My Promised Lan IX. Settlement 1975

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit

IX        Settlement 1975


This is the most important chapter of the book.


Ein Harod begat Orange Groves which begat Masada which begat Lydda and the destruction of 400 Arab villages and the city of Lydda in the 1948 war, which in turn begat the influx and settlement of 750,000 Jewish refugees mostly from Arab lands which begat the creation of the nuclear weapons at Dimona. By now we are familiar with the trope. Except we have only one paragraph on the Six Day War which did give rise to the Yom Kippur War and, according to Ari, it was the latter following the former that gave rise to the settlement movement. 

“The settlements were a direct response to these two wars. The swift turn of events in 1967 — from fear of annihilation to resounding triumph — sideswiped the rigorous self-discipline that had held Zionism together for seventy years. The Israeli nation was drunk with victory, filled with euphoria, hubris and messianic delusions of grandeur. Six years later, the almost instantaneous shift from an imperial state of mind to cowering despondency was followed by a deep crisis of leadership, values, and identity. The nation was filled with despair, self-doubt and existential fear. Let down by Israel, many sought comfort in Judaism. The two diametrically opposed war experiences, which occurred within six years of each other, threw the Israeli psyche out of balance. The incredible contrast between them gave birth to the settlement.” (202)

Ari was a 23 year old Peace Now activist student at the time. He was the right age. Now he was interviewing Yoel Bin Nun, just a few years older and one of the dozen young leaders of the Gush Emunim settler movement whose combination of fervour and pragmatism, idealism and shyness made settlement in the West Bank possible and created the ethos and image of the New Zionism. However, the two leaders Ari zeroes in on are Pinchas Wallerstein and Yehuda Etzion, two other founders of Ofra, the settlement that Ari takes as his central point of reference. For Ari, Ofra was the direct descendent of Ein Harod even though it was created by a sovereign state and not a desperate Diaspora, even though it was not necessary to provide shelter for Jews but was necessary if Jews wanted a kingdom. But it was founded against tremendous odds, was an expression of enormous willpower and did, like its predecessor, try to impose its own Zionist Utopia on reality.

Pinchas Wallerstein, though small and dyslexic, is a matter-of-fact man of action rather than deep thought, a social dynamo who became a leader of the religious settler movement even though he was expelled from his high school yeshiva. However, he managed to finish school after he spent two years recuperating from his injuries suffered in the Six Day War and even married. In 1975, he was the one who devised the idea of how these radical religious Zionists could settle in Samaria. In dealing with a hostile government, follow the pattern of the kibbutzim in dealing with Arabs by creating facts on the ground and lulling the “enemy” into acceptance.

Yehuda Etzion was as tall as Pinchas Wallerstein was short, was imposing rather than modest, was a deep thinker instead of an operator, was by heritage an admirer of the Stern Gang that, among its other atrocities, had assassinated the UN envoy, the Swede Count Folk Bernadotte, an act that in history gave birth to what is called the “right of return” resolution even though that resolution never refers to the proposal as a right. Etzion is the exemplification of the ecstasy felt after the Six Day War and the despair over what he perceived as Israel’s cynicism, nihilism and defeatism after the Yom Kippur War and a sharp critic of what Yehuda termed complacent Zionism that had displaced messianic secular Zionism and that had, in turn, to be displaced by messianic religious Zionism, the only cure. Messianism had to go back and be re-grafted onto its true religious source. If Wallerstein was the tactician, Etzion was the strategist. If secular Zionism conquered the plains, religious Zionism would have to recapture the hilltops of Judea and Samaria, the heart of the holy land where Abraham made his sacrifice on Elon Moreh and God gave his covenant to Joshua in Jericho.

Ygal Allon planned to take strategic control of the highlands of the West Bank and the rift valley of the Dead Sea; Yehuda Etzion sought to bring the people of Israel back to the source of their spiritual strength. But it was Pinchas Wallerstein who conceived the idea of marrying the two strategies by using the radar station at the top of Ba’al Hazor Mountain, literally “lord of trumpeting,” but lord in the sense of total demonic possession, as the first step in the messianic dream. The demons would be used to implement the Allon Plan by sending a fence repair crew to the mountain top who needed to stay overnight to save the time of journeying back and forth. The religious mission would be instigated through small practical methods in the tradition of the kibbutz, but on the site where God showed Abraham the promised land. They proceded by taking over the deserted Jordanian military base nearby. Diplomacy with a soft not totally unsympathetic Shimon Peres was used to protect their backside from any army initiative to oust them. Peres instructs the army not to assist them but not to oust them either. In winning the first battle so easily, the messianic settlers had won the war of settlements. They had their toehold.

External circumstances help. A Palestinian terror attack on a Tel Aviv bus, the failure of Henry Kissinger’s peace initiative with Egypt, the fall of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to the communists, the rift between Israel and the USA as Israel fears abandonment by its current superpower protector – all these factors weaken the opposition to their efforts and provide secret supporters among otherwise non-messianic leading Israelis. Further, while strategically blind leaders like Pinchas could lull themselves into the belief that the surrounding Arab villages would accept their presence, Yehuda knew that eventually their settlements would eventually entail total war between the two communities and “at the end of the war the villages would vanish”. (213) But if Yehuda understood that, why does Ari present them both as such innocents and assert that, “They established Ofra without comprehending its repercussions” just after Ari declared that Etzion well understood the repercussions?

However powerful the book is in style, description, conception and execution, logic is definitely not one of its merits. Pinchas, in all his strategic naiveté, manages to grow the initial settlement and plant other settlements. Yehuda has greater plans. If Begin betrays Zionism by giving back the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, if the new hedonistic Hellenism is making Israel “un-Jewish, weak, hollow, and rotten”, these are merely signs that God is still unhappy. “As long as the Al-Aqsa mosque  and the Omar mosque stand on the TempleMount, there can be no salvation for Israel.” (215) The plot to blow up the mosques is set in motion if the State of Israel is to be re-attached with the Kingdom of Israel and the greatest humiliation to Judaism destroyed. Etzion with his three co-conspirators had declared holy war.

By 1984, the Shin Bet had uncovered the plot and the roots of the other terrorist activities of these zealots and arrested them. (See the discussion in the Israeli film, The Gatekeepers.) Pragmatic messianic settlements win out over extremist zealotry. But, according to Ari, the logic of settlement in the West bank can only conclude with zealotry and the ethnic cleansing of both the Palestinian and the Muslim presence in the West Bank.

“There will be war, no doubt about it. Because of 1948 and 1967, and because of Ofra, there will be war. But war will not save Ofra or Israel. The reality created by Wallerstein and Etzion and their friends has entangled Israel in a predicament that cannot be untangled. The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality. But now Ofra’s illegitimacy taints Israel itself. Like a cancer it spreads from one organ to another, endangering the entire body. Ofra’s colonialism makes the world perceive Israel as a colonialist entity. But because in the twenty-first century there is no room for a colonialist entity, the West is gradually turning its back on Israel. That’s why enlightened Jews in America and Europe are ashamed of Israel. That’s why Israel is at odds with itself.” (220-221)

I am totally opposed to the settlement movement. But I am not at all ashamed of Israel. Though I regard the settlements as obstacles to peace, they have not been the most serious obstacles – Jerusalem and the right of return of the Arab refugees have been. We all know that a peace deal can be made by trading the heavily settled blocks for other land as long as Palestine gets the same percentage – 28% of mandated Palestine that was in Palestine hands at the beginning of 1967. It is as much Ari’s extremist illogic and false dichotomies, not his extremist beliefs which are clearly moderate, that helps make the settlements an either/or question. And making them an either/or question will ensure war not peace, a civil war within Israel and/or a war with the Palestinians. Such a war is not a logical necessity arising from the settlements and its alleged DNA heritage. Peace will come by focusing on possibilities not on false assertions of necessariatism.

Ari asserts that, “No fair-minded observer will deny the assertion that in a sense Ofra is Ein Harod’s grandchild.” (221) I claim to be a fair-minded person. I absolutely deny that Ein Harod begat Ofra. Ari’s false logic, false dichotomies and necessitarianism creates the connection – not a natural historical law. The issue is not simply that only the historic and conceptual contexts between Ein Harod and Ofra are different. The existence of the State of Israel and its non-existence is not just a matter of historic context. It is the essence of political Zionism. The possession of sufficient territory for the Jewish people in its historic homeland is sufficient for fulfilling the dream of self-determination. The ideology of the first phase does not at all entail the ideology of the second. And it is as much mushy thinking as Shimon Peres’ softness for the settlers that has allowed the settler movement to grow as it did,

Ofra is not only not a continuation but is not even an aberration, a grotesque reincarnation of Ein Harod. There is no reincarnation in Judaism. Ofra is a mutation and not an aberration. Nevertheless, practical political Zionism recognizes that even mutations have to be dealt with realistically and pragmatically. And the peace talks have proceeded precisely on that basis. That is precisely why the settlements are NOT the obstacle in the end to making peace.  

Ari preaches: “Wallerstein doesn’t get it, so I try to explain. I tell him that from the beginning Zionism skated on thin ice. On the one hand it was  national liberation movement. It intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another.(my itallics)” Nonsense! Absolute and unfettered nonsense! In Ari’s own account, though the possibility of population displacement was mooted, it only became a real possibility and not just a logical one as a result of the 1936-39 Arab uprising. And it would not have taken place if the Arabs had accepted the partition plan. Accepting that Jews were responsible for forcefully displacing a significant portion of the Arab population of Palestine does not entail accepting that that was a necessary and inevitable outcome. Further, total ethnic cleansing never became part of the ideological plan or operational execution. If there had been a peace agreement following the 1967 war, the process of settlement would not have taken place.

In Ari’s interpretation, the disassociation of Zionism from colonialism was simply a rhetorical exercise in diplomacy. Zionists were colonialists. Further, the effort in avoiding unnecessary hardship arose as much from tactical necessity as humanitarianism. The projection of a democratic, progressive and enlightened movement as well as collaboration with the west was not just a strategic imperative but for many of us lies at the heart of Zionism, a national liberation of the Jewish people in a democratic and enlightened polity. The problem that emerged after 1973 was not just Labour’s weakness and Likud’s recklessness, but an inability to hear the strongest and best voices in Zionism, in part because they were often drowned out by implacable voices from the other side.

So though Ari and I are on the same side in our liberal enlightenment in opposition to settlements, I think Ari is totally wrong in equating messianic Zionism with liberal political Zionism. They are not linked by DNA. The zealots were not just mistaken in believing that “a sovereign state could do in occupied territories what a revolutionary movement could do in an undefined land” (222), but in thinking that creating kibbutzim in land purchased was the same as creating settlements in land captured by a state in war. It is a matter of international law and ethics and not just context and circumstances. Israel cannot be an enlightened democratic political product of national self-determination if it deprives another people of its right to self-determination.

Because two movements, the original settlement movement of the twenties and thirties, bear a family resemblance, as Wittgenstein noted, with the settlement movement on the West Bank (and, presumably, Gaza), that does not mean the two very different movements are genetically yoked together. In making such a gross error, Ari then engages in the same extremist reasoning as the settlers do and accuses them of “committing an act of historic suicide”. (222) If they had managed to blow up the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome on the Rock, unfortunately that might have been the result. But as the leader of Fatach youth told me at Al Qds University, there is no reason in logic or politics that a Palestine independent state could not have a Jewish minority anymore than Israel cannot have a significant Palestinian minority.

So although I agree with Ari in his opposition to the settlers and though I reject my daughter’s ex-inlaws who were extremist fascists demanding all Arabs be cleansed from both Israel and the West Bank and claimed all Arabs wanted to do the same to them although my daughters ex-inlaws never ever had a long and serious talk with a Palestinian since they made aliyah from the USA many years ago, and while I fully agree in condemning such messianic extremism, I also found that in my interviews with settlers that they were surprisingly very varied in their views.  Gaza shows that settlements can be dismantled. If the dismantling is done in a limited and reasonable way, and possibly by offering a choice to the settlers to stay under Palestinian rule as citizens of Palestine, then a land swap is a reasonable solution to both the external and internal political realities and most of the settlers can be allowed to stay.  If Ari believes that his logic demands the dismantling of all the settlements to make peace, then he rather than the settlers is the more serious obstacle to peace.  

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