Bookforum | Apr/May 2006

The citizens of Israel woke up on the morning of June 11, 1967, to a world irrevocably changed. The armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had been crushed, and tiny Israel—"poor little Samson," as Prime Minister Levi Eshkol used to say—was now in possession of a swath of land three times the country's original size, stretching from the Suez Canal to the Jordan River, with Syria's Golan Heights thrown in for good measure. The hard choice that divided the Zionist movement before the state's inception—whether to accept partition and statehood on part of the Land of Israel or hold out for the Whole Land—had vanished overnight.

"The meaning of this victory," the poet Nathan Alterman wrote, "is that it erased the difference between the state of Israel and the Land of Israel." Anyone "who returns these pieces of land," Alterman thundered, "will first have to write a different Bible." Left unmentioned, however, was the disposition of the more than one million Palestinians resident on the land Israel had finally reclaimed. "We got a lovely dowry," Eshkol quipped as the war neared its end. "The trouble is that with dowry comes the wife."

But the complications were hardly new. Shortly after the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the rabbis of Vienna sent two of their own to the Holy Land to explore the possibilities for immigration. "The bride is beautiful," they cabled home. "But she is married to another man." Prying the bride from the husband, it turned out, was the easy part. Figuring out what to do with the cuckold would be another matter.

In the glow of Israel's miraculous victory in 1967, the dilemma was forgotten. On the night of June 10, as the United Nations–imposed ceasefire neared, Israeli units rushed to seize the rest of the Golan Heights, and a band of contractors entered the Old City to begin demolishing Palestinian homes in front of the Western Wall. Roughly a thousand people were turned out of their houses, "given a few minutes" to gather their belongings; the haste was no accident, for the war was over, but peace had yet to arrive. "Do it now," Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek urged. "It may be impossible later."

"The bulldozers set a precedent," Gershom Gorenberg, a writer and editor at the Jerusalem Report, notes sharply at the outset of The Accidental Empire. "Officials were defying the laws of the country they served, in the name of their duty to that country." Indeed, the occupation resuscitated an older Israeli ethos: "using faits accomplis to determine the political future of disputed land." As Yehoshua Palmon, Kollek's adviser on Arab affairs, would later explain, "We take the land first and the law comes after."

The consequences of this policy have reverberated for decades. While Eshkol's cabinet vigorously debated the future of the occupied territories, neatly prefiguring every position in a debate Israelis would carry on among themselves for forty years—from annexation to Palestinian statehood—facts on the ground proliferated. The positions of two war heroes
in Eshkol's administration in particular, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, defined the limits of the debate and foreclosed a range of Israeli options for years to come.

Defense Minister Dayan, whose swashbuckling bravado was neatly encapsulated in his iconic eyepatch, envisioned permanent Israeli rule over the entire West Bank, whose residents would remain citizens of Jordan or be granted autonomy, a kind of pretend statehood, sans sovereignty. Allon—"the armed prophet of the Whole Land," in the words of one admirer—believed Israel must separate from heavily populated Palestinian areas, lest it be lured into a binational trap and overwhelmed demographically. He proposed rapidly establishing Israeli settlements in strategically valuable areas of the West Bank—around Jerusalem and along the border with Jordan—that were sparsely peopled with Palestinians, so that Israel might retain "the Whole Land strategically and a Jewish state demographically."

The consensus that emerged could have been written on a Möbius strip: We can't give back the territories, and we can't keep them. Faced with a Hobson's choice, the government, as Eshkol told Lyndon Johnson in 1968, "decided not to decide." Postponement was its policy, and five weeks after the end of the war, the first Israeli settlement took root in an abandoned Syrian base in the Golan Heights. Israel had already annexed East Jerusalem at the end of June, along with a spacious cordon sanitaire stretching "far beyond the Jordanian city limits," to include "room beyond the Green Line for major housing developments for Jews."

By the time the Labor Party's thirty-year reign was ended by the stunning Likud victory in 1977, there were nearly eighty settlements in occupied territory, not counting those in East Jerusalem, which alone housed more than forty thousand Israelis. Israel's General Security Service extended its tentacles of control into the territories, "expanding like a company whose product had found a new market," monitoring Palestinians and policing the West Bank. Autonomy, Gorenberg notes, "was not intended to end occupation but to make it less visible—to hide the bride and keep the dowry—while allowing settlement to continue."

Though the settlements are inextricably linked in the public mind with the Likud Party, Gorenberg's careful study establishes without any doubt that the Labor governments in the decade following the Six-Day War "broke boundaries, established methods," and erased not just the Green Line but the "boundary between legal and illegal action." Eshkol "made a choice," Gorenberg writes, "knowingly evaded legal constraints, imposed his decision on the cabinet, and misrepresented his intentions abroad." The long twilight of indecision put the settlements irreversibly in motion. Split between Dayan's plan and Allon's, the government haphazardly pursued both. It established some settlements, acquiesced to others, and simply refused to stop the rest, dispatching military units to protect those established without government approval. Allon's logic was quickly turned inside out: Settlements meant to provide security instead required it.

The major West Bank settlements initiated by Labor governments prior to 1977—including Ma'aleh Adumim and the Etzion Bloc—will not be dismantled under any existing peace plan; indeed, George W. Bush's April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon endorsing the Gaza disengagement promised that "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." Given the persistence of this "fragmented geography," the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman notes in his fine contribution to Against the Wall: Israel's Barrier to Peace, no barrier "could achieve separation and place Israelis and Palestinians on two sides of a single line." Though the wall is resolutely not a border, Weizman observes, "it attempts to display the reassuring iconography of one."

There is undoubtedly a security rationale behind the wall, but it is not the security of a political border. Instead, the wall is the ultimate expression of a system that creates a fragile security by suppression of movement. It has not introduced, as the Tel Aviv philosophers Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir observe, "any new methods of domination that have not already been put to use at a more local level. . . . The attempt to ‘clean' more and more space of Palestinian presence, the radical reduction of the volume of Palestinian movement in space, and the detailed, rigorous control over anything that is still moving were all already
in place before the erection of the wall." Such control of movement doesn't depend on physical barriers: As Ha'aretz reported in February, Israel, which once intended to construct a kind of "rear" wall to seal off the Jordan Valley, has instead simply declared the area, comprising almost a third of the West Bank, closed to Palestinians.

From the start of the settlement enterprise, Israel aimed to control the land without being forced to annex its residents. The settlements were advertised as temporary—and indeed, as Sharon demonstrated in Gaza, they could be removed for strategic advantage if Israel so desired. But temporariness, in this context, is a political-legal quality rather than an ontological one. In the West Bank, Israel retains absolute sovereignty on both sides of the wall—and the power to impose whatever "temporary" means it likes.

The essays in Against the Wall demonstrate that the indeterminate character of the territories created in the Eshkol era not only persists but can be said to have pioneered a kind of twilight zone of political sovereignty, the complexities of which test the limits of our usual political language. The territories are not part of Israel but are not governed by another country. They are home to two distinct classes: settlers, who exist in an Israeli archipelago, granted the rights of citizens in "metropolitan Israel," and West Bank Palestinians, who are neither subjects of the sovereign power nor possessors of their own sovereignty. The wall does not function as a political border, because those Israelis on the "Palestinian" side will not be stripped of their rights—and those Palestinians stranded on the "Israeli" side, between the wall and the Green Line, will certainly not be granted them.

Rather than relinquish control of territory, the wall provides a new means of controlling it; instead of dividing space, it furthers its unity under the control of one power; it makes separation less, rather than more, likely. Indeed, like the settlement blocs Israel intends to retain, which split the Palestinian entity into noncontiguous cantons, the wall demonstrates all too clearly that you needn't possess territory to control it—which is the lesson of the entire occupation. What matters is not who has legal control of the space but who has the brute authority to define and reorder it. Israel controls the organization and determination of the contested space; in short, it controls everything but the physical land, including, as Weizman observes, the underground water rights and the airspace overhead.

Gorenberg's narrative illustrates all too clearly that Israel has no desire for the land if it comes with Palestinians, but it has no intention, either, of relinquishing control of that land while the Palestinians live on it. Though later Israeli administrations abandoned the facade of indecision that marked the first years of occupation, they continued the policy of postponement, unwilling to endanger the carefully engineered Jewish character of Israeli democracy by annexing the territories. As the Israeli geographers Oren Yiftachel and Haim Yacobi suggest in Against the Wall, the "contradictions" of this arrangement have required "a major tactical change in order to maintain the Israeli ethnocratic system," specifically, the building of the wall and the disengagement from Gaza. In place of two states there is now an indeterminate Israel-and-a-half, an unstable entity that nevertheless appears likely to persist in the absence of alternatives. The sharp question that Lyndon Johnson once posed to Eshkol—"What kind of Israel do you want?"—remains resolutely unanswered. There will be no peace until it is.

Jonathan Shainin is the editor, with Roane Carey, of The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press, 2004). He is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.