The Etzion Illusion

The history of Kfar Etzion is a story of deception, illegality with knowledge aforethought, and failed political thinking.

History - the history everyone thinks they know - misleads us. Take the story of Kfar Etzion, the first Israeli settlement in the West Bank, established 41 years ago this week.

In the Israeli consciousness, Kfar Etzion has played a double role. On one hand, it has been the ultimate "consensus settlement." After all, the settlers returned to the site of a kibbutz that was overrun, along with the rest of the Etzion Bloc, on the eve of Israel's independence. Even veteran opponents of settling in occupied territory shrug, smile and say "that's different" when the Etzion Bloc is mentioned.

On the other hand, Kfar Etzion is seen as the starting point of the religious, messianic settler movement. In the narrative accepted by both supporters and opponents of that movement, a group of young religious Jews imposed its will on Levi Eshkol's hesitant government. And that was an omen of what was to come.

But the accepted understanding of the return to Kfar Etzion is built on mistakes and deceptions. The Kfar Etzion settlers did not defeat Eshkol. Rather, they broke through an open doorway.

As archival documents testify, Eshkol conducted a typical argument with himself in the summer of 1967, then firmly decided to push settlement at Kfar Etzion. That July, when he received a top-secret memorandum on options for the West Bank's future, Eshkol wrote only one comment in the margins - concerning the Etzion Bloc and Beit Ha'arava, a kibbutz abandoned in 1948.

Eshkol, a veteran of Labor Zionist settlement, was interested in reestablishing lost kibbutzim. In September he received a report, apparently at his request, from the Jewish Agency on the economic basis for settlement in the Etzion Bloc. Meanwhile, he requested and received a secret opinion on the legal aspects of settlement in the territories, particularly in the Etzion area. A few days later, he informed the cabinet that he had approved letting children of the original Etzion Bloc residents settle there.

The survivors of the Etzion Bloc and their children knew nothing of this. They saw his decision as a response to their pressure. But the memory of secular politicians being dragged along by settlers conceals the partnership that was actually created between them.

As for that legal opinion: It was written by Foreign Ministry legal counsel Theodor Meron, a Holocaust survivor with a doctorate in international law from Harvard. Meron was the government's top expert in the field. A decade later, he accepted an academic appointment in the United States and became a world-renowned authority on international law. Today he is a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

His status gives particular weight to the words he wrote 41 years ago: "My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention."

Put simply, Meron warned in advance that settlement in the territories was illegal. The claim that the West Bank was not "normal" occupied territory would not stand up internationally, he wrote. On the other hand, he said that "settlement by military bodies" having "a temporary, not permanent, character" was permissible.

Eshkol exploited that opening. The public, and Israel's representatives at the United Nations, were told that Kfar Etzion would be an outpost of Nahal, the army branch combining active duty with settlement training.

A secret military order dated September 27, 1967, the day the settlement was established, says the tie between Kfar Etzion and Nahal is "a 'cover' for purposes of the diplomatic battle," but "there is no intention of practical steps by the Israel Defense Forces to implement this 'cover.'" This was deception, carried out under orders, intended to hide a violation of international law.

But the most basic self-deception involves the emotion that drove the decision to resettle the Etzion Bloc and created a consensus supporting it. The feeling was that those who lost their homes must return. Settlements that fell and were etched in national memory must be reestablished. If the refugees themselves or their descendants were not interested in going back, other Jews would "return" in their place.

In other words, the right of return for 1948 refugees was taken as self-evident - if the refugees were Jews. That became a diplomatic position. In negotiations, no Israeli representative would dream of giving up the Etzion Bloc. Rather, the Arab side will have to accept our emotional tie to the place. This is sloppy and dangerous strategic thinking. Can there be a greater folly than Israel insisting on reopening the file of 1948 and returning all the refugees to their homes?

The real history of Kfar Etzion is a story of collaboration between settlers and a political leadership that saw settlement as a sacred value. It is a story of deception, illegality with knowledge aforethought, and failed political thinking. And in that way, it was indeed an omen of what was to come.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.