The issue of Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian West Bank is back on centre stage this week as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with the leadership in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.
The goal is to find a formula that would limit settlement construction in such a way as to allow Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a resumption of negotiations for a final peace agreement with Israel.
The political fallout from the construction of settlements in the whole of Eretz Israel (the Biblical Land of Israel) has dogged the Jewish state since its formal modern incarnation in 1948.
Gershom Gorenberg, an exceptional Israeli historian and writer, has documented just how entwined the state and the settlement enterprise has been in two highly readable books. The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (2006) describes the genesis and expansion of the controversial West Bank settlements in the volatile decade that followed Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and its occupation of the territory formerly held by Jordan.
With government support and frequent subterfuge, Mr. Gorenberg writes, the settlements took on a life of their own, almost a state of their own – an "accidental empire."
Mr. Gorenberg's latest book The Unmaking of Israel , published this month, picks up where Accidental Empire leaves off. It charts the impact of the settlements on public policy and warns against the consequences of those new policies – an erosion of the values of the initial State of Israel until it becomes unrecognizable – the "unmaking of Israel" as we knew it, he argues.
In a powerful opening chapter he writes of how the original state repulsed attempts by certain Jewish armed forces to operate outside the purview of the state – to the point that David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, ordered the shelling of a ship, The Altalena, carrying arms and men to the defiant Irgun forces of Menachem Begin.
Today's defiant Israeli settlers follow in the path of the Irgun, Mr. Gorenberg believes, but the state, fettered by a powerful coalition of settler leaders and the Orthodox, seems powerless to stop them.