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A History Of West Bank Settlements


While reporting in Israel earlier this month, we drove into a neighborhood in Jerusalem. A man had given us detailed directions to his home. He warned us the streets were too tangled even for Google Maps. We waited until dark when he was finished observing the Jewish Sabbath. And then we took a few wrong turns before we found his building. The man who welcomed us to sit at his kitchen table that night was Gershom Gorenberg. He is an Israeli who was born in the United States.

GERSHOM GORENBERG: I came here to study for a year. And I found two things about Israel that really kept me here.

INSKEEP: He's remained for decades in Israel because Jewish issues are at the center of public life.

GORENBERG: And Israelis are far more concerned with the public square than anything I ever experienced in America.

INSKEEP: People are involved in the community. And Gorenberg is involved in Israel's cacophonous public debate. He writes books. One is called "The Accidental Empire." It traces Israeli settlements in territory captured in the 1967 war. Another is called "The Unmaking Of Israel." It argues settlements undermine the Jewish state. The history of Israeli settlement reaches decades before 1967. From the late-19th century onward, people who dreamed of a Jewish homeland moved to the Middle East to found cities and communal farms.

GORENBERG: Settlement served a series of purposes which fit in with the state-building project. Part of it was that the ideal was not just that Jews would return to their historical homeland, but they would literally return to the soil. It was part of a romance of labor in the soil that was very common in the politics of the era.

INSKEEP: The farms also became bastions of defense. After Israel's independence in 1948, Gorenberg argues, the farms were not needed for defense anymore. Israel had an army.

GORENBERG: But old values stick. And they affect how people make decisions, most of all when they are confused, or they don't know which way to go.

INSKEEP: Such a moment arrived after 1967. On this point, a left-leaning writer like Gorenberg agrees with historians on the right. Israelis were completely surprised to conquer so much territory in 1967. Successive governments never quite agreed on what to do with the land. Yet those governments did support Israeli settlements within it.

GORENBERG: So when the first settlements were established in occupied territory, they were not part of an agreed policy with an endpoint.

INSKEEP: The settlements have spread for decades now. The United Nations Security Council and much of the world have said they are not legal. They have complicated negotiations over a final peace settlement with Palestinians. They've solidified Israeli rule over territories where millions of Palestinians cannot vote in Israeli elections. Gorenberg contends settlements endanger both the rule of law and Israeli democracy. But surveys show Israelis uncertain about what to do now.

GORENBERG: Somewhere between 65 and 70 percent in most of the times I've looked at the results will say it's important or very important to return to negotiations. And somewhere between 25 and 30 percent will say that those negotiations have a chance of success, which is to say that there is an ongoing plurality of 40 percent of Israelis who think it's very important to return to negotiations of whose success they despair.

INSKEEP: That is a discouraging place to be - to think that you must do something important that you are sure is going to fail.

GORENBERG: Well, yes. And I think that that's one of the reasons that, for instance, in the current election campaign, there's been very little stress on the issue of the Palestinians in the territories because a large portion of the population sees that as an important problem that we don't know how to solve because they don't believe that negotiations can be successful.

INSKEEP: Is this country in danger because of this problem?

GORENBERG: I think that the existence of Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state is very much in danger from the continuation of the settlement effort and by the failure to reach a two-state agreement. And in saying that, I would stress that this is not a radical position in Israeli politics.

INSKEEP: Israel's problem is simple math. Israel could give Palestinians the vote, but Jews would lose their overwhelming majority. Israel could keep ruling Palestinians but would cease to be a democracy. Or Israel could let go of the Palestinian territories.

The writer Gershom Gorenberg contends Israel will be forced to choose no matter how long it puts off that decision. After we said goodbye, Palestinians abruptly did become an issue in today's Israeli election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fighting for his job, declared he would block a Palestinian state now. His main opposition leader favors negotiations toward creating a Palestinian state but says it may not be immediately possible. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.