How the 'Accidental Empire' Was Born

On October 3, 1967, about five months after the Six-Day War, labor minister Yigal Allon sent written instructions to the director of his ministry's survey department. Printed on simple stationery without the official emblem of the state, they gave the appearance of a routine intra-office memo, but the memo's contents represented a political act of major historic significance.

The labor ministry's survey department was responsible for printing Israel's official maps, and the minister's instruction related to how the state's borders would be drawn. "The Mandate borders and armistice lines," wrote Allon, "are not to be printed on the new maps." Allon ended the letter with the following: "Because I have to bring this decision to the attention of the cabinet this coming Sunday, it will become effective following a telephone call between us - I hope - immediately after the cabinet session."

Journalist and researcher Gershom Gorenberg found the memo in the Allon archive in Yad Tabenkin and included it in his book, which deals with the settlement policy of Israeli governments in the 10 years from the Six-Day War until the Likud came to power. Gorenberg is convinced that the improper manner in which the Green Line was erased from the maps ("without any discussion or government decision") very much resembles the way the governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin made most of the important decisions that laid the foundations for the settlements.

Gorenberg's book, published this week by Times Books in the United States, is called "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." In an interview with Haaretz last week, he said, "The title means that the Labor movement leaders had no organized plan to keep the territories, but even without a plan, they each made major decisions that when taken in aggregate, accidentally created the Israeli empire in the territories."

By May 1977, when the Likud won the elections and Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, there were already 80 settlements in the territories in which 11,000 Israelis lived. Another approximately 40,000 Israelis lived in the Jerusalem neighborhoods across the Green Line. "The Accidental Empire" is based not only on Israeli documents and interviews with the people involved in the establishment of the first settlements, but also on documents he found in American archives and on interviews with American State Department veterans.

Cultural gap

It is this material that makes the most valuable contribution to the book because it sheds light on an aspect of the settlements not yet studied. Gorenberg believes that in the early years after the Six-Day War, the American administration did not grasp the significance of the settlements. "There was a cultural gap that the Americans had trouble bridging. They didn't understand the Zionist concept of 'determining facts on the ground,' which played such an important role in Israel's political culture of those years. What Abba Eban told them in Washington was far more important to them that what was happening in Hebron or Gush Etzion."

And what Eban and the other Israeli diplomats told the Americans did not necessarily correspond with what was actually happening in the West Bank or Golan Heights. Kfar Etzion, for example, was established as a civilian settlement, but was presented to the Americans as a military outpost serving defense needs. Gorenberg describes how an American diplomat once inquired whether the reports regarding the intentions to build a yeshiva, synagogue and kindergarten in Hebron for the settlers staying at the time in the military government building were true; Foreign Ministry official Shlomo Argov gave an evasive answer. The American papers Gorenberg tracked down in the archives clearly show that the American officials were satisfied with these answers. In February 1969, a reporter for Time magazine visited the Kalia Nahal military/agricultural outpost, located on the banks of the Dead Sea, and reported, "The most important person there" is a civilian, an expert on desert agriculture, and that although the new settlements was presented as a military outpost, it was in fact one of the civilian settlements that Israel planned to establish along the Jordan Valley. A minor diplomat in the American Embassy in Tel Aviv who was sent in wake of the article to see what was going on in the Jordan Valley later reported that the article had "greatly exaggerated." All Israel had done, he wrote, was to establish two tiny, unimportant points.

A few months later, in advance of prime minister Golda Meir's first visit to Washington, president Richard Nixon received a memo from secretary of state William Rogers suggesting that he raise the matter of the settlements and tell her that they were "detrimental to Israel's image." Nixon apparently felt that even this mild statement was too far-reaching: In his talks with Meir, he refrained from touching the subject. "It is completely obvious that the Israelis deceived the Americans," says Gorenberg. "But it is equally clear that it was very convenient for the Americans to be deceived. They were preoccupied with the Vietnam War, and viewed the whole world only through the prism of the Cold War." Their position, he says, began to gradually change after the Yom Kippur War, when they realized that the settlements established on the Golan Heights and Jordan Valley interfered with the interim agreements they sought to advance between Israel and Syria and Jordan.

It all began at the Western Wall

Gershom Gorenberg, 50, was born in the United States and immigrated to Israel in the early 1970s. Once a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, he is today an editor and columnist for the Jerusalem Report. He also writes articles in The New York Times weekly supplement and commentary for The Washington Post. This is his second book. His first, published six years ago, was about the Jewish-Muslim struggle over control of the Temple Mount.

Gorenberg says that during his work on the book, he encountered "lots of Israeli acquaintances" who could not say exactly when Israel began to establish the settlements. "One person thought that it began in Hebron; others claimed that it began in Gush Etzion. Some thought that it all began when the Rabin government capitulated to Gush Emunim at Sebastia, but still others were convinced that the first settlements were established only after Begin was elected."

Gorenberg chose to start the story of the settlements on June 19, 1967, the last day of the Six-Day War. On that Saturday night, three days after the battles in Jerusalem had died down and only hours after they had ended in the Golan Heights, Israel destroyed the buildings in the Mughrabi Quarter just opposite the Western Wall plaza and drove out their Palestinian inhabitants. That is how, says Gorenberg, "The determination of facts on the ground beyond the Green Line began."

"Already there," he says, "one could find many of the characteristics typical of activities in the territories that we see today. The homes were destroyed without a government decision, without an orderly procedure, not according to law and without being able to determine exactly who made the decision. Like many of the activities that would follow, the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter stemmed from the emotional tendencies of the state's leaders to determine facts that would affect the permanent status created on the ground."

Further on, Gorenberg describes how the first settlements in the Golan Heights (July 1967), Gush Etzion (September 1967), the Jordan Valley (late 1967) and Hebron (April 1968) were established in a similar fashion. "They knew perfectly well that they were doing things opposed to international law," he says of the states' then leaders. Some realized that their actions in the territories would create a colonialist and binational reality from which Israel would have a hard time extricating itself. "They were always aware of this problem. Levi Eshkol, for example, constantly talked about how he much he wanted the bride, i.e. the territories, but how he didn't want the dowry that came with her, i.e. the Palestinians in the territories."

Glory days

Why then did Eshkol (and like him, Allon, Yisrael Galili, Golda Meir, Dayan, Peres and others) do what they did? Gorenberg proffers a psychological explanation in addition to the political one. The Six-Day War, he claims, "Suddenly restored the aging leaders of the Labor movement" to the pre-State period, to the days that even in 1967 they considered their glory days. "They forgot that now they were state leaders and they began to determine settlement facts on the ground as if they were back in the days of the Mandate, as if they were acting against the British Mandate government. In other words, they simply began to act against themselves."

This is how, says Gorenberg, the exceptional phenomenon that characterized that entire period came into being. "All the government ministers, without exception, felt obligated to support settlement somewhere in the territories. Their feeling was that in order to feel that you belonged, you had to support some form of settlement - if not in Hebron, then in Gush Etzion, and if not in Gush Etzion, then in the Jordan Valley. Even Pinhas Sapir, who held very dovish views, was forced to declare that he supported settlement in the Golan Heights."

All these processes of course had political roots. A major component in the ruling Labor movement, Ahdut Ha'avoda and the United Kibbutz Movement, of which Galili and Allon were leaders, continued in 1967 to believe, just like on the eve of the establishment of the state, in the idea of the Greater Land of Israel. Another major component of Labor - Rafi, under the leadership of Dayan and Peres - also supported continued Israeli control over all the territories and even threatened, both before and after the Yom Kippur War, to quit the Labor government, join the Likud and bring Begin to power.

In one of the most fascinating parts of the book, Gorenberg describes the settlement dreams that the Labor Party leaders entertained between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Yitzhak Tebenkin, the ideologist of the United Kibbutz Movement, spoke of establishing "hundreds of new kibbutzim" in the West Bank; Yigal Allon spoke of the settlement of 100,000 Israelis in the Jordan Valley; the settlement division of the Jewish Agency made plans to settle 50,000 Jews in the Golan Heights, and Ariel Sharon, the CO Southern Command, spoke of the establishment of dozens of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which would be separated from the Sinai desert by dozens of Jewish settlements that would be established in the Rafah Salient.

"But very soon, it was realized that the Labor Party did not have the manpower needed to realize these dreams," says Gorenberg. "Its leaders wanted to settle the territories, but its public didn't want to be part of this project. The United Kibbutz Movement barely managed to recruit people for the few settlements it had in the Golan Heights and Jordan Valley." Gush Emunim entered into this vacuum after the Yom Kippur War. Gorenberg describes how defense minister Shimon Peres helped the leaders of Gush Emunim force prime minister Rabin and foreign minister Allon to establish settlements in areas that Rabin and Allon had originally wanted to retain as bargaining chops for future negotiations with Jordan - first with the establishment of Ofra and later, with the proposal to move the group that wanted to establish Elon Moreh from the train station in Sebastia to the army camp in Qadum.

Those that refrained after the Six-Day War from determining the Green Line as Israel's sovereign border, writes Gorenberg in the final chapter of his book, had difficulty defending the claim that settlement in Samaria was opposed to international law; those that destroyed the Mughrabi Quarter, drove out the Bedouin from the Rafah Salient, supported settlement in Hebron and accepted settlement in Ofra could only be viewed as hypocrites when they demanded that Gush Emunim respect the rule of law.