Israeli Settlements: The Real Story

It’s go back 50 years, to mid-July 1967: A jeep arrives at an abandoned Syrian army base in the Golan Heights. A man jumps out. He’s 24, a shepherd from a determinedly secular, left-wing kibbutz in the Galilee. Feeling adventurous, he has joined a group that will establish a new kibbutz in the Heights, part of the territory that Israel conquered a month before.

He’s the first to arrive—which also makes him the first Israeli settler in occupied territory.

So began the Great Entanglement. Today more than 600,000 Israelis live in land conquered in June 1967 in six days of fighting with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

The victory created a temporary military occupation and the potential for Israel to negotiate for peace from a position of strength. It’s the settlement enterprise that has chained Israel to occupied territory. It’s settlement that creates a two-tier legal and political regime in the West Bank—Israelis living with the rights of citizens; Palestinians without those rights. It’s settlement that steadily undercuts Israel’s status as a democracy.

Outside of declaring its independence in 1948, starting to settle its citizens in the occupied territories may be the most consequential act in Israel’s history.

The founding of the kibbutz in the Golan Heights makes clear a fundamental fact about the settlement project: It began as an initiative of the left-of-center, secular political forces that dominated Israel in 1967, and later accelerated as a project of the mostly secular right-wing forces that have held power for most of the years since 1977.

There was no ceremony on July 16, 1967, no press release, no media coverage. The moment of beginning went unreported then—and it is still almost entirely absent from the popularly accepted history of settlement, as told in Israel and as reflected in foreign news coverage. This isn’t just an academic dispute: This mis-telling of history warps debate in Israel, and perhaps beyond, about making peace with the Palestinians.

 

IF YOU’D LIKE TO get the classic, inaccurate Israeli narrative of settlement in two hours, watch The Settlers, a documentary released this past year in time for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war.

The film tells us, correctly, that the “joy of victory … consumed many Israelis” after the Six-Day War. But from there on, The Settlers focuses on the young followers of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the charismatic teacher of a nationalist theology. Kook’s students believed he had prophesied the conquests in a speech he gave a short time before the war, and they saw settling the “liberated territories” as a divine imperative.

The “first settler”—according to the film, apparently quoting earlier versions of the same story—was Hanan Porat, a student of Kook. In late September 1967, Porat led an Orthodox group to settle between Hebron and Bethlehem in the West Bank. They reestablished Kfar Etzion, a religious kibbutz that had fallen to Arab forces on the eve of Israel’s independence. In the film’s portrayal—again, echoing many others—Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was reluctant to allow the project, but approved it when he learned that the settlers had loaded trucks with supplies and planned to go ahead regardless of what he said.

From that opening, the film’s narrative skips ahead to the spring of 1968, when another Kook follower, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, brought a group of religious nationalists to settle in the Palestinian city of Hebron, again overcoming resistance from a weak Israeli government. The chapter after that is set in 1975: The new Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement, led by Porat, Levinger, and others, led illegal settlement attempts near the village of Sebastia in the northern West Bank. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres folded under their pressure and allowed a small group of settlers to remain. Many thousands of Gush Emunim supporters would follow in the years to come, establishing dozens of settlements.

A strange irony of this origin tale is that it recasts some of the icons of Israeli toughness—such as Rabin, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan—as nebbishes who cede policy to a fringe group of extremists.

The Settlers, a two-hour film, pauses briefly to tell us about the Allon Plan, the postwar strategy put forward by Labor politician Yigal Allon. The plan called for building Israeli settlements in the sparsely populated area along the Jordan River, while refraining from settling in the more heavily populated mountains of the West Bank. Another brief interlude in the film is devoted to Israelis who move to the West Bank for reasons of comfort rather than ideology. In settlements, they can afford homes much larger than what their money would buy inside the Green Line, the pre-1967 border.

Overwhelmingly, though, the film pictures settlers as religious nationalists, from Porat to today’s far-right extremists. All this fits Israeli popular perceptions. In media debate, “settler” is practically a synonym for Orthodox nationalist. For years, I’ve given a one-question history test to well-informed Israelis, asking them what the first settlement was. With few exceptions, their answer is Kfar Etzion, Hebron, or Sebastia.

The problem with this account is that it mistakes the supporting actors for the stars. Religious nationalists have played a key role in the settlement saga—but as the fractious clients of Israel’s major parties, Labor and the Likud. Those parties, and their leaders, are the main characters in the drama.

Take that first kibbutz in the Golan Heights. Its founders were followers of Yitzhak Tabenkin, the octogenarian ideologue of the Ahdut Ha’avodah (Unity of Labor) Party, then an important faction of the Zionist left. Tabenkin saw rural communes, kibbutzim, as the means to build socialism from the bottom up. Tabenkin also saw the Jewish homeland—the Land of Israel—as extending well beyond the borders of pre-1948 Mandatory Palestine, which were the invention of European imperialists. The narrower borders of independent Israel were even less satisfying. The fighting had barely ended in June 1967 when Tabenkin began urging massive settlement in the newly conquered land.

One of Tabenkin’s disciples was Yigal Allon. After the war, Allon stunned his comrades when he proposed giving up the most populated parts of the West Bank. Allon thought this was necessary to avoid turning Israel into a binational state. At the same time, as a minister in Eshkol’s government, he aggressively pushed for settlement in areas he wanted to keep. He channeled ministry funds to the Golan kibbutz, and pushed for settlement in Hebron.

Allon’s lifelong rival, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, advocated building Israeli towns in precisely the land that Allon wanted to relinquish. He proposed giving West Bank Arabs limited autonomy, or creating an Israeli-Jordanian condominium in that territory. Either way, the goal was to maintain overall Israeli rule and allow settlement without giving citizenship to the Palestinians living there. Dayan’s younger ally, Shimon Peres, held those ideas as well.

Eshkol himself had two immediate priorities after the war in 1967: building Jewish neighborhoods in annexed East Jerusalem, and returning Jews to the handful of spots in the West Bank where they had lived before 1948, including Kfar Etzion. Porat and his religious nationalist friends weren’t overcoming Eshkol’s resistance; they were providing him with the warm bodies needed to carry out his goals.

Early in 1968, three left-of-center parties merged, bringing Eshkol, Allon, and Dayan all into the new Labor Party. The arguments within the party, and within the government it led, were over where to build settlements in occupied territory, not whether to do so. Eshkol, for the most part, agreed with Allon’s strategy. So did his Labor successors as prime minister, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.

Religious nationalists were just one source of recruits for settlement. The partnership between them and the government was sometimes strained by a public dispute—again, over where to settle. That’s what happened at Sebastia. One reason that Rabin compromised with Gush Emunim is that his own party was in danger of splitting. The Peres faction was closer to Gush Emunim than to Rabin.

In the big picture, though, settlement was a government project. The Allon Plan wasn’t a sidelight; it was Labor governments’ blueprint for settlement-building.

The clash over where to settle had an element of the absurd. Allon was convinced it was possible to reach peace with Jordan on the basis of his map. The religious nationalists wanted to prevent such an agreement by settling in areas that the government seemed willing to give up. Allon’s confidence remained completely undented by his 1968 contacts with Jordan’s King Hussein, the Arab leader most eager to make peace. At a secret meeting with the king in London, Allon presented his maps. Hussein rejected Allon’s idea and, to leave no doubt, followed up with a position paper saying that the proposal was “wholly unacceptable.”

That exchange has defined the real parameters of Israeli-Arab peace contacts ever since. The 1967 war convinced most Arab leaders—some immediately, some later—that Israel’s existence and its pre-1967 borders had to be accepted. King Hussein’s position that any border changes had to be based on a one-to-one exchange of land later became a principle in Israeli–Palestinian negotiations. Under those parameters, Labor’s settlements along the Jordan River were just as much a barrier to peace as Gush Emunim’s settlements elsewhere.

By the time Labor lost power to the Likud in 1977, it had established close to 80 settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan. The Likud built on that foundation, but built much faster. Its map, drawn by Ariel Sharon, deliberately created bands of settlements between Palestinian cities. The result was that Palestinians lived in enclaves surrounded by settlements.

The Likud used two different kinds of settlements to draw Israelis into the West Bank. One was small, members-only communities, many of them deep in occupied territory. These attracted the Orthodox nationalists who fit the public stereotype of settlers. The other was larger settlements with a classic suburban appeal: A young family could get more home for less money.

The “quality of life” suburbanites can’t be squeezed into the standard settler stereotype. Many are secular. Some are ultra-Orthodox Jews, who don’t buy into the theology of religious nationalism. But with large families and small budgets, they find the cheap housing in settlements irresistible. The two largest settlements are ultra-Orthodox, and account for nearly a fifth of all settlers. For that matter, one-third of all Israelis in occupied territory live in the Jewish neighborhoods of annexed East Jerusalem. In mainstream Israeli discourse, they are almost never referred to as settlers.

What all these people have in common is that they live where they do because of fifty years of government policy.

 

GIVEN THE FACTS, WHAT explains the staying power of the classic narrative of settlement as a religious project?

For one thing, first impressions have staying power. In this case, the first impressions were formed by news coverage in the early months and years of settlement. And the government then tried its best to minimize coverage.

The ruling parties of the Zionist left had a tradition going back to pre-independence days of quietly “establishing facts.” When it came to settlement, Labor’s motto could have been “Speak little and carry a big hoe.” Yisrael Galili, the settlement czar under prime ministers Meir and Rabin, was particularly obsessed with secrecy.

Being in power made acting quietly easier, especially in an era when the Israeli press was much tamer than it is today. Much of the account I’ve given here of Labor’s settlement effort is based on internal government documents that remained classified for 30 years or more. Hanan Porat, the supposed “first settler,” sincerely believed that he’d forced Eshkol’s hand, but wasn’t privy to the prime minister’s office files.

In contrast to the Labor governments, the young religious activists loved publicity and the glory of being rebels. They happily told their version of events. While researching settlement history, I found that most published accounts of the founding of Kfar Etzion could be traced back to Porat and a couple of his activist colleagues.

Quite naturally, confrontations drew media coverage. So the face-off at Sebastia between Gush Emunim and the Rabin government filled the Israeli press in December 1975. Government settlement efforts elsewhere got less attention.

Another factor: The Kulturkampf between ideological secularism and Orthodoxy has always been an intensely emotional feature of Israeli politics. There’s a tendency to map the debate about settlement onto the religious-secular divide. This makes the political picture simpler—and deceptive. The original Labor advocates of settlement fade from sight. Even Likud leaders such as Sharon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become enigmas.

There are also valid reasons for paying particular attention to religious settlers today, as long as you don’t ignore the rest. The extremists who have engaged in violence against Palestinians come from the religious camp. And if there is a peace agreement, the most extreme religious settlers pose the greatest risk of violent resistance to evacuation.

 

ONE DUBIOUS ASSUMPTION that pervades Israeli politics, especially the center and center-left of the spectrum, is that the religious settlements would have to go in a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, while quality-of-life settlements, at least those in large “settlement blocs,” could stay put. After all, those settlement blocs are simply too big to evacuate, and don’t intrude too deeply into the West Bank. The reasoning here is that territorial concessions by the Palestinians, or territorial exchanges, would allow Israel to keep those blocs.

By this logic, the religious settlements are the obstacle to peace; the “consensus” settlement blocs are not.

It’s true that small religious settlements are scattered throughout the West Bank, far from the pre-1967 border. They stand in the way of any imaginable peace agreement. But what about the “quality of life” town of Ariel, home to 19,000 Israelis and the anchor of one of those supposed blocs? For Israel to hold Ariel would mean annexing a finger of territory sticking deep into the West Bank. The town of Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, has over 37,000 residents and is the core of another such bloc. But connecting it to Israel would mean annexing more land and creating another finger of territory that practically divides the West Bank in two.

The distinction between religious settlements and settlement blocs, then, repeats the error built into the Israeli political debate during the first years of the occupation. Back then, the self-deception was that Allon Plan settlements posed no impediment to peace. Jordan would just have to accept that Israel would keep parts of the West Bank. Now the myth is that Israel will be able to keep the blocs—which means annexing pieces of land outside its pre-1967 borders.

In reality, no one knows which settlements, if any, Israel would be able to retain under a peace agreement. Judging from the brief periods of serious final-status talks over the years, the baseline for new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be the Green Line. Negotiations could lead to small exchanges, with Israel giving up bits of its pre-1967 territory in return for equal-sized bits of the West Bank. But even if that happens, the amount of land involved, and the number of settlements saved, is certain to fall far short of the expectations created by the talk of keeping the settlement blocs.

The narrative that focuses exclusively on religious settlement is more than an academic error. It stands in the way of Israel coming to terms with what happened in 1967 and after: Settling Israelis in occupied territory wasn’t imposed by a radical fringe. It was a national policy, for which the country’s major political camps—Labor as much as the Likud—share responsibility.

Even worse, the distorted telling of the past continues to distract attention from the hard political reality of today: Any home, built in any settlement, makes it harder to negotiate peace. It’s one more knot in the Great Entanglement.

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