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The Unmaking of Israel

Gershom Gorenberg

NYT review

Let me list, at the outset, the many things that the diminutive but disproportionately interesting state of Israel is not. I do this in recognition of the fact that mere mention of Israel can send its critics into paroxysms of rhetorical excess seldom heard outside ESPN. So: Israel is not a fascist state, nor is it a theocracy nor, for that matter, is it a fascist theocracy. It is not an apartheid state, a totalitarian state or, God forbid, a Nazi state. It is, for its region in particular, a model of Western values, a country in possession of a robustly independent judiciary; a boisterous, appropriately unkempt press; a mature and activist civil society; and an assortment of fearless and effective human rights organizations.

If this can be so stipulated, we can then move on to a more difficult conversation, one Gershom Gorenberg outlines for us in his indispensable, closely argued and conditionally apocalyptic new book, “The Unmaking of Israel.” Gorenberg, a leftist Israeli journalist of American extraction, tells us that the Israel of the mainstream American, Leon Uris-influenced imagination is not the Israel of today’s reality. The Israel of today is rampant with illiberal feeling. It is a place whose Arab citizens are at once enfranchised and isolated. It is a place whose military is coming to be dominated not by the secular, progressive-minded kibbutznikim of old, but by a right-wing Orthodox officer corps, some of whom may respect the idea of Jewish land more than they respect the decisions of the elected government. Mainly, it is a place being corrupted by an ostensibly temporary but in fact interminable occupation.

“The Unmaking of Israel” argues, in essence, that Israel is losing the 1967 Six- Day War. How can it lose a war it won so decisively more than 44 years ago? By believing it can swallow whole the territories it gained in that war and flourish in perpetuity as a law-abiding democratic nation with a Jewish majority. And Israel is losing another war, as well, Gorenberg argues, against twin religious fundamentalisms, the first that of the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, variant, whose adherents deplete the Israeli treasury while rejecting any notion of responsibility to the state. The second, and even more ominous fundamentalism is the type followed by many West Bank settlers and their supporters, who have sanctified the acquisition of land to the detriment of all other Jewish values.

Gorenberg is at his most incensed, and most eloquent, on the issue of the Jewish settlements, which many Palestinians see as concrete proof of Israeli lack of interest in a two-state solution. It is an understandable Palestinian view, but the truth is more complicated. The majority of Israelis say they support a two-state solution, and the majority of Israelis, if they ever loved the settlements, appear to love them no more (Israelis are not, in my experience, unaware that settlements are the main weapon in the arsenal of Israel’s adversaries). But the majority is powerless in the face of the relentless settler minority.

The settlements were not part of an insidious plan. But after the Six-Day War — a war Israel did not seek — euphoria gripped the country, and a previously marginal religious movement within Orthodoxy saw the conquest of the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria, as a sign not only of God’s favor but also of the imminence of the redemption.

“So at the moment of its triumph, Israel began to take itself apart,” Gorenberg writes. “Long-term rule of Palestinians was a retreat from the ideal of democracy, a retreat that governments denied by describing the occupation as temporary. The settlement enterprise was a multipronged assault on the rule of law.”

How so? Gorenberg cites, among other examples, that of the northern West Bank settlement of Ofra, once a small outpost, now home to about 3,000 Israelis, which was established illegally, not only according to international law, but to Israeli law as well. “The relevant Israeli authorities have never approved a town plan for Ofra or defined its municipal area. Those are legal preconditions for issuing building permits in an Israeli settlement.” An army database on settlements discloses why these conditions were never met: “Most of Ofra was built ‘with no legal basis’ on land privately owned by Palestinians.” Gorenberg notes that the settlers would not have succeeded had they not had the support of politicians like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

How did it happen that a country of laws — Israel’s Supreme Court justices are renowned around the globe — came to be so lawless in one corner of the territory it ruled? Temptation played an enormous role — the mountain spine of the West Bank, not the Mediterranean coast, is the actual birthplace of Judaism. And a cultural predisposition was revivified by the sudden acquisition of new land: Zionism had been animated by a near-mystical belief in the necessity of rural settlement. But by 1967, Gorenberg argues, this particular ideological strain had run its course. Israel was a state; it didn’t need kibbutzim on its borders, because it had an army on its borders.

The settlement movement, which has so enmeshed Israel in the lives of Arabs who wish to govern themselves, had another partner, one to which Gorenberg, like many on the left, pays scant attention: the Arab states that provoked the Six-Day War and then, after their defeat, remained defiant and mainly uninterested in a quick exchange of territory for recognition of Israel. Nor does Gorenberg waste much ink crediting various Israeli governments with trying, over the years, to reach an equitable arrangement with the Palestinians (most notably under the aegis of Bill Clinton at Camp David). Nor does he grapple in any serious way with a subject of some relevance — the civil war among Palestinians, between an organization, Hamas, that seeks Israel’s destruction, and a Palestinian Authority that claims adherence to the idea of a two-state solution. Moreover, the corrosive anti-Semitism that long ago infected parts of the Palestinian polity (not to mention other parts of the Muslim world) is dismissed rather blithely.

Still, it is Jews who created many of the problems the Jewish state faces today, and it is Jews who must fix them. Gorenberg, after depressing his readers with his tales of woe, outlines many reasonable steps Israel should take to disentangle religion from the state and to return thousands of settlers to Israel proper. No doubt most everyone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would agree with his recommendations. Whether Israelis do, particularly in the current, besieged climate, is another thing entirely.

I wrote that this book is merely conditionally apocalyptic — conditionally because, even after 44 years, Israel has not moved to annex the West Bank permanently or to disenfranchise its Arab citizens. Israel is most definitively not an apartheid state. But then there is this: On a recent visit to the West Bank city of Hebron, I met with a Palestinian resident who recently passed through Israel’s military justice system. His rights in this system were limited. This particular Palestinian lives on a street that he shares with Jewish settlers. The settlers, unlike the Palestinians, are full citizens of Israel; they can vote for their leaders, and have open access to the Israeli civilian judicial system. The Palestinians who live side by side with them are not allowed a say in choosing the government that rules over them. Gorenberg’s book makes clear that this is a situation that cannot go on forever.

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