What Does Olmert Want?

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977

by Gershom Gorenberg
Times Books, 454 pp., $30.00
Ehud Olmert
Ehud Olmert; drawing by David Levine

The settlement project, as Gorenberg shows, was promoted by successive Israeli governments of the left and the right, overriding objections voiced at various times by a minority of cabinet ministers and a handful of dissenters outside the government in the academy and the press. The project was first intended to provide Israel with secure borders, as called for in Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war. But soon there was no stopping it. The result, as Gorenberg puts it, was nothing less than “an artificially created Bosnia.” Its first promoters were the secularists Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, and Yigael Allon, of whom it was said that after God the Father had been declared dead, they had married the Motherland. The first settlements were modestly called “outposts.” Raymond Aron, then visiting Israel, asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol if he wasn’t worried about a rebellion by the Arabs as had happened in Algeria. Gorenberg cites Eshkol’s answer: “No. This isn’t Algeria. We can strangle terror in the occupied territories.”

After Eshkol, other prime ministers including Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin promoted the settlement project; but no one was as committed and ruthlessly effective at it as the secular Ariel Sharon—successively minister of housing, infrastructure (such as roads), defense, and finally prime minister. Though Sharon once claimed that he kept Alistair Horne’s book on Algeria, A Savage War of Peace, on his night table, he must have tragically misunderstood it. That book could not tell him what to do, but it could have told him what not to do. Sharon was called the “great bulldozer” who spread and expanded settlements far and wide, unmindful of their human and political consequences. It is ironic that he was felled by a stroke at the very moment when, succumbing to waves of terror, he tried very late—perhaps too late—to undo, at least partially, what he had wrought in his younger days.

Meanwhile, the terror continues. Some seventy suicide bombers were intercepted so far this year, according to the Israeli army, though one managed to get through and blew himself up in a crowded restaurant in Tel Aviv. He will not be the last. Hell is truth seen too late, as Hobbes said. Sharon was a superb tactician but a terrible strategist. He started a disastrous war in Lebanon which he hoped would eliminate the PLO there just as it had been eliminated in Jordan. I remember first meeting him soon after the 1967 war at a meeting with Haaretz editors: he was still an army general at the time, greatly admired for his victory in a war ominously named after the Six Days of Creation. He tried to convince the editors that Israel must annex all the conquered territories—Sinai peninsula and Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights. If the Palestinians wanted a state, he said, they could overthrow King Hussein. Jordan should be the Palestinian…

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