The Militarist and Messianic Ideologies


Two weeks after 60,000 Likud Party members voted against a pullout from the Gaza Strip, about 150,000 Israelis filled Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, calling on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government to proceed with the withdrawal plan. Those opposing the pullout from Gaza support the vision of a Greater Israel, while those favoring the pullout support the state of Israel. The first group believes that without Gaza, Israel will be destroyed; the second believes that with it, Israel will be destroyed.

Ironically, many of those who packed Rabin Square and today are over 40 years old also participated in a famous protest in 1982, only then the demonstration was against Sharon and his invasion of Lebanon, and the plaza was not called Rabin Square. The fact that many of those who protested against Sharon "the war criminal" in 1982 took to the streets to support him and his unilateral plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2004 warrants an explanation. Has Sharon undergone a metamorphosis in the 22 years separating these two protests or, alternatively, has the Peace Now rank and file who chanted in the Tel Aviv plaza changed over the years?


Following the establishment of the first Likud government in 1977, Sharon hoped that Prime Minister Menachem Begin would make him defense minister. He was dismayed when Ezer Weizmann received that portfolio, while he was appointed minister of agriculture. Soon thereafter, the peace agreement with Egypt began to unfold. Weizmann, who hoped to include the Palestinians within the accords, opposed the settlement project then underway; he opined that Israel should withdraw from occupied Palestinian territories within the framework of a peace treaty. Sharon, on the other hand, voted against the withdrawal from Sinai and wanted to preempt the possibility of any future agreement based on trading land for peace. Accordingly, as chair of the government’s Settlement Committee, he initiated a massive settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories. Whereas Israel erected 20 settlements in the West Bank between 1967 and 1976 (in addition to those built on confiscated Palestinian land around East Jerusalem), within less than four years Sharon managed to build 62 new settlements, completely changing the landscape of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since then, Sharon has been considered the father of Israel’s unruly settlement project.

Sharon’s commitment to a Greater Israel, however, preceded his political career. While still a general in the Israeli military, Sharon created an alliance with Gush Emunim (in Hebrew, Bloc of the Faithful), the highly efficient settler movement. "I confess that I am the initiator of the idea of establishing Jewish settlements in the Strip," he said in a 1973 newspaper interview, right after he resigned from serving as the general in charge of Israel’s Southern Command. Sharon went on to explain: "I established Kfar Darom [the first settlement in the Gaza Strip] and I established Netzarim, and encircled their territory with fences."

In August 1981, Sharon became defense minister. Four years earlier, he had told an Israeli reporter that "the Arab states are swiftly preparing for war, and we are sitting on a barrel of explosives wasting our time on nonsense. The Arabs," he continued, "will launch a war in the summer or the fall." The war did not come, at least not until Sharon assumed office. The story of how Sharon led Israel into Lebanon, hoping to establish a puppet government in order to preempt attacks from the north, is by now well-known. Also well-known is the Sabra and Shatila massacre of September 1982, and the findings of the Israeli inquiry commission, headed by Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan, which led to Sharon’s resignation. The Kahan Commission did not, however, manage to change Israeli political reality. It took 17 more years before Israel finally withdrew its troops from Lebanon, after thousands of civilians and soldiers lay buried in the ground, hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced, and much of Lebanon was in ruins. Moreover, the Commission did not blame Sharon for the war or his role in the massacre, and he was never expelled from the political realm.


In February 2001, 18 years after the Kahan Commission published its findings, Sharon finally made his ultimate comeback, winning direct elections and becoming the prime minister of Israel with an unprecedented 62.4 percent of the vote. Two years later, he was reelected in a landslide victory, making him the first premier to be elected to a second term since Begin in 1981. Given his history in Lebanon and his more recent notoriety for visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount under heavy armed guard in late September 2000, sparking Palestinian demonstrations that mushroomed into the second intifada, many commentators were surprised at the avuncular image he chose for himself during his first campaign. Is the new Sharon, they wondered, still the old Sharon? The prime minister’s allies on the Israeli right wondered the same thing after he used the word "occupation" to describe the Israeli military presence in Palestinian towns and again after the promulgation of his "disengagement" plan.

But to focus on Sharon’s persona is to miss the point. Over the past year a significant change has begun to take place in Israel, one that also helps to explain why the same people who protested against Sharon in 1982 flocked to Rabin Square in 2004 to support his withdrawal plan. The change has to do with a growing rift between two ideologies that for years had been cemented together: the messianic ideology of a Greater Israel and the militarist ideology of a Greater Israel. The connection of these two ideologies, now unraveling, had been one of the astounding historic accomplishments of the settler movement, Gush Emunim.


While secular Zionism conceived the return of Jews to Palestine in standard Western nationalist terms, Gush Emunim’s founders claimed that the heart of Zionism lies in following the religious duty to settle the land. Zionism, the leaders of Gush Emunim maintained, is not simply one national movement among many others, but rather a movement blooming from the revival of Jewish religious values. It is, as Michael Feige points out in his book One Space, Two Places (2002) [Hebrew], a messianic movement without a messiah, since the utopian vision will be realized not after the appearance of a God-like figure, but following the complete control of the land of biblical Israel.

Early on, though, the movement’s leaders realized that a messianic ideology, on its own, would not be enough to accomplish cultural and political hegemony in Israel, and that Gush Emunim would have to transform the collective Israeli consciousness if the movement were to realize its political objective of gaining control over Greater Israel. Religious rhetoric, by itself, would not justify the erection of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories to a largely secular public. Consequently, Gush Emunim integrated the modern nationalist discourse into its messianic ideology, while also adopting a militarist ideology. This is precisely where Sharon enters the picture.

As a secular Jew who grew up in Mapai (the precursor to the Labor Party), Sharon should ostensibly have had very little in common with Gush Emunim. Yet, the land Israel occupied in 1967 created a bond between the military man and the religious movement. To be sure, Sharon’s connection to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem was never based on religious belief or messianic conviction. Rather, the attachment was informed by a particular military point of view that conceives of territory as the essential ingredient of security. Even before Sharon resigned from the military, an alliance was born between him and Gush Emunim. The settlers’ bloc aspired to build on the lands Israel had occupied to fulfill a religious duty, while Sharon thought that settlement in and control over the Occupied Territories was the way to secure the state of Israel. Gush Emunim provided the cadres for new Jewish settlements and Sharon provided both the military justification, and, at various points in his career, the authority to seize lands owned by the occupied Palestinians. Not surprisingly, every time the legality of the settlements has been challenged before Israel’s High Court of Justice, "security concerns," not religious edicts, have been used to justify the dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants.

Already in 1974, when the first government of Yitzhak Rabin sent the military to dismantle the Jewish outpost of Elon Moreh, Sharon, who was no longer in the army, protected the settlers with his own body. He told an Israeli reporter that it was an "immoral military command, and it is necessary [for soldiers] to refuse such orders. I would not have obeyed such orders." After years of disputes in the courts, Elon Moreh was recognized by the state (at an alternative location), becoming a symbol of settler resolve. For Sharon the command to evacuate the outpost near the West Bank town of Nablus was immoral because, in his view, it undermined Israel’s security objectives; for Gush Emunim it was immoral because it frustrated a religious duty.

Rapidly, though, the distinction between the two ideologies was blurred — security concerns and fundamental religious duties were interlocked in such a way that it became extremely difficult to make out the difference between the two. Gush Emunim’s ability to secularize and militarize its messianic aspirations is in many respects the secret behind its success in changing the Israeli collective consciousness and in attaining both cultural and political hegemony. The integration of the two ideologies also served Sharon’s personal objectives, not least because the rabid nationalism it produced helped to broaden the constituency supporting him during his races for political office.


For 30 years, Gush Emunim (which eventually was institutionalized and transformed into the Yesha Council, Yesha being the Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip) and Ariel Sharon were bedfellows. Together, they managed to accomplish a great deal. If in the early 1970s there were no more than a few hundred Jewish settlers living in a handful of settlements, today one cannot travel more than a few kilometers within the Occupied Territories without running into a settlement. Taken together, the settlements house about 400,000 settlers. The settlement project has been so successful that several political analysts no longer consider the two-state solution a tenable option. Moreover, the Yesha Council’s political clout by far exceeds the size of its constituency, in many ways resembling the influence wielded by the kibbutzim during the heyday of Mapai. There are far more members in today’s Knesset favoring a Greater Israel than in any previous legislature, and the settler movement is probably the most powerful lobby group in Israel.

But while that movement’s leaders may look back to the past with a sense of satisfaction, most of them look forward to the future with great despair. Speaking at Ben-Gurion University in the spring of 2004, Eliakim Haetzni, one of Gush Emunim’s founders, told a room full of professors that the movement’s settlement enterprise was on the verge of destruction. Israel, he maintained, was heading toward an abyss. This statement was, to say the least, perplexing to those in the room who share Haetzni’s sense of despair, but from a diametrically opposed perspective, since they hail from the opposing political camp within Israel. What could explain this shared sensation of defeat among the mutual antagonists?

There is no doubt that Sharon’s unilateral plan to dismantle the Gaza settlements and withdraw the troops who guard them, while closing of all the Strip’s borders — including access from air and sea — is informed by the Greater Israel paradigm. But Sharon’s notion of a Greater Israel is founded on militarism, as opposed to the messianic beliefs espoused by Haetzni and Gush Emunim. For years these two ideologies overlapped. Now, the reemergence of the difference between them is threatening the settlers’ hegemony.

Sharon has finally admitted that the Gaza Strip is not a military asset. He knows that within the Strip the Palestinians will always have a demographic advantage, and because the criterion informing his judgment is ultimately military and not religious, he is no longer willing to allocate exorbitant state resources to protect the handful of Jewish settlers living there. Advocating a withdrawal from the Strip represents the first move toward a divorce between the two ideologies.

Sharon’s proposal, though, is also about annexation. One clause stipulates that areas within the West Bank "will remain part of the state of Israel, among them civilian settlements, military zones and places where Israel has additional interests." The Bush administration supported this clause, legitimating Sharon’s request to annex de jure what has already been annexed de facto. The idea is to provide legal standing to almost all the 220,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and the 180,000 living in East Jerusalem, and, in this way, reduce the possibility that they will need to return to Israel proper under any future agreement.


Why, one might ask, did the West Bank settlers reject Sharon’s unilateral plan? After all, in return for a pledge to relocate 7,500 settlers, the Israeli premier induced Bush to acknowledge the legality of 400,000 settlers and, in this way, helped to realize the dream of a Greater Israel. Sharon’s pledge, moreover, has only been approved in principle by the Israeli cabinet, and the prime minister must return to the cabinet in March 2005 before actually dismantling a single settlement.

The answer is complex. On one level, the settlers know — better than anyone else — that in the Occupied Territories the rule of law matters much less than facts on the ground. For the settlers, a withdrawal from Gaza would create a dangerous precedent. It would mark the first time since 1948 that Jewish settlements were dismantled within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If settlements can be dismantled in the Strip, they can be uprooted in the West Bank as well. On a deeper level, the settler movement realizes that Sharon is creating a rift between the messianic and militarist ideologies. If Sharon convinces the Israeli public that the religious agenda is unconnected to security, the movement will lose much of its clout. This helps explain Haetzni’s despair.

Although Sharon may have discarded the messianic ideology, he intends to pursue his political objectives until the very end. Accordingly, he has substituted for the messianic ideology a new and extremely efficient weapon — the separation barrier. Made up of a series of fences, trenches, walls and patrol roads, the barrier was initially supposed to separate Israel proper from the Occupied Territories, yet it is actually being built deep inside Palestinian lands. It will create facts on the ground that will affect any future arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Although in many parts the barrier separates Palestinians from Palestinians, the militarist ideology has convinced the public that it is built to separate Israelis from Palestinians — a classic example of an ideological superstructure camouflaging the material developments on the ground. The barrier being erected is qualitatively different from a barrier whose function is to demarcate a border between two countries; it is much more like the barriers used to create prisons. Moreover, if Sharon pulls it off, about 50 percent of the West Bank will be annexed to Israel and the Palestinian "state" will be made up of a number of districts that are not contiguous. In apartheid-era South Africa, such regions were called bantustans.


Tragically, many of the 150,000 peaceniks who demonstrated in support of Sharon’s withdrawal plan also back the separation barrier and do not really care where it passes. Whereas Sharon may have given up on holding 100 percent of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and therefore abandoned Gush Emunim’s version of the Greater Israel ideology, many liberal Israelis are willing to support Sharon’s 50 percent plan for a Greater Israel, replacing the two-state solution mantra with a new buzzword — "separation." The details about how to separate are not important. All these liberals want is an immediate divorce, and Sharon, they think, can perform the ceremony. In terms of militarist ideology, certain elements within Peace Now hold views that are in many ways similar to Sharon’s.

Peace Now was founded in the late 1970s by a group of reservist officers. Although their aim was to pressure Israel to reach peace with Egypt and its other Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians, these doves also derived inspiration from tenets underlying the Jewish state that are non-universalistic. Peace Now ends its major rallies with Israel’s national anthem, "Ha-Tikvah" (The Hope), which begins like this: "As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart / With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion / Then our hope — the 2,000-year old hope — will not be lost / To be a free people in our land / The land of Zion and Jerusalem."

These words, written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, were intended for Jews only and certainly exclude the 20 percent of the Israeli citizenry that is Palestinian. Given what transpired after the song was written, the anthem helps to perpetuate the Zionist myth that described the return of Jews to Palestine as a return of "a people without a land to a land without a people."

Although Peace Now avers that it recognizes the "fact that there are two peoples in this land, Palestinians and Jews, each with a history, claims and rights," in its activities the group fails to acknowledge the 1948 catastrophe of the Palestinian people, approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it began in 1967.

This historical bias has helped to render the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as the pre-1967 Palestinian refugees, invisible. Moreover, this bias underscores Peace Now’s unwillingness to confront history from the standpoint of the oppressed, which is a necessary component in every dialogic attempt to bring peace. So while Peace Now continues to distrust Sharon and vocally criticize his settlement policies, many of its leaders and cadres now support the premier’s call for separation, as opposed to negotiation. They are also willing to "compromise" on the amount of land Israel returns.

What Sharon and the Israeli peaceniks who support the separation barrier neglect to see is that while the barrier imprisons the Palestinians, it is also encircling Israel, turning it, as it were, into an island, as opposed to a state among states in the Middle East. The crux of the matter is that a worldview based solely on militaristic concerns is destined to be myopic. Haetzni may be right to despair of his messianic vision’s power to drive Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. But regardless of whether Sharon manages to implement his withdrawal plan, the vision of a Greater Israel, as opposed to a state of Israel, has, for the time being, triumphed. That triumph, in turn, helps to explain why the Israeli peace camp that does not support separation is also in despair.