Begin government & Gush Emunim
Soon after the signing of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, which bound the former to halting settlement construction for three months, Gush Emunim mobilized under the leadership of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook to sabotage the agreement in its wake. In December 1978, thousands of settlers and yeshiva students traveled from Jerusalem to just south of Nablus, near Huwara, to establish a new settlement — Elon Moreh. Not only was Elon Moreh contrary to the spirit of the agreement just signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but in the eyes of Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, it was completely unnecessary the interests of Irsael’s security establishment. The government promptly evacuated the fledgling outpost, but after a year, it expropriated privately-owned Palestinian land for the Elon Moreh nucleus to build on. The High Court eventually ruled the expropriation as illegal and that the settlement was to be evacuated, but the decision is an outlier in Israeli judicial history relating to the Occupied Territories. Although it temporarily prevented the expropriation of private land (Machon Meir affiliates would later establish another settlement, Itamar, on this land), the decision did not prevent the establishment of Elon Moreh, which simply moved northward following the ruling.
This affair sums up the relationship between the settler movement and the government, in which the former was able to influence the latter into supporting its endeavors. Despite opposition from some in the government, the fact that many Israeli officials, such as Ariel Sharon under Begin, aligned firmly with the settler bloc, meant that the difference between the goals of Gush Emunim and Israeli state institutions was blurry. Even those less aligned than Sharon, like Begin himself, still met and worked together with settler leaders to advance a common agenda.
The government made clear to Gush Emunim through its language and policy in the territories that despite external pressures, it was prepared to support Jewish settlement of the territories in the long run. External pressures from other states acted as both deterrents and incentives for the government to settle the Occupied Territories, however these pressures were not the primary driver of settlement policy, playing second fiddle to Gush Emunim’s influence. The government’s willing acquiescence and at times identification with settler ideology indirectly affected the High Court as well, which tends to defer to the state when deciding on cases related to the Occupied Territories.
The tension between the government and Gush Emunim by no means indicates that settler ideology and the government were completely distinct. As previously mentioned, the government at times identified itself with the settler movement. Biblical language that implicitly justified Jewish control over the Occupied Territories not only found its way into the speeches of Israeli officials, but became standard for the military soon after the Six-Day War. Per a 1967 directive from the office of the Chief of the General Staff, the military had already begun to refer to the Occupied Territories with biblical names (Yehuda, Shomron, etc) and when referring to their entirety, used the term “held territories,” which doesn’t allude to religion, however maintains a sense of ambiguity regarding their final status, which would allow the government to pursue colonization of the West Bank and Gaza under the cover of a purportedly temporary military occupation.
Additionally, Begin in particular used religious references in his interactions with President Jimmy Carter, and spoke of areas in the West Bank with their biblical names to make a point about Jewish sovereignty in the territories. Simultaneously, he aired his concerns about American opposition to the settlement project to Gush Emunim leaders. In one such conversation with Hanan Porat in 1977, he tells him: “Settle on the land in a partisan way and get organized on the ground. After the fact it will be easy to say, ‘My sons have vanquished me!’” Begin effectively planned to save face for the US and international community by making it seem as if he had no choice but to cave to settler demands. Begin’s scenario later played out in the case of Elon Moreh, where Gush Emunim operated separately from the government, faced opposition, and quickly won over the government’s support.
On the ground, government officials spearheaded the settlement project, particularly under the Begin government in the late 1970s to early 80s. Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon in 1977 came up with a three-pronged plan to settle the West Bank — he aimed to build a string of settlements atop a north-south mountain range which would secure the coastal plain, settlements which would secure the eastern border of the West Bank and surround Arab villages near Jerusalem with Jewish settlements in order to strengthen Israeli control over East Jerusalem. He attempted and succeeded in building as many settlements as possible in a short period of time. He wasn’t alone in this vision. In 1980, the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization published a plan by Matityahu Drobles for the future of the Occupied Territories which echoed Sharon’s activities. Drobles explicitly calls for annexation and states that due to the threat of an “eastern rejectionist front” that remains hostile to Israel, it was essential to draw Israel’s border far away from population centers, on the Jordan River. Naturally, this necessitates that the government plan settlements in a manner that would make a future Palestinian state unviable. Although this aim isn’t messianic in nature, Gush Emunim also wanted to establish a Jewish state from the river to the sea, and found a loyal ally in Sharon on account of this.
Using opposition from Arab states as reasoning to settle the Occupied Territories was not a strategy of the Israeli Right alone. Almost a decade before Begin’s government, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol approved the establishment of Kfar Etzion as an “outpost” with the implication that it would turn into a full-fledged settlement. This decision was in wake of the 1967 Khartoum Summit, in which eight Arab leaders reaffirmed their opposition to Israel’s existence as a state. Although his plans weren’t as far-reaching as the Begin government’s, he too worked hand-in-hand with settler leaders like Hanan Porat, who led the movement to establish Kfar Etzion.
The state’s internalization of Gush Emunim ideology post-1967 did not stop at the government or military. The Israeli High Court, which, as David Kretzmer notes, tends to take a “rights-minded approach” in its jurisprudence pertaining to Israel proper, takes a different approach when it comes to the Occupied Territories. The court did make an effort to “judicialize” certain procedures to constrain military power in the West Bank, however it is hesitant to officially hand down actual rulings in this area. In Kretzmer’s analysis of the High Court’s behavior, he asserts that the court’s facade of neutrality can only be upheld in what the public perceives to be domestic disputes. In what are perceived to be external disputes, he writes, “courts will inevitably act as institutions whose primary duty is to protect the perceived interests of the state, even when this involves serious incursions on individual liberties and basic human rights.” Through the eyes of its leaders, the perceived interests of the state involve settlement of the Occupied Territories, and so the court was typically hesitant to issue a ruling infringing upon the settlement project, unless there is opposition within the government itself, as was the case with Ezer Weizmann’s stance on Elon Moreh.