Much has been made over the years, and rightly so, of the messianic fervor that swept Israel after its spectacular victory in the 1967 war. The conquest of Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, all in a biblically epic six days, seemed to religious Israelis — and many secular ones — like a miracle, a sign that God wanted to reunite his people with their promised land. Not long afterward, settlement beyond the 1967 borders began.
Yossi Klein Halevi, in his powerful book “Like Dreamers,” adds an important dimension to this story by focusing on Israel’s near-defeat in the next war, in 1973, as the catalyst for the settler movement and much else that has shaped Israel in the past 40 years. That war was a trauma; a hubristic Labor government made up of secular, European kibbutz veterans was caught unawares by Egyptian and Syrian forces. Nearly 3,000 Israelis died, as did many dreams.
Some saw this as a moment to seize, an opportunity to remove not only the failed leaders but also the entire enterprise of Labor Zionism and to install its competitor, the national religious movement. The kibbutzim, cradle of the nation’s leadership, were waning economically and socially. They could now be replaced in the vanguard by the West Bank settlements. The new power-seekers called themselves Gush Emunim, or bloc of the faithful, and were typified by men like Hanan Porat.
Mr. Porat was badly wounded in battle in 1973. As he lay in his hospital bed, he understood that Israel was at a crossroads and that it was his job to help choose its new direction.
As Mr. Halevi describes the moment: “A plan was forming in Hanan’s mind. A response to despair. A new settlement movement, modeled on the pioneering movements that had built the state. But this time the movement would be led by religious Jews.” It was a movement, Mr. Porat believed, of “those who understood that Zionism was about not refuge but destiny, redemption.”
Three-and-a-half years later the Labor Party was defeated by a hawkish populist coalition led by Menachem Begin, a group that has largely dominated Israeli politics ever since.
Mr. Halevi, an American immigrant who has worked as a journalist and analyst in Jerusalem for 30 years, has created a textured, beautifully written narrative by focusing on seven men — and they are all men — Mr. Porat among them, who served in the paratroop brigade that conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 war. The seven took distinct paths, a few becoming settler leaders, others active on the left, and in the arts and music. One sought common cause with Palestinian revolutionaries and, after a trip to Damascus, ended up in an Israeli prison for 12 years. By accompanying these men across the decades we gain a close understanding of many of the country’s internal debates.
There is much to admire in this book, especially Mr. Halevi’s skill at getting inside the hearts and minds of these seven men. He writes with precision and economy, and is especially good at descriptions. (Shimon Peres is “talented and vain”; Yitzhak Shamir, “grim and unmovable.”) Still, it is hard to accept that in more than 500 pages there is no attempt to present the perspective or experience of Palestinians, either those under occupation or those with Israeli citizenship. It is true that this is a book about the Jews of Israel. But they are not alone on the land and the story of their struggle viewed in such splendid isolation feels, to say the least, shortsighted.
That said, the men Mr. Halevi has chosen are compelling. One is Arik Achmon, a secular liberal from a kibbutz who helped transform Israel’s failing statist economy into a thriving capitalist one. Mr. Achmon helped found the first private domestic airline in Israel. The story of how he stood down the once-powerful Histadrut trade union federation to keep his company alive illustrates the enormous changes that Israeli society has undergone in the past three decades. A second character, Avital Geva, one of the country’s leading conceptual artists who represented Israel in the 1993 Venice Biennale with a fully functioning kibbutz greenhouse, also illustrates a crucial sector of a dynamic society.
But the story’s real strength derives from Mr. Halevi’s portraits of three settler leaders: Mr. Porat, Yoel Bin-Nun and Yisrael Harel. Their movement has been central to contemporary Israel, yet little understood abroad. Settlers are mostly portrayed as two-dimensional caricatures. Their actions violate the world’s hope for a Palestinian state on the land they are taking, and their ideology does not lend itself easily to rational discourse. It is hard to know how to negotiate with someone like Mr. Bin-Nun who, as described in the book, believed that the “Torah was a blueprint for God’s relationship with a holy nation living in a holy land,” or with Mr. Porat, who saw “no contradiction between conquering the land and creating peace, because the return of the holy people to the holy land was a precondition for world peace.”
Yet Mr. Halevi, a religiously observant Jew with centrist politics by the standards of today’s Israel, brings us into these men’s lives and thoughts, taking us along on their journeys and making of them fully realized characters. We are with them not only for their internal meetings and personal struggles but also for their interactions with Israeli officials, who often claimed to reject settlements while legitimizing them. It is clear that if the government had wanted to stop them — if officials had seen the settlement project as an existential danger rather than as a way to expand narrow borders, send defiant messages and win close elections — it could have.
The story’s most significant sections help us grasp how the settlers have driven the nation’s agenda for the past four decades. This has been partly the result of sheer grit by people who shunned personal comfort in the name of playing a role in Jewish history. One of the most important lessons the settlers teach, if you spend time with them in the West Bank or on these pages, is that history is made by those who do not give up — for good and for ill.
A version of this review appears in print on September 26, 2013, on page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: 7 Paratroopers and Paths They Took Through an Israel at a Crossroads.