocates of settlement.

Since then, what have been the real landmarks in the expansion of settlements?

The first settlement in occupied territory was established in the Golan Heights in July, 1967, and the first settlement in the West Bank in September. And then the arrival of the first settlers in Hebron in April, 1968; that was the first time Israeli settlers made the effort to settle within a Palestinian city.

The next major turning point was the success under the first Rabin administration by Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the religious settlers movement, in establishing two settlements in the northern West Bank. That shattered longstanding Labor Party policy of avoiding settlements in heavily populated Palestinian areas.

At that point the government was losing control of settlement policy, a critical element of Israeli foreign affairs and defense policy, to non-elected activist groups.

How did policy change with the election of Menachem Begin and the establishment of the first Likud government in 1977?

What changed was that for the first time, you had a government in power that clearly advocated Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank, and which was committed to drastically stepping up settlement efforts both by supporting the Gush Emunim radicals and by creating suburbs that drew middle-of-the-road, middle-class Israelis to settlements for a better standard of living.

But there was another landmark in 1982, when for the first time settlements were evacuated as part of the peace treaty with Egypt. That was a critical moment because it demonstrated that settlements were not necessarily permanent facts, and that a solid peace agreement could lead to the evacuation of settlements.

Still, after that you had a steady rise in the settlement population, a rise that was not stopped by the Oslo agreement or the first or second intifadas.

What role did former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon play in the settlement effort?

He was a major figure. When he was still in the army in the early ‘70s, he pushed his plans for the Gaza strip and a conception in which settlements would break up major centers of population and remove the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian entity.

Once Likud took power in 1977, he essentially became the settlement czar, and he followed the policy of creating fingers of Israeli settlement dividing Palestinian population centers.

The impact of Sharon’s map can be seen in the fragmented territories that were turned over to the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo agreement. Sharon opposed Oslo, but his placement of settlements largely determined the Oslo map. And Sharon’s map was a critical factor in the collapse of Oslo.

Why have Israeli leaders been so unwilling or so unable to deal with the settlements issue?

It has to do with the fact that before 1948, before Israeli independence, settlement was a crucial means toward achieving the Zionist project, a means so central that it was transformed into a value. Initially, settlement served the purpose of returning Jews not only to their homeland but to the physical life of agriculture, a central goal of the Labor Zionist movement.

Settlement extended the territorial reach of Zionists within Mandatory Palestinian, and therefore improved the Jews’ position leading up to Partition. Settlements served as the base of the nascent then-underground Jewish army.

For all these reasons, settlement became a Zionist value. After 1948, it became a value that had outlived its usefulness. In 1967, when Israel conquered the Golan and the West Bank and Gaza and Sinai, this now-anachronistic value was still there. When people acted according to that value, it was very difficult for leaders to oppose it because it had a kind of secular sanctity in Israeli society.

In this country, the image of Israeli settlers is largely one of religious zealots and political extremists. What is the political and religious demography of settlements today?

All we have are estimates, but it would appear that roughly a quarter of the settlement movement belongs to the kind of Orthodox nationalist culture that people associate with settlers. A larger proportion of the settlers are Israelis who have moved to settlements for quality of life, mostly settlements close to the Green Line. They are people who have responded to an extremely extensive campaign of government subsidies.

For middle-class Israelis, the settlements were the first place where it was really possible to have a private home and a backyard. That’s a very significant part of the settler population.

Another significant factor, in recent years, has been ultra-Orthodox Jews. Several large settlements have been built close to the Green Line that provide inexpensive, highly subsidized housing to the ultra-Orthodox community, which because of its low employment levels and high birthrate has a terrible housing shortage.

How has the expansion of settlements affected the political culture in Israel?

The issue of the settlements and territories has overwhelmed every other issue in Israeli politics. That means that the political debate on issues critical to Israel’s future has become impoverished. The fact we have this issue with the settlements does not mean we don’t have major issues of education, poverty, economic disparity and health, but they are not getting the attention they need.

Do 40 years of this accidental empire make a peace agreement with the Palestinians impossible?

Not at all. And with all the depressing things we can concentrate on, I want to point one thing out: we are in a very different situation than we were 20 years ago. Then, if you said you were for a Palestinian state, you were on the radical fringe. Now, that’s an accepted idea in Israel. And among the Palestinians there is a much more widespread acceptance of the existence of Israel inside the 1967 borders. So I think a peace agreement is possible, for the reason that it is essential for the future of Israel and the Palestinian people. Our ability to create a future for ourselves depends on it.