Review: Gershom Gorenberg’s Accidental Empire

Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 is without a doubt the most informative, enlightening, and surprisingly (if unintentionally) even-handed work ever produced on the history of the settlement movement in Israel.

As a journalist and historian, Gorenberg clearly belongs to the “new historical” school.  Critical of traditional mainstream Zionist narratives, the book breaks down the myth that settlement was largely the product of right-wing religious activism in the face of popular resistance and governmental reluctance to consolidate its hold on the newly captured territories.  The author instead reveals that prominent members of the weak and divided governing Labor party in fact covertly and sometimes openly supported the establishment (and reestablishment) of Jewish settlement in these regions despite persistent concerns regarding the long run demographic and security consequences of these moves.

Certainly Gush Emunim activists capitalized on political indecision and took a significant hand in setting the direction and pace of settlement, but the narrative makes clear that the settlement enterprise was driven by very real feelings of national territorial entitlement that had lain largely dormant since the 1949 armistice.  Despite common contemporary claims to the contrary by Israel’s political left, settling and populating the territories was in no small part taken as a continuation of the secular pioneering days prior to the establishment of the state.  That religious Zionism was able to “co-opt” this message and make it their own owes in no small part to the shared sentiment and often functional collaboration of secular “Whole Land of Israel” activists immediately following the Six Day War.

Although the tone of this book is certainly meant to be taken as a strong condemnation of the settlement movement and the effort to expand Israel’s territory beyond its tenuous 1949 borders, the broader narrative reveals that the reasons for which settlement was and often still is seen as a viable and even critical endeavor stem from very real ethnohistorical concerns and perceptions regarding nationhood and the land itself.  Indeed, Gorenberg’s narrative, however critical of settlement, recounts almost ad nauseam the broad historical perspective of prominent politicians, policymakers, political activists, and ordinary citizens who saw the capture of the West Bank and Jerusalem in particular as the culmination of a return of Jewish sovereignty to its ancient homeland.  That so many people both then and now perceive the captured territories to be legitimately integral to Israel raise serious questions about the nature and appropriateness of the “empire” label.

Interestingly, Michael Doyle’s definition, that “empires are relationships of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies,” circumvents the question of territory altogether focusing instead on the people who fall under the control of an identifiable political other.  This definition would certainly see Israel’s control of the territories in question as imperialism insofar as Palestinians are seen as a sovereign political society, but so too would a significant portion of modern states with distinct minority populations that exercise or demand political autonomy be considered imperialist.  The difference, Doyle would argue, revolves around a distinction between political control exercised over domestic versus extranational (international) constituencies.  Yet as today’s conflict in Georgia with the demand for South Ossetian and Abkhazian secession and Kosovo’s recent claim to independence demonstrate, the precise and appropriate boundaries of any state are inherently subjective depending on the composition of the international audience.

This contrast between international and domestic perception of appropriate territoriality similarly speaks to problems that exist in Hendrick Spruyt’s theory of domestic resistance to imperial retrenchment.  While his use of veto points to explain political deadlock in the face of international imperatives to dissolve empire is certainly useful in explaining political outcomes in Israel given the persistently fragmented structure of the state’s political establishment and civil society, it cannot explain from where the urge to veto retrenchment originates.  As Gorenberg’s book reveals, the centrality of the land itself to national conceptions of identity and legitimate territoriality structure the entire field of debate.  Lacking such broadly shared sentiment, it is doubtful that the original settlement prerogative or contemporary “minority” opposition to retrenchment could be so powerfully influential.

That the general domestic sense is that the whole of the land is legitimately constitutive of Eretz Israel, the political battle that emerges is not over territorial identity but over the practical political consequences of controlling them.  This political dynamic so clearly recounted in Gorenberg’s work plays havoc with Ian Lustick’s two-threshold model of state territorial expansion/contraction.  Recognizing that the territory enjoys relatively hegemonic status as a national entitlement but that domestic contestation over its control persists means that the territories rest in the theoretically “impossible” position of simultaneous existence in the hegemonic and regime/incumbency stages of consolidation.  That contestation as a challenge to regime integrity or political incumbency appears to vary with the centrality of the specific space to the national imagination (Jerusalem versus Gaza for example) speaks much more clearly to Gorenberg’s emphasis on Zionist ideology and collective Jewish national imagination than to more abstract, context-free models proposed by Doyle, Spruyt, or Lustick.

To the casual observer, this narrative may only confirm the “inherent imperialism” of the Zionist project or be taken as an unfortunate byproduct of democratic interest group politics run amok.  A more nuanced understanding, however, reveals that if such powerful emotive forces can propel a state to maintain and arguably expand an occupation rejected by most of international society, it may be worth actually attempting to understand the roots of these forces.  While it is often legitimate to explore the self-determination demands of those people who find themselves under foreign rule, it is clearly no less important to weigh these demands against competing claims.

Gorenberg’s final question posed to the reader, “What kind of Israel do you want?” is without a doubt the most important one facing the state today.  To take the “high ground” of withdrawal as Gorenberg clearly desires without proper consideration for the deeply imbedded collective identities related to the land itself that the author so painstakingly details seems a quixotic solution at best.  To redress the former without appropriate consideration for the latter, particularly where the society in question believes its very identity to be at stake, seems much more likely to prolong the conflict at hand than to resolve it.

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