Israel at 60: the “iron wall” revisited

Avi Shlaim
8 May 2008

In 1923, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, published an article entitled On the Iron Wall. He argued that Arab nationalists were bound to oppose the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Consequently, a voluntary agreement between the two sides was unattainable. The only way to realise the Zionist project was behind an "iron wall" of Jewish military strength. In other words, the Zionist project could only be implemented unilaterally and by military force.

Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at St Antony's College, Oxford. Among his books are The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (WW Norton, 1999) and (as co-editor) The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). His most recent book is Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (Penguin, 2007).

Also by Avi Shlaim in openDemocracy:

"Israel, free speech, and the Oxford Union" (13 November 2007) The crux of Jabotinsky's strategy was to enable the Zionist movement to deal with its local opponents from a position of unassailable strength. The iron wall was not an end in itself but a means to an end. It was intended to compel the Arabs to abandon any hope of destroying the Jewish state. This was to be followed by a second stage: negotiations with the Arabs about their status and national rights in Palestine. In other words, Jewish military strength was to pave the way to a political settlement with the Palestinian national movement which laid a claim to the whole of Palestine.

The history of the state of Israel is a vindication of the strategy of the iron wall. The Arabs - first the Egyptians, then the Palestinians, then the Jordanians - learned the hard way that Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield and were compelled to negotiate with her from a position of palpable weakness. The Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of 1993 was a major turning-point in the century-old history of the conflict over Palestine. It marked the transition from the first to the second stage of the iron-wall strategy, the transition from deterrence to negotiations and compromise.

By signing the Oslo accord, Israel and the PLO recognised one another and agreed to settle their outstanding differences by peaceful means. The Palestinians believed that in return for giving up their claim to 78% of pre-1948 Palestine, they would gradually gain an independent state stretching over the West Bank and the Gaza strip with a capital in East Jerusalem. Fifteen years on, the Palestinians are bitterly disappointed with the results of the historic compromise that they had struck with Israel.

The invisible partner

The Oslo peace process broke down partly because the Palestinians reverted to violence in the second ("al-Aqsa") intifada sparked in September 2000, but mainly because Israel, under the aggressive and uncompromising leadership of the Likud, reneged on its side of the bargain. The most blatant transgression against the spirit, if not the letter of the Oslo accord was the constant expansion of the illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the construction of more and more roads to connect them with Israel.

These settlements are a symbol of the hated occupation, a constant source of friction, and a threat to the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. To the Palestinians, settlement expansion suggested that Israel had not been negotiating in good faith and that the real intention behind the Oslo accord was to repackage rather than to end the occupation.

With the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister in 2001, Israel regressed to the first stage of the iron-wall strategy with a vengeance. Sharon had nothing to offer the Palestinians on the political front. He had always been a man of war and the champion of violent solutions. As a politician he had consistently opposed all the earlier attempts at reconciliation with the Palestinians, including the Oslo accords. His sole response to the al-Aqsa intifada consisted of employing military force on an ever growing scale, culminating in the use of F-16 warplanes against the Palestinian people.

Throughout his five years in power, Sharon adamantly refused to resume the negotiations on the final status of the territories until the Palestinian Authority (PA) delivered a complete end to the violence. He knew that this condition was impossible to meet; that is why he insisted on it. He treated the Palestinian Authority not the government of a state in the making but a sub-contractor who was failing in his primary duty - to safeguard Israel's security. The great majority of Sharon's compatriots believed his claim that there was no Palestinian partner for peace. The truth of the matter, however, is that under his leadership there was no Israeli partner for peace.

A long-term effort

While using the rhetoric of peace, Sharon's real purpose was politicide: to deny the Palestinians any independent political existence in Palestine. In June 2003, the Quartet (the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia) launched the "roadmap": a plan designed to pave the way to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. Sharon's government pretended to go along with the "roadmap" but its policies remained completely unchanged. It continued to order Israel Defence Forces (IDF) incursions into the Palestinian territories, targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, demolition of houses, uprooting of trees, curfews, restrictions, and the deliberate inflicting of misery, hunger, and hardship to encourage Arab migration from the West Bank. At the same time, settlement activity continued on the West Bank under the guise of "natural growth" but in blatant violation of the provisions of the "roadmap".

Last but not least, the government begun to build the so-called security barrier in the West Bank. The declared purpose of the wall is to prevent terrorist attacks but it is as much about land-grabbing as it is about security. By building the wall, Israel is unilaterally redrawing its borders at the expense of the Palestinians. It is "in your face" violence against the Palestinians. It separates children from their schools, farmers from their land, and whole villages from their medical facilities.

Also in openDemocracy on Israeli politics and the conflict with the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation" (18 November 2004)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (25 November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel reverses gravity" (30 March 2006)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Slouching towards Kadima" (27 March 2006)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel" (14 July 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (20 April 2007)

Eric Silver, "A united, worried Israel" (21 July 2007)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel's post-heroic disaster" (30 April 2007)

Yossi Alpher, "Israel: you can't reverse time" (7 June 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008) The wall is a flagrant violation of international law. It was condemned by the International Court of Justice and by the United Nations general assembly but construction continues regardless. It was not for nothing that Sharon was called "the bulldozer". For Jabotinsky, the iron wall was a metaphor for military strength; in the crude hands of Ariel Sharon it was turned into a hideous physical reality, an instrument of oppression, and an insurmountable barrier to reconciliation and peace.

Realising that time and demography were not on Israel's side, Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, cast around for ways of distancing Israel from the main Palestinian population centres while keeping as much of their land as possible. The plan they came up with in 2005 was not a peace plan but a plan for a unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza strip and four isolated settlements on the West Bank. Characteristically, the plan ignored Palestinian rights and interests and it was not even presented to Palestinian Authority as a basis for negotiations.

To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to the "roadmap" and to the building of peace based on a two-state solution. But to his rightwing supporters he said: "My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There's no Palestinian state in a unilateral move." The real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of greater Israel by incorporating Jerusalem and the four main settlement blocs in the West Bank. Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, the withdrawal from Gaza was part of a long-term Likud effort to deny the Palestinian people an independent political existence on their land.

An unequal contest

Much of the opposition to the unilateral disengagement from Gaza came from within the Likud and some of it was connected with an internal power-struggle. Ariel Sharon, buoyed by public support for the move, quit the Likud and set up his own party - "Kadima", which in Hebrew means "Forward". Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006 and went into a coma from which he has not recovered. Ehud Olmert took over as acting leader of the new party and proceeded to win the elections on 28 March 2006 and to form a coalition government with the Labour Party as a junior partner.

These internal political developments had no significant effect on foreign policy. In fact, the continuity in foreign policy was remarkable. Like Sharon, Olmert was a lifelong supporter of greater Israel who only changed course after he realised that the demographic balance was shifting inexorably in favour of the Palestinians. The idea of a unilateral disengagement from Gaza, worked out jointly, was indeed first floated by Olmert.

On becoming prime minister, Olmert gave every indication that he intended to carry this idea to its logical conclusion by redrawing unilaterally Israel's eastern border. There is only one difference. Sharon denied that the "security barrier" is intended to mark the country's final political border. Olmert, on the other hand, declared at the outset that the main policy objective of his government is to complete the building of the barrier and that the barrier will constitute the final border of the state of Israel.

Like Sharon, Olmert is reluctant to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority about the final status of the occupied territories. Like Sharon, Olmert is a unilateralist. Both men repudiated the central belief of years of negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - that giving up land would buy peace. Both men were elected to end the violence but their policy served to sustain a conflict that can only be resolved by mutual agreement. As long as this policy remains in place, there will be no chance of turning a corner because there are no corners in a vicious circle.

Like all his predecessors, Ehud Olmert constantly invokes spurious security arguments in order to defend policies that are indefensible. The Palestinians do not pose a threat to Israel's basic security; it is the other way round. The contest is an unequal one between a vulnerable Palestinian David on the one hand and a heavily armed and heavy-handed Israeli Goliath on the other.

Israel's choice

Sixty years on, Israel is not fighting for its security or survival but to retain some of the territories it conquered in the course of the war of June 1967. Israel within the "green line" is completely legitimate; the Zionist colonial project beyond that line is not. The war that Israel is currently waging against the Palestinian people on their land is a colonial war. Like all other colonial wars, it is savage, senseless, directed mainly against civilians, and doomed to failure in the long run.

An independent Palestinian state is bound to emerge sooner or later over the whole of Gaza, most of the West Bank, and with a capital city in East Jerusalem. It would be weak, crowded, burdened with refugees, economically dependent, and insignificant as a military force. The choice facing Israel is between accepting the inevitable with as much grace as it can muster and continuing to resist, restrict, and frustrate the emergent Palestinian state.

Considerations of self-interest as well as those of justice and morality point to the first option - because the longer Israel persists in denying the Palestinians their right to national self-determination, the more its own legitimacy would be called into question. Israel should negotiate withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank, not as a favour to the Palestinians but as a huge favour to itself. For, as Karl Marx observed, a nation that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.

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