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

Gershom Gorenberg

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480 Pages



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After Israeli troops defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967, the Jewish state seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success. But far from being a happy ending, the Six-Day War proved to be the opening act of a complex political drama, in which the central issue became: Should Jews build settlements in the territories taken in that war?

The Accidental Empire is Gershom Gorenberg's account of the strange birth of the settler movement, which was the child of both Labor Party socialism and religious extremism. It is a story featuring the giants of Israeli history—Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yigal Allon—as well as more contemporary figures like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Gorenberg also shows how the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations turned a blind eye to what was happening in the territories, and reveals their strategic reasons for doing so.

Gorenberg opens a window on the hidden history of the settlements. He tells the story of the first Israeli settler in occupied territory, who arrived just five weeks after the Six-Day War ended. He unearths the opinion by the Israeli Foreign Ministry's legal counsel that settling in the West Bank would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. He shows how the U.S. State Department requested that Israel squelch press coverage of new settlements, and he reveals the unexpected impact of the U.N.'s 1975 "Zionism is racism" resolution in spurring wider settlement in the West Bank.


Praise for The Accidental Empire

"Gershom Gorenberg . . . has produced a remarkably insightful third account . . . It's a groundbreaking revision that deserves to reframe the entire debate . . . Yet it still soars. The book works powerfully on two important levels: as a deeply informative counterhistory and as a mournful reminder of what happens when a democratic government acquiesces in the face of its own militants."—Jonathan D. Tepperman, The New York Times Book Review

"Gershom Gorenberg has given us a meticulously researched, dispassionate and highly readable history of how Israel slipped into the settlement of occupied lands. The Accidental Empire is an invaluable guide to one of the Middle East's most complex issues and will puncture illusions on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."—Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post

"[The Accidental Empire is] an absorbing narrative with extensive references to archives, private papers, oral histories, books and articles. The outlines of Gorenerg's story have been known since the 1983 publication of Occupation: Israel Over Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Naseer Aruri. But there is no comparably detailed history."—Joel Beinin, The Nation

"Gershom Gorenberg, in a careful and fluently written book, has produced a . . . sophisticated analysis. [He] . . . presents this drama with impressive skill . . . Gorenberg writes with great insight . . . Interesting and original."—Tom Segev, Foreign Affairs

"A work of great merit—a solid, balanced history, dramatically told through sharply written portraits of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, and other Israelis whose society is split asunder over what to do with the land Israel conquered in its stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War."—Jonathan Dorfman, The Boston Sunday Globe

"Drawing on scores of interviews with participants in the events and fresh archival material from American presidential libraries, Gorenberg's mordant study is sadly instructive."—Hadassah Magazine

"Painstakingly thorough research . . . Gorenberg's book is an excellent and exhaustive source for anyone who wants to understand the initial trajectory of the settlement movement. Even those who think they know all there is to know about the issue will be surprised at how much there is to learn from the way he lays out a history that seems to be in a cycle of repeating itself . . . Reading it . . . is worthwhile for readers interested in the details of the birth of the settlement movement, and profound insights into how it has deepened rifts within Israel, infuriated Palestinians and riled allies in the United States and Europe . . . Talented journalist that Gorenberg is, he has produced a narrative that provides not only the dry historical dates and facts, but accounts of behind the scenes politicking based on extensive interviews with some of those who were involved. And there is many a colorful anecdote . . . Gorenberg's book emerges with a much more comprehensive picture of those who built the settlements than other books on the movement . . . Gorenberg treats the national-religious camp with more understanding and balance than other writers, if only because he gives the Labor Zionists in power a fairly equal trouncing. Gorenberg . . . is very much at home writing about post-1967 Jewish messianism."—Ilene R. Prusher, The Jerusalem Report

"[In] his masterly book based on original research . . . [Gershom Gorenberg] brilliantly describe[s] . . . how this mini-empire first came into being after the brief 1967 war."—Amos Elon, The New York Review of Books

"Gershom Gorenberg has written the single most important piece of investigative reporting to date on the beginnings of Israel's settlement project . . . [He] illustrates how a series of small decisions, made individually, eventually became an unarticulated policy of colonization."—Estelle Frankel, Tikkun Magazine

"The Accidental Empire is an extraordinary book. It offers insight and understanding into a period that has never been well understood. After the 1967 war, few in Israel recognized the inherent problems of building Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line, for they were torn between reason and spiritual attachment to the land. As Gershom Gorenberg shows in this wonderfully written history, the building of settlements took on a life of its own—too easy to do, too hard to stop, and too easy to simply let happen."—Dennis Ross, former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, and author of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace

"A groundbreaking investigation into the origins of one of the most contentious issues in Arab-Israeli relations—and in the Middle East—and a valuable reference for journalists, students, and scholars interested in the region."—Michael B. Oren, author of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

"The Accidental Empire casts a stark light on Israel's settlement of the lands it gained in the Six-Day War. Gershom Gorenberg contends that the Israeli left, as well as the Orthodox right, backed a policy that, though born of a felt need for security, encumbered the quest for peace—and that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger also failed to foresee the long-term costs. This tragic tale suggests how a fearful nation helped foster the very threats it sought to escape."—David Greenberg, Rutgers University, author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image

"Most empires are not built by way of a conscious, planned, systematic execution of a policy of territorial expansion. Gorenberg, a journalist in Jerusalem, examines the evolution of the Israeli policy of settlement of the territories conquered in the Six Day War of 1967. He convincingly illustrates that the policy was the result of a myriad of small decisions and actions by both major and minor players on the Israeli political, military, and religious landscapes. At no time could one speak of a clear, coherent, and constant government policy that contemplated massive settlement and eternal control of these territories. Rather, Gorenberg describes a series of spasmodic efforts, sometimes led by religious zealots, sometimes led by secular, left leaning Zionists, and sometimes by military pragmatists. At times the government encouraged these movements; at other times, the government seemed a semiparalyzed bystander. It was only with the fall of the Labor Party and the emergence of the Likud under Menachem Begin in 1977 that settlement and retention of the West Bank and Gaza were crystallized as goverment policy. Given recent developments in both Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled areas, this is a timely, vital, and even riveting analysis of how the current territorial and ethnic Gordian knot developed."—Jay Freeman, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

THE ACCIDENTAL EMPIRE (Chapter 1)The Avalanche
One day in early May 1967, General Uzi Narkiss stood in the shade of pine trees on the breeze-stroked hilltop of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, at the edge of Israeli West Jerusalem, and looked out past the...

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  • Gershom Gorenberg

  • Gershom Gorenberg is a columnist and associate editor at The Jerusalem Report. He is the author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount and co-author of Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, Ha'aretz, and Ma'ariv. Born in America and educated at the University of California and Hebrew University, Gorenberg lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.