Gershom Gorenberg, one of Israel’s foremost scholars of the Israeli settler movement, spoke to a Seattle gathering of the Israeli Policy Forum today at a Mercer Island reception. Gorenberg is an editor and one of the founders of the Jerusalem Report, a centrist Anglo-Israeli magazine. He publishes widely in the U.S. media and recently had a column in the NY Times. He also has a new book, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977.
He began with a humorous story concerning people who constantly ask him about his ideological perspective on the settler movement. To all of them he replies that he is ideologically neutral and that his work is scholarly and objective in nature. They reply by saying: “but is your work objectively leftist or rightist?” While he notes that he’s been accused by The Nation of being a Zionist apologist and by The New Republic of being a “post-Zionist,” it seems clear to me that he is clearly in the peace camp. At least, that’s what I get from the Seattle talk he gave and his recent NY Times column.
I find it interesting that Seattle has hosted two talks this week by religious Israeli scholars who are both doves on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Gorenberg and Menachem Klein (I’ll be writing my next post about Klein).
Gorenberg took his audience back to 1967 and discussed the the origins of that war. He claimed it was almost an accidental war and that neither side really planned for it to happen. Rather, it was a case of one side ratcheting up the pressure and the other feeling compelled to respond in kind until one side tripped the wire that caused the eruption.
He noted that Israel violated one of von Clausewitz’s cardinal rules of war. It got itself into a war before it had a clear idea of what its strategic goals were. As the Wikipedia article on military strategy states:
Fundamental to grand strategy is the diplomacy through which a nation might forge alliances or pressure another nation into compliance, thereby achieving victory without resorting to combat. Another element of grand strategy is the management of the post-war peace. As Clausewitz stated, a successful military strategy may be a means to an end, but it is not an end in itself. There are numerous examples in history where victory on the battlefield has not translated into long term peace and security.
When it went to war, Israel had no idea what it wanted ultimately from a victory. And this lack of clarity or forethought served as the precursor for all the bad decisions that came after and which precipitated Israel’s settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories.
According to Gorenberg, there was much confusion within the government about what should be done with this conquered land. On the same day (only a week after the war was won) two events occurred which are entirely illustrative of this confusion. At a debate on the status of the Territories, the Justice Minister told the cabinet that the Zionist enterprise would be dead if Israel maintained control of them. Concurrently, a representative of the Jewish Agency visited the Golan to perform a survey of possible sites for future Israeli settlements. The Agency representative carried out this mission even though there was not yet any formal government proposal for settlement.
The creation of the settlement movement involved a series of spontaneous, erratic and poorly thought through decisions that led the nation deeper and deeper into the quagmire (must like another quagmire currently facing another world power). When an audience member asked Gorenberg how otherwise intelligent political leaders like Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan and Levi Eshkol could allow Israel to be dragged into such a mess, the author replied “I enjoy studying quagmires created by smart people–as opposed to quagmires created by not so smart people” (a veiled reference to Bush’s Iraq war).
An important part of this scholar’s message is to remind us that the settler movement was NOT a product solely of Orthodox Jews or the right. Labor too played an important role. Yigal Allon created one of the first plans which called for wholesale settlement of the West Bank. His mentor in the United Kibbutz Movement, Yisrael Tabenkin, first coined the term Eretz Yisrael Ha-Shlayma (“the great land of Israel”) which became the first slogan and rallying cry for the settler movement.
In comparing the Allon Plan to Olmert’s most recent plan to withdraw to the Separation Wall and declare it Israel’s international border, Gorenberg notes at TPMCafe:
History repeats, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” Karl Marx remarked in “the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” But a sad farce, at which only a cold soul could laugh.
Thirty years ago, in the mid-1970s, the unofficial policy of Israel’s Labor government was the Allon Plan: Israel would hold onto and settle unpopulated areas of the West Bank, and seek to return the populated areas to Jordanian rule. Marked for settlement and annexation were the strip of desert along the Jordan River and the land east of Jerusalem where the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim was beginning to go up.
The Allon Plan was an example of “playing chess with ourselves,” as one Labor leader criticized it before adopting it. It met Israel’s perceived needs, but had no Arab partner. Jordan was willing to make peace – but only on the basis of the pre-1967 border…
Today Ehud Olmert, erstwhile believer in the Whole Land of Israel, has accepted that Israel must avoid ruling over the Palestinians, and to do so it must give up land. His map of Israel’s borders-to-be – as expressed in his public comments this week – is very similar to the Allon Plan. Israel will build in the area between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim because it will keep that settlement, and the desert along the Jordan. It will evacuate some of the scattered settlements along the mountain ridge.
But there is no Palestinian partner for that plan. By brilliant deduction, Olmert has ended up with the failed conclusions of the past.
I did disagree with Gorenberg’s characterization of Hamas. He claimed that Hamas was no better than the old PLO, whose policy used to be: “we’ll accept any land that Israel offers to us without renouncing our claim to the entire land of Israel.” He said that Hamas’ current policy seems to be the same: Olmert can withdraw from whatever territory he wants and we’ll accept that and incorporate it into our state. But we will continue our war until we gain all of present-day Israel.
This view flies in the face of every pronouncement I’ve read from Hamas leaders. Haniye and Zahar, the major political leaders in Palestine, have offered a long term truce in return for an Israeli commitment to return to ’67 borders. Full stop. I’ve not seen ANY recent statement in which Hamas reserves the right to continue on till the final liquidation of Israel. Of course, Gorenberg and other may argue that this is the unspoken collateral statement in all those Hamas pronouncements and that it lurks unspoken behind everything that Hamas says publicly. That is possible. But I don’t believe it’s likely given everything I’ve read from the Mideast since the Palestinian election.
I asked Gorenberg: if we accept the notion that Israel eventually will have to embrace 1967 borders in order to achieve a final status peace settlement, then how can we get to that consensus position within Israeli society? There is no doubt that Sharon took Israel a huge distance in breaking the hold of the settler movement on the Israeli political consciousness. In my view, he took his country half-way toward where it needs to be for a final peace agreement. And now the political consensus seems to say that Israel’s final borders should follow the Separation Wall. This Israeli consensus is by no means shared by anyone outside Israel. So how do you get from halfway to peace all the way there?
The speaker’s reply noted that what happens regarding this question is dependent on developments in Palestine. If the Palestinians can control terror, then Gorenberg believes that Israelis will come around to 1967 borders. But if they cannot control violence, then Israeli will not.
I’m not sure I disagree with this formulation. But I believe that negotiations and Israeli willingness to compromise on borders should not be dependent on a full cessation of terror. After all, Sharon used this ruse (demanding full end to violence before he would negotiate with Abbas) as a convenient excuse never to negotiate.