Commentary Magazine

What the Settlements Have Achieved

Of all the criticisms that have been leveled at Israel over the Palestinian question, the harshest may be those made of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank. The settlers, it has been said, have robbed the Palestinians of their land; have dealt with them brutally; have thus been responsible for Palestinian terrorism, which the apartheid system of roads and checkpoints that protects them has only made worse; and have twisted the arms of Israel’s governments to expand the settlement project and refuse to part with conquered land in return for the peace agreement that would then be attainable. They are the root of all evil in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could otherwise have been settled long ago.

Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s book about West Bank settlement, Lords of the Land, which first appeared in Hebrew in Israel in 2005 and has now been translated into English, does nothing to challenge these notions.* On the contrary, it adopts them unreservedly. Given Zertal and Eldar’s backgrounds, this is hardly surprising.

Zertal is an Israeli historian on the political Left who now teaches at the University of Basel, Switzerland; her one previous book, From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel, argued that Zionism cynically manipulated the remnants of European Jewry into joining the struggle for a Jewish state in Palestine when they would have been better off remaining in postwar Europe. Eldar is a senior columnist at the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz, in which he writes frequently about Israel and the Palestinians. In this capacity he has untiringly argued that Israel must withdraw to its pre-June 1967 borders and that a refusal to do so is a refusal to make peace.

With two such authors, the fix is in from the start. Although Lords of the Land purports to be a history of the settlement movement, it is more a political attack on it. Already in its opening pages we are told that “the prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have . . . brought Israel’s democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss”; that most of the settlements “look fragile, neglected, ephemeral, as though they lack a vitality of their own” (how so feeble an enterprise could wield so much power is never explained); and that the settlements embody “the culture of death and the cult of death.” Further on, we are informed that the settlers resemble “the ecstatic devotees of a crazed cult”; that “their strangeness to the land . . . and their uncanniness in the landscape [is] evident”; that their claim to a historical connection with the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria is “by definition . . . in the realm of the ‘imagined’”; and so on and so forth. Since this is exactly what most of the world believes about the settlements, Lords of the Land has done well internationally. There is nothing like being told in 500 pages that you’re right.

But even as biased history, Lords of the Land does not begin to cover its subject. The story it tells is not that of Jewish settlement in the West Bank but that of Gush Emunim, the “Bloc of the Faithful,” a militant settlers’ organization founded in the early 1970’s that combined religious fervor with political activism and a readiness to brave physical danger. It was Gush Emunim and its ideological heirs, with their Zionist messianism, that established dozens of small settlements and hilltop outposts deep in the West Bank and that have been frequently in conflict with their Palestinian neighbors and with Israeli governments felt by them to be insufficiently supportive. The stereotype of the West Bank settler as a belligerently bearded Jew with a knit skullcap on his head, a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, is a caricaturized version of the Gush Emunim ideal, and Zertal and Eldar have done all they can to perpetuate it.

And yet such settlers account for barely 10 percent of the more than 400,000 Israelis living today beyond the “green line,” the pre-June 1967 Israeli-Jordanian border. Roughly half of the total reside in urban neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Most of the remainder are in middle-sized towns that are close to the old border and/or within an easy commute of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. An increasingly large proportion of them consists of non- or even anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews who have moved to such rapidly developing locations as Betar Illit and Kiryat Sefer; another sizable element, found in places like Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, is composed mostly of secular Israelis; and a much smaller group inhabits moshavim and kibbutzim, collective farming settlements, in the Jordan Valley.

Few of these 350,000 Israelis have moved to the occupied territories for ideological reasons or have ever been embroiled with local Palestinians or government authorities. Most chose to live where they do because they have purchased affordable housing in well-planned and pleasant communities not far from their places of work. And none of them is dealt with in Zertal and Eldar’s book. As far as Lords of the Land is concerned, West Bank settlement and Gush Emunim are one and the same.



Two different engines drove West Bank settlement from the start. One, of which Gush Emunim was indeed for a while the main representative, was the ideological belief in an “undivided land of Israel.” (This is a better translation of the Hebrew eretz yisra’el ha-sh’lema than the more common “greater land of Israel,” which suggests the acquisition of expanses considerably beyond the slightly over 2,000 square miles, an area the size of the state of Delaware, that comprise the West Bank.) The other was the pragmatic desire to redraw Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders in order to make them militarily more secure. Because these two engines often ran in tandem, they have frequently been confused. Yet no sober thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or its resolution can take place without distinguishing between them.

Despite Zertal and Eldar’s absurd assertion to the contrary, a deep religious and emotional attachment to the land of Israel was not something “imagined” by Gush Emunim. It was part of the patrimony of the Jewish people, which would never have turned to Zionism in the first place had that attachment not existed. As fate would have it, when Israel’s war of independence ended at the 1948-49 ceasefire lines with Jordan, most of the sites most deeply engraved in Jewish historical memory—the old city of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria—were left on the Jordanian side of the frontier, and Jewish access to them was denied.

To think that, when these areas were suddenly and unexpectedly restored to Jewish control in 1967, there could have failed to be a surge of popular sentiment for settling and retaining them is to be ignorant of Jewish history and Jewish feelings. This sentiment crystallized without the help of Gush Emunim, which did not appear on the scene until several years later. While strongest on the political Right, it was by no means confined to it.

Nevertheless, between 1967 and 1974, a period during which Israel’s Arab neighbors repeatedly rejected the possibility of peace with a Jewish state, the Labor governments in power sought to keep a tight rein on non-pragmatically motivated settlement. Leading labor politicians like Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, and Moshe Dayan, although differing in their proposed solutions for the occupied territories, all held that there were political, demographic, and moral restraints on annexing them and that Jews should not be allowed to settle in all parts of them.

At the same time, though, these leaders were determined to address the problem of Israel’s military vulnerability, a consequence of its being pinched to the bone by the 1948-49 ceasefire lines in two sectors: the central coastal plain from Tel Aviv northward, where much of the country’s population was concentrated within ten or twelve miles of the old frontier, and Jerusalem, whose Jewish half and the approach to it had formed a thin wedge surrounded by Jordanian territory. No nation with hostile or potentially hostile neighbors could be safe within such borders, and it was, except on the far Left, a matter of national consensus in those years that there could be no return to them.

In the case of Jerusalem, the situation was partially rectified by the annexation of the city’s Arab neighborhoods and their outskirts immediately following the 1967 war—the only part of the West Bank to be officially made part of Israel to this day. In addition, the Labor government authorized the resettlement of the “Etsyon Bloc” southwest of Jerusalem, an enclave in which several kibbutzim and their lands had been overrun by the Jordanian army in the 1948 fighting, and permitted a small group of Jews to move into Hebron. At the outset, the line was held there.

For the coastal plain, there were two options. One was to push the border eastward, a problematic move because it would have meant incorporating into Israel large Arab towns like Tulkarm and Kalkilya. The other, originally proposed by Yigal Allon, was to leave the border where it was while annexing the Jordan Valley, a long strip of semi-arid, sparsely populated land, part of the great Syrian-African rift, running between the West Bank’s mountains and the Jordan River. By holding on to the valley and its overlooking hills, Israel could effectively surround the West Bank while interfering minimally in Palestinian life and absorbing few Palestinians, and would be optimally positioned to meet any Arab attack from the east. A corridor around Jericho would be left in Arab hands to provide contiguity with Jordan—which, it was assumed, would repossess the West Bank once a peace agreement was signed—and Israelis would be free to visit the historical and religious sites that meant so much to them.

Thus was born the “Allon plan,” which guided Israeli policy until after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It eventually collapsed in two stages. The first was indeed the work of Gush Emunim, which through an orchestrated campaign of public relations, political lobbying, and wildcat settlements broke the resistance of the government of Yitzhak Rabin and obtained permission to found several small villages in the central West Bank, well beyond the 1967 borders. The second was the 1977 electoral victory of Menachem Begin. Themselves ideologically committed to an “undivided land of Israel,” Begin and his Likud party opened the entire West Bank to settlement and actively encouraged it and supported it, with the result that the Jewish population of the area, no more than 10,000 or so in 1977, now increased quickly.

How could Israel afford demographically to hold on to a region with a large Arab population or get away with it politically? Likud’s answer was Begin’s “autonomy plan,” according to which the Palestinians of the West Bank would be given self-rule as the inhabitants of an Israeli protectorate without being granted either their independence or Israeli citizenship. Begin fought for the acceptance of this plan in Israel’s peace negotiations with Egypt, but although it was included in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, it was limited at Cairo’s insistence to a five-year transitional period, following which a more permanent arrangement was to be found.

Meanwhile, the Likud governments that ruled for thirteen of the fifteen years between 1977 and 1992 changed the thrust of the settlement enterprise. Coming to the conclusion that small, Gush Emunim-type villages could not significantly populate the West Bank, they shifted the emphasis to larger commuting towns that would attract a broad cross-section of Israelis. In this manner there sprang up settlements like Ariel in Samaria and Ma’aleh Adumim in the Judean desert east of Jerusalem, each today with some 30,000 inhabitants. And in a later phase, with the realization that the greatest potential for West Bank settlement lay in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, whose large, low-income families could be enticed to leave their overcrowded quarters in Israel proper for cheap, government-subsidized housing in the territories, several exclusively ultra-Orthodox townships were built. Today these are the most rapidly expanding settlements in the West Bank. One of them, Betar Illit, a short distance southwest of Jerusalem, has already surpassed Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumin in population and will soon leave them far behind.

Not that Gush Emunim was neglected in this period; its small settlements, too, continued to grow, if at a slower rate. The one West Bank sector that languished was the Jordan Valley. Conditions there, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees in summer, were difficult; the valley was far from the rest of Israel and its urban centers; though its agricultural potential was great, agriculture in Israel was a declining economic sector; and given Likud’s policy of holding on to the whole West Bank, the Allon plan was no longer relevant. Once Likud came to power, no serious attempts were made to develop the Jordan Valley, and government investment in it was minimal. Its Jewish population today is barely 8,000, about the same as it was twenty years ago.



No Israeli government since 1967 ever had a coherent West Bank settlement policy. The Allon plan made geostrategic and demographic sense, but without settling large numbers of Jews in the Jordan Valley, as was done in east Jerusalem and in the so-called “settlement blocs” that were mostly close to the old borders, there was no way of establishing an effective presence there. As for the Likud’s autonomy plan, it was sheer fantasy from the start. Never put into practice because the Palestinians rejected it in 1979, it had no chance in any case of outliving the five years that Egypt was willing to grant it. By the time of the 1993 Oslo agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, it had been consigned to ancient history.

This brings us to Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan.” Implemented in Gaza in 2005, and clearly meant for the West Bank as well, it was a belated acknowledgment by Israel’s moderate political Right that Israeli control over the whole West Bank was impossible. Convinced, however, by the failure of the Camp David and Taba summits in the year 2000 that that there was no prospect of getting the Palestinian Authority to agree to even relatively small border rectifications in Israel’s favor, which would have involved some 10 percent of the West Bank, Sharon decided, first, to build a security fence along the route of the frontier he envisioned, and then to withdraw to it unilaterally, counting on its gaining de-facto international recognition sooner or later. The fence was routed to take in the major settlement blocs while excluding as many Palestinian towns and villages as possible, and was conceived as encompassing about three-quarters of the West Bank’s settlers when finished.

The remaining quarter, roughly 60,000 settlers, would, according to Sharon’s plan, have to be evacuated, as were the Jewish inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. Most of these 60,000 are of the Gush Emunim stripe—the same “lords of the land” who, Zertal and Eldar believe, have worked their will with all Israeli governments. But they did not work it in Gaza, and while, in the wake of the Hamas takeover there, unilateral disengagement is no longer on the agenda of the government of Ehud Olmert, the perceived necessity for it is likely to resurface sooner than one might think. The failure, cancellation, or indefinite postponement of the Israel-Palestinian “peace conference” scheduled for Annapolis in late November or December may be all it takes to make this happen.



The border with the West Bank that the security fence delineates is not only unacceptable to the Palestinians, it is far from ideal for Israel. It winds tortuously back and forth between Jewish settlements and Arab towns and villages; it leaves much of the coastal plain no farther from the 1948-49 ceasefire lines than it was before 1967; and it surrenders the Jordan Valley, which will revert to Palestinian hands. Should Israel ever have to fight another war with an Arab world out to destroy it, or simply have to contend with a rogue Palestinian state that permits attacks on it, its eastern front will still be its most vulnerable.

Nevertheless, it will be considerably less vulnerable than it would be if Israel were to withdraw all the way to the 1967 borders. With the fence in place, Jerusalem will be buffered on all sides by Jewish suburbs and hinterland, whose eastern edge at Ma’aleh Adumim, situated on the road to Jericho, overlooks the southern Jordan Valley and could serve as a military jumping-off point to there; the connection between the northern and southern West Bank, which will have to run between Ma’aleh Adumim and the valley, will be easily interdictable; and salients of Israeli territory running from the coastal plain into the hills of Samaria will help protect Tel Aviv and allow Israel’s army to position itself close to the top of the West Bank’s central mountain ridge and within easy striking distance of its main north-south highway. Although these advantages might seem trivial in an age of modern warfare, they should not be made light of. Even modern warfare is ultimately decided on the ground.

If Israel does end up with these geographical advantages, it will be due to one thing alone: the settlement blocs, which in certain parts of the West Bank have concentrated too many Jews to evacuate. This was recognized by President Bush in his statement of April 2004 that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement must take into account the changed reality of Israeli “population centers” on the other side of the 1967 border. Had such “population centers” not existed, even the United States, Israel’s greatest friend, would be calling today for a near-total withdrawal to the 1967 lines.

In this respect, the settlement enterprise, though the world may think otherwise, has not failed. It has been a considerable, if not total, success. Because of it, Israel will be more secure. Far from having demonstrated that settling Jews in large numbers across the 1967 border was folly, it has shown that where enough Jews have been settled in the right places, Israel has benefited.

The failure is that of those, the sole subjects of Lords of the Land, who settled small numbers of Jews in the wrong places. It is possible to understand and admire the depth of these settlers’ commitment to the land of Israel and their courage in risking their lives for their beliefs; it is also necessary, however, to acknowledge the futility of what they sought to achieve. Huge sums were spent on the endeavor; tens of thousands of lives were invested in it; hundreds of lives were lost to Palestinian terror; and Palestinian lives, too, were disrupted and embittered—all for a dream that had no chance of fulfillment. Israel could never have swallowed the two million Palestinians of the West Bank without choking on them. If Zertal and Eldar are right about anything, it is about this.

Had all this effort been put into the Jordan Valley instead, so that it too would have comprised a “settlement bloc” that Israel could not be expected to abandon, both Israel and the Palestinians would be better off. The Allon plan, eminently rational when first conceived, looks even better today. Without the Jordan Valley, which is now lost to it, Israel will be in a worse position than it need have been.
But of course this is said with the benefit of hindsight. The great enemy of rationality is rationalization. In the aftermath of Israel’s 1967 victory, which seemed miraculous in every respect, the call for an undivided land of Israel was emotionally hard to resist. It was only too easy to find ways of justifying it. Many of the Palestinians of the West Bank, it was said, would emigrate (as they indeed had done to the east bank of the Jordan before 1967 and continued to do to the Persian Gulf until the 1991 Gulf war). Those who did not would grow accustomed to Israeli rule. Jewish immigration would offset their high birthrate (as for a short while it did during the great wave of immigration from the ex-Soviet Union in 1990-91). The world would come to accept the West Bank’s being part of Israel. And it was inconceivable that the only place in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, in which Jews were forbidden to live should be in their own historic homeland.

Some of these arguments were stronger than others; whoever wanted to be convinced by them was convinced. And even when the head was not persuaded, the heart often was. I can remember how in the 1970’s and 80’s, when it was already clear to me that Gush Emunim-type settlements in the heart of the West Bank were a mistake, I nevertheless thrilled to each new one of them that was established. Such Jewish feelings are alien to Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, who do not begin to comprehend what they are about. But they also do not comprehend that Israel has real enemies and real security needs, and that formal peace agreements with its neighbors are no guarantee that it will not have to fight again. Wars generally break out between countries that have been at peace.

Could the Allon plan have been successfully carried out and the tragic waste of the Gush Emunim settlements avoided? Probably not. Countries, like people, sometimes only learn by making costly mistakes. Yet thanks to the settlement blocs that are not even in the index of Lords of the Land, it has been possible in part to make up for that waste. This case needs to be made to all those who believe, like Zertal and Eldar, that the 1948-49 ceasefire lines, never recognized as permanent by a single Arab state before 1967, became sacred as soon as the Arabs lost a war they started. Israel had the right to change these lines in accordance with its needs, and it is a good thing that the settlements have made that possible.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest