- Lords of the Land: The War over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967–2007
Within days of the end of the fighting in 1967, the IDF's Intelligence Division surveyed the attitudes of the Palestinians in the territories. The report of the Mossad officers who carried this out, dated June 14, 1967, concluded that establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was the best way of ensuring Israeli security. The uncovering of this report provides the profound sense of missed opportunity that frames the basic question pursued by Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories. If the answer to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was already evident forty years ago, why has nothing changed? Why has Israel behaved irrationally with regard to the territories? Why have Israeli governments continued to divert many millions of shekels to the territories, even after the Oslo Accords and in the face of dire budget shortfalls at home?
The answer, according to the historian Idith Zertal and the veteran journalist Akiva Eldar, is the political sophistication of the settler movement and the complicity of the state of Israel. Driven by the messianic belief that universal redemption and the survival of the Jewish people depended on settling the whole land of Israel, the settlement movement subordinated all other considerations—religious, legal, moral, and economic—to this goal. Lords of the Land provides detailed and repeated (if not quite systematic) examples of the single-minded devotion, willingness to use any means necessary (including violence and the threat of violence), and take-no-prisoners political tactics that enabled the settlers to manipulate the state into engaging in irrational (from the authors' perspective) policies. The book argues that, faced with feckless, confused, ambivalent, and short-sighted (if not openly supportive) politicians, bureaucrats, and generals, the settlers became not just king-makers, but the lords of the land.
On their own, the settlers' tremendous political power, willingness to engage in illegal operations, and cunning (if not quite kosher) tactics, would not have been enough to achieve their aims. At times they benefited from the open support of the state, especially when it was led by a right-wing government. [End Page 138] They were also nurtured, however, by the complicity of the left, including that of venerated dovish icons and "liberal bastions" like the Supreme Court. This complicity extended beyond the provision of the infrastructure—land, roads, electricity, water, military protection, and budgets—that made life in the settlements possible in the first place. It includes the shockingly widespread failure to enforce the rule of law in the territories and a repeated pattern of putting the settlers, or their open sympathizers, in charge of the proverbial henhouse. At best, Lords of the Land shows that one hand of the Israeli state did not know what the other was doing. Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of the rabbis who made refusing an order to evacuate settlements a religious obligation even as they were (and remain) salaried employees of the state against which they urged mutiny. At worst, the entire spectrum of Israeli society and politics bears responsibility for creating one of the biggest obstacles to peace.
This book is quite openly (to the authors' credit) an exposé of the settler movement and of the state's role in its growth. Unfortunately, the gripping and damning story told by Lords of the Land comes at the price of its ability to fully answer the question it pursues. The book is so concerned with making its case for the overwhelming power of the settler movement and its (more successful) accusation that the left was complicit in the growth of the settlements, that it does not account for the spectacular failures of the settlement movement along with its successes. For example, why did the sophisticated machinery of the settlers fail to prevent the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 or the...