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"Adonei ha'aretz: hamitnachlim umidinat yisrael, 1967-2004" ("Lords of the Land: The Settlers and the State of Israel, 1967-2004") by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Kinneret, Zmora Bitan and Dvir, 640 pages, NIS 98

The blurb on the back cover says, "`Lords of the Land' is an upsetting and infuriating book." This is certainly an apt description, but even more than this, it is a saddening book - saddening for those who care about the fate and future of Israeli democracy. The story of Jewish settlement in the territories is also the story of the slide of democracy down a slippery slope, and of the possibility that it might disappear altogether if it hits the bottom.

Poring over more than 600 pages, the reader learns that the occupation and the settlement enterprise that followed it have brought Israel dangerously close to that rock-bottom state. What began with euphoria in June 1967, when various parts of the homeland were "liberated" and we returned to "Anatot and Shilo," as Moshe Dayan so poetically put it, has evolved into a national disaster whose end no one knows. What began as "enlightened occupation" has become, in the wake of the settlement enterprise, an ugly, racist occupation. Its standard-bearers, the settlers, have become "lords of the land," crudely trampling not only on the basic human rights of their Palestinian neighbors but on the fundamental norms of Israeli democracy.

But to blame the situation in the territories since 1967 and the serious blow to democracy entirely on the settlers is an easy way out, not to mention a grievous error. As Zertal and Eldar point out, "the development of the settlements would not have been possible without the massive aid from various government agencies, the legal stamp of approval, and the warm, but also pragmatic relationship forged between the settlers and the top military brass." Indeed, every Israeli government that has come to power, every branch of the legal establishment, all branches of the Israeli army - all have helped the settlement enterprise in the territories to flourish. Some happily, others with mild protest, some closing an eye and adding a sly wink, others by defiantly ignoring gross violations of the law. No one is blameless.

It began with the Eshkol administration, which commenced the business of settlement after Israel's euphoric victory in the Six-Day War, and continued through the first term of Yitzhak Rabin, whose defense minister, Shimon Peres, cooperated with Gush Emunim and paved the way for the illegal squatting of the Sebastia settlers. In the days of Ehud Barak, building in the territories chalked up its steepest rise since Oslo. Ariel Sharon talked about painful concessions, but continued to expand those settlements closest to his heart, strengthening his cantonization plans and channeling colossal sums of money into existing settlements to lay the foundation for "new neighborhoods."

It is particularly saddening to see the contribution of the justice system - from the government's legal advisors to the military prosecutors, the office of the attorney general, the courts and the law professors - to rubber-stamping occupation and settlement. It is saddening to see its embrace of objectionable, anti-democratic norms, and its accepting attitude toward "the settlers' violations of the law and the absence of law enforcement." Again, no one gets off the hook - not judges like Uri Strussman, who sentenced Nissan Ishgoyev to six months' community service for firing into an alleyway where teenagers had been throwing stones, killing one of them. Not Ezra Hadaya, who imposed four months of community service on Pinhas Wallerstein for chasing teenagers, who were burning tires on the road, shooting one of them in the back and killing him. Not Ruth Orr, who acquitted Nahum Korman of causing the death of Hilmi Shusha by kicking him in the head, stepping on the boy's neck and pistol-whipping him. And not Ya'acov Bazak, who empathized with members of the Jewish underground, who murdered Islamic College students, planted bombs in the cars of West Bank mayors and planned to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount, potentially siccing the whole of the Muslim world on Israel. These "good people, fired by faith," touched his heart.

Judge Finkelman, who sat on the bench together with Bazak, described Yeshua Ben-Shushan, the brains behind the plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, as a Jewish hero. Most members of the group got off with light sentences and all of them - even those convicted of murder - were released from prison within a short time.

Erosion of norms

Even more infuriating than the rulings are the judges' reasons for handing them down. Judge Hadaya takes the cake with his astonishing explanation for not imposing a heavier penalty on Wallerstein. He was guided by the famous adage about not judging your fellow man until you are in his shoes. "With that statement the judge effectively undermined the whole act of bringing someone to trial," write Zertal and Eldar.

Clearly, the judges permitted themselves to deliver such rulings because they know that Israeli society has made its peace with the gradual but continuous erosion of democratic norms, and with the state of affairs in the territories astutely described by law professor- politician Amnon Rubinstein. In the territories, observed Rubinstein, "there are Israeli citizens with full rights and non-citizen non-Israelis with non-rights."

Only against this backdrop can we understand the audacity of Plia Albeck, a senior lawyer in the attorney general's office. Coaching the Tel Aviv district attorney's office on how to respond to a Palestinian who sued for damages in October 1991 after his wife was shot to death by an Israeli Border Policeman, Albeck said: "The appellant only gained from his wife's death. When she was alive, he had to support her, but now he is freed from this obligation, so he has no claim."

But Albeck was not operating in a vacuum. Above her were ministers and legal advisers whom she represented and who had no problems with such an approach. Then-justice minister Dan Meridor reprimanded her, but she was not shown the door. During her heyday, which lasted more than a decade, she served under then-attorney generals Aharon Barak and Yitzhak Zamir.

Above all, however, the story of the settlement enterprise is Ariel Sharon's story. While there have been many partners in the campaign to settle beyond the Green Line, none have been as influential as Sharon. His influence can be traced back to the eviction of the Bedouin from the Rafiah Salient to make way for settlements when he headed the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command. It can be traced to his support of the Gush Emunim settlers who refused to leave Sebastia when he was an adviser to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and to his call in 1975 to disrupt the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "Settlements should be going up every day to prove to the Americans that the Rabin administration has no mandate from the people to withdraw from Judea and Samaria," he declared at the time.

And then, of course, there were the assorted positions he held in the Likud administrations, which placed him in charge of settlement activity in the territories. He worked tirelessly to establish settlements on every hilltop and to insure that no future agreement could be reached. As foreign minister in the Netanyahu government, after returning from the Wye talks, he urged the settlers to take control of the hilltops of the West Bank to prevent the land from being returned to the Palestinians. One could go on and on, because the settlement enterprise in the territories was created in the image of Ariel Sharon. "Sharon was its Herod."

`Shocking price tag'

But Sharon's influence has gone far beyond shaping the settlement map of the territories. He was responsible for the "shocking price tag" of the second intifada, triggered by his visit to the Temple Mount in late September 2000, and for the "shortsighted, impulsive planning of the route of the separation fence." Even the civil war now threatening the State of Israel is Sharon's baby.

Like the hero of a Greek tragedy, Sharon has been forced to undergo "a painful dialectic process" and to confront the outcome of his own actions. There is a price to pay for building settlements and being an occupier. The prime minister is reaping today what he has sowed for the last four decades. After calling upon soldiers not to obey orders to evacuate the Hawara settlers in 1974, he is now watching the harmful repercussions of military disobedience from the other side of the fence. After running roughshod over the laws of the state and refusing to bow to the decisions of the government, even one to which he belonged, he is now faced with copycat followers and proteges who are building illegal outposts on those same hilltops he urged his countrymen to settle.

The settlers, who once hailed Sharon as their hero, "now lump him together with the leaders of the Nazi regime, the heads of the Israeli left, Mussolini, Sabbatai Sevi and the Pied Piper of Hamelin." History is taking its sweet revenge. Sharon, who incited against every prime minister and contributed in no small measure to the volatile atmosphere on the eve of Rabin's assassination, is now looking at rabbis who have thrown caution to the wind and are issuing religious rulings that sanction violence specifically directed against him.

Zertal and Eldar meticulously document the growth of Gush Emunim, its historical and ideological roots, and the unique operational methods it has developed. Gush Emunim "is the most savvy and socially influential political movement since the establishment of the state," they write, as well as "the most dangerous." Indeed, Gush Emunim is a prime example of the ability of a small, well-organized group with an ideology embraced without question by its members to dictate the national, political and social agenda of an entire country.

Ally to foe

The people of Gush Emunim divide the world into two: those who agree with what they are doing and support them, and everyone else. Anyone who deviates from their path, even a former hero, becomes a target of "their cold and calculated hatred." This is what happened to Shimon Peres, for example, who came to the aid of the settlers of Sebastia and helped them make the move to Kadum. From the moment he changed his tune and began to talk about the need for compromise in the territories, he became a bitter enemy. Suddenly, he is "totally alienated from the Jewish people .... This insensitive Polish Jew dares to desecrate the memory of the millions murdered by the Nazis .... He is a Jew who does not feel at home in Israel, a man without a homeland, a godless man" (quoted from an article by Nadia and Ruth Matar in The Jewish Press). Even Menachem Begin, who declared when he came to power that "there will be many more Alon Morehs," did not escape the wrath of Gush Emunim. "When he stopped fulfilling their dream, they turned on him without sentiment or regret." Overnight, he went from ally to foe.

Special ignominy is reserved for the rabbis of Gush Emunim. These rabbis, who receive their salaries from the state, have no qualms about opposing it and everything that Israeli democracy represents. Their rulings based on halakha (traditional Jewish law), their inflammatory rhetoric against the institutions of the state, the racism inherent in their philosophy - all these play a crucial role in legitimizing the disorderly conduct of the settlers and their mockery of the law. Yigal Amir made it clear that he would not have murdered the prime minister if there were no religious rulings to back him up. Until today, none of these rabbis have been brought to justice and they continue to spread incitement, freely and without hindrance.

"No one has been brought to account, publicly or otherwise, for his involvement in the settlement enterprise," write Zertal and Eldar. "Apart from Israeli society growing less democratic, less humane, less rational, and at the same time, poorer and more ridden with hatred and controversy ... the majority of Israelis continue to lead their lives without interruption, while the settlements gradually take over the country and ruin the lives of the Palestinians."

And that is, ultimately, the message of this book. While untenable things are happening in the territories and the occupation is destroying every bright spot in Israeli democracy, life inside the Green Line goes on "without interruption." Therefore, above and beyond all those who have contributed, actively or by default, to the development of this monster known as settlement, a place of honor goes to the indifference of Israeli society.

"Lords of the Land" seeks to shake up this indifference, and therein lies its importance.