Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: The Accidential Empire

We haven't done any book reviews on this blog yet, which is a shame, actually, since many of the readers at the archives write books based on our materials. Given that our mission is to have folks know about our stuff, and these researchers are writing about our stuff, it's a no-brainer that we should be amplifying their message, no?

Still, it's not obvious that the first book we'd review ought to be Gershom Gorenberg's The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. It sits, after all, smack in the middle of one of Israel's major political discussions, and we at the ISA, being civil servants in a national institution, try to stay away from political third rails. On the other hand, what's a national archives for if not to enable the citizenry to see the inner workings of their government, once a reasonable amount of time has passed? And when someone comes by to look and tell, we're still here, so that others can come and see if the initial interpretation was reasonable, or perhaps exaggerated, or unfair. If someone feels Gorenberg's depiction of the evolution of Israel's settlement policy is wrong, they're welcome to come and test his findings.

Actually, they may even have access to more documentation than he had - and from our perspective, that's the reason to review his book here: to examine its relation with our collections. But first, a synopsis of his thesis and findings.

The thesis of the book is that following the Six Day War, Israel had no clear policy what to do with the newly controlled territories, and it spent the next few years (or decades) not acquiring one. Instead, it sort of bungled along. Moshe Dayan had ideas; Yigal Allon had ideas; Levy Eshkol, the prime minster until his death in 1969, had lots and lots of ideas, many of them mutually contradictory; and over time, a growing number of young adults of the religious Zionist camp had ever clearer ideas.

For a while after the electoral victory of Menachem Begin's Likud party, in 1977, Israel may have had a reasonably clear idea that it intended to hold onto Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan and East Jerusalem, and the government purposefully crafted a settlement policy to promote that; but Gorenberg's book is about the decade before Begin's victory, when the Labor party (in its various permutations) ruled, not Likud. He shows that during that decade almost 80 settlements were set up. To the limited extent that there was a guiding line, it was the idea of Allon, according to which Israel would hold onto - and thus settle - the Jordan Valley, parts of the West Bank to the south of Jerusalem and of course Jerusalem itself. (Holding on to all of Jerusalem was the mainstream Israeli policy at least until the summer of 2000). Yet even the 80 settlements weren't put in place as part of a crafted policy, but rather as the results of lots of different, local motivations. Hence the title of his book: it was an accidental empire in that its acquisition wasn't foreseen, and retaining it wasn't thought out.

Reading the book from the perspective of the archivists, however, adds a layer to the discussion, because sadly, although Gorenberg made good use of all the documentation he could find, much of what's relevant has yet to be declassified.

He used many non-governmental sources, such as memoires, interviews, and private archives. Israel Gallili, a top minister in all the governments of the time, took home far too may documents, and they are now in Yad Tabenkin, the archives of the kibbutz movement. There's a detailed oral history project made with Yigal Allon, at his kibbutz. And there are some very rich files from Eshkol's office, which Gorenberg made use of, and I may make further use of here on the blog, because their documents are so rich and interesting.

He didn't use the reams, truckloads, of the state documentation. At the end of the day, the story of the settlements is a story of government action and state bureaucracy implementation. In order to really tell the tale, you'd need to systematically follow the deliberations of the decision-makers at the top, and the actions of the officials below them. You'd need to read all the transcripts of the relevant cabinet discussions, then the records of the internal ministerial discussions. You'd need to identify which agencies were playing important roles, and figure out what that role was. Oh, and of course, you'd need to look at lots of material from the military government of the territories. Most of these sources were not open while he was researching his book in the previous decade; sadly, too much of it isn't open now, either. Parallel to the research, Gorenberg  ran a five-year legal battle against the military archives to open more of their files; the result was a draw, in which he got enough files for the court to close the case, and the archives never had to deal with a court verdict on the matter.

So here's our summary of the matter: in spite of the gazillions of words written over the years about Israel's settlement project, no-one really knows what they're talking about because the documents aren't open. (They are now finally being opened, slowly, and the rate is a matter of budgets not political chicanery). So far, Gorenberg's book is the best one around, and if you're interested in the reality rather than the punditry, you should read it. But be aware that it's essentially a first draft of the story, not a definitive summary - as Gorenberg himself would be the first to admit.

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