The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg (Henry Holt), 454 pages, $40 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
On the eve of Israel's 58th birth day, many still wonder what went sour in the land of milk and honey. The Accidental Empire helps answer that question. In the tense days leading up to 1967's Six Day War, a sense of historical dread filled the collective Israeli consciousness. Fear of an Arab war of extermination was stifling the nation.
In just six days the Israeli army defeated the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and the Israeli Defense Forces controlled all of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol then met with U.S. president Lyndon Johnson.
"What kind of Israel do you want?" Johnson asked.
"My government has decided not to decide," Eshkol replied. The ramifications of this policy of abdication from responsible governing have lasted nearly four decades.
Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg recounts the post-war decade of political and religious upheaval that stained Israel's worldwide reputation and eventually brought an end to the Labour party's dynasty.
The decade leading up to the election of the right-wing Likud party, and the explosion of settlements on conquered land, was full of self-delusion, political gamesmanship and religious fanaticism.
Secular settlers who wanted to recreate the origins of the early kibbutz movement found themselves replaced by angry mystics who felt bound only by God's law, as they defined it. And while the government publicly condemned settler lawlessness, some of its members, including defence minister Shimon Perez, quietly encouraged them.
Gorenberg's writing is often a bit muddled, and the players change positions so fast, the flow of events becomes hard to follow. But he provides a valuable reference tool for understanding the politics of Israeli settlement.