Lords of the Land by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Nation Books.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority officially resumed final status negotiations last month for the first time in seven years, hoping to reach a global agreement by the end of 2008, as set out by last November’s Arab-Israeli peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
The talks, the first of many more to come, will deal with such core issues as Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
By any measure, this is a devilishly thorny issue, complicated by the fact that the West Bank – excluding territory in eastern Jerusalem annexed by Israel after the Six Day War – is home to about 270,000 Israeli Jews, most of whom would fiercely resist repatriation back to Israel.
In Lords of the Land, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar delve into this highly charged topic from a left-of-centre perspective.
Zertal is an Israeli historian who has written two books about the Holocaust and currently teaches at the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Basel. Eldar is the chief political columnist and editorial writer for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Proceeding from the assumption that the settlements have prolonged Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, they argue that the occupation contravenes international law (which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its citizens into an occupied territory). The Israeli government, hewing to the belief that the West Bank is disputed territory, claims it is not in violation of the Geneva Convention.
Not buying this argument, Zertal and Eldar say that the occupation – a guarantor of the settlements’ continued existence – has sullied Israel’s image, rendered a rapprochement with the Palestinians all the harder to achieve, corroded Israeli morality and now threatens Israel’s status as a democratic Jewish state.
Their view of the security barrier – which in part is being built to ensure that the major settlements remain in Israel’s hands, even if a deal with the Palestinians is actually signed – is similarly jaundiced. Taken together with the web of roadblocks Israel has set up, the security fence thwarts the free movement of Palestinians and separates them from their lands, institutions and relatives.
All this is true, but Zertal and Eldar do not pay sufficient attention to the problem that originally prompted Israel to build the security fence – the prevalence of Palestinian terrorism.
In this respect, their ideological proclivities occasionally cloud their judgment, but on the whole, Lords of the Land remains one of the most comprehensive works on the subject.
The authors maintain that the Israeli government, even when it was ambivalent, sanctioned the construction of the settlements through a piecemeal process of deception, concealment and denial. In short, Israel adopted “a policy of ambiguity and vagueness” while refraining from annexing the West Bank.
From the outset, they observe, it was clear that Israeli settlements in the new territories would have far-reaching implications. Some believed that they could be used as a lever to extract Arab recognition of Israel, while others saw them as a way to block future talks with the Arabs. The official government line was that they could be an asset in Arab-Israeli negotiations.
The Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, recommended shortly after the Six Day War that a Palestinian state, based on the 1949 truce lines, with minor adjustments, should be established under the auspices of the Israeli army and in agreement with the Palestinian leadership. If the Mossad’s suggestion had been taken seriously, not a single Israeli settlement would have gone up.
Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defence minister, was at odds with the Mossad and insisted that Israel should build settlements along the hilltops that overlook Israel’s heavily populated coastal plain. Yigal Allon, a War of Independence commander who would be Israel’s foreign minister, took a tougher approach, warning against the return of a single inch of the West Bank and claiming that a peace treaty with the Arabs was “the weakest guarantee of the future.”
As these debates raged, they write, Hannan Porat, a Zionist from the national religious camp whom the authors describe as “the first settler,” urged the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, to “restore the former glory of the Etzion bloc,” a string of Jewish settlements that had been overrun by the Arab Legion in the 1948 war.
Eshkol, a moderate, regarded the idea as a one-time gesture to the descendants of settlers who had been killed in Gush Etzion. “Yet this modest move proved to be but the first step in a long march and a huge project,” write Zertal and Eldar.
Once Gush Etzion was in the pipeline, there was no stopping dedicated and driven people who shared Porat’s zeal. By stealth, Rabbi Moshe Levinger brought Jews back to Hebron. Gush Emunim, formed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, created a model settlement in Ofra.
Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister after the 1973 war, regarded the settlement movement as “a very grave phenomenon, a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy.” Yet in the Sebastia affair, which the writers call a turning point in the history of the settlements, he approved the establishment of the pivotal Kedumim outpost.
Menachem Begin, the first Likud prime minister, had no such qualms. “These are liberated territories, which belong to the Jewish people,” he declared. “The new government will call upon young people to come and settle the land.”
True to his word, Begin appointed his agricultural minister, Ariel Sharon, to reshape the map of the territories. Pledging to settle two million Jews there by the end of the 20th century, he oversaw the construction of numerous new settlements, all of which were designed to thwart the emergence of a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. Sharon’s successor, Yuval Ne’man, was just as committed to these objectives, Zertal and Eldar say.
By the end of 1983, the Likud government had approved the construction of 103 settlements, compared to 22 built in the first decade of the occupation. Begin’s hard-as-nails successor, Yitzhak Shamir, considered the settlements “a domestic Israeli matter.”
Rabin, in his second term of office, imposed restrictions on the expansion of settlements, but his freeze did not apply to the greater Jerusalem area or the Jordan Valley. Peres, who succeeded Rabin, poured yet more funds into the territories, while the next two prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, stepped up the pace of construction.
Zertal and Eldar contend that the settlements, more than any other factor, determined Israel’s position during the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000. Barak, for example, insisted on keeping settlement blocs where 80 per cent of settlers live.
And judging by his most recent statements, the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has a similar policy.
It’s clear that the settlements will have an enormous impact on the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Only two weeks ago, following a donors conference in Paris to aid the Palestinians attain statehood, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, called on Israel to halt all settlement activity.
In Lords of the Land, Zertal and Eldar place the topic in context and explain precisely why this crucial issue must be resolved once and for all.