The Bleakest Picture

AVI SHLAIM — Israel has constructed an “iron wall of strength.” But now its leaders refuse to emerge from behind it. 

In 1923, Jewish nationalist Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote that “the sole way to to an agreement with the Arabs was through an iron wall, that is to say, the establishment in Palestine of a force that in no way will be influenced by Arab pressure.” How has pre-1948 Zionist ideology been shaped and transformed since independence to become manifest in current Israeli political discourse?

The foreign policy of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government does not represent a true application of Jabotinsky’s strategy of the iron wall. Jabotinsky, the spiritual leader of the Israeli right, published a 1923 article titled, “On the Iron Wall: We and the Arabs.” If any document may be regarded the bible of Zionist foreign policy, this is it. The article was divided into two parts — analysis and policy prescription. The analytical section argued, referring to the Jewish arrivals in Palestine, that no nation in history has ever willingly made room for another nation to build a state on its land. The Palestinians represented a nation, and therefore their opposition to the Zionist project was inevitable.

The article’s second half offered solutions. The answer was to build an “iron wall” of Jewish military strength. Jabotinsky argued that the only way to achieve the ultimate Zionist objective of an independent Jewish state in Palestine was unilaterally and by military force. According to this theory, the Arabs would knock their heads against this wall until they despaired of defeating the Zionists. Then would come the time to negotiate. The essence of the strategy is negotiation from strength, but it is critical to stress the goal of negotiation, not the permanent application of military force.

The history of the State of Israel is a vindication of the iron wall strategy. First Egypt, then the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then Jordan negotiated peace agreements with Israel from a position of palpable weakness. There was only one Prime Minister in Israel’s history that made the transition from the military to the negotiation stage in relation to the Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin, when he signed the Oslo Peace Accords with the Yasser Arafat. In that instance, the “iron wall strategy” worked.

The trouble with the Likud leadership and Israel’s right wing politicians is that they have only applied half the strategy — building up Israel’s military force. The climax of Netanyahu’s interpretation of the iron wall strategy is the current, savage attack on Gaza.

The notion of ideological Zionism seems to contrast with traditional, more calculated realpolitik of the Israeli state under right-wing leadership. How can scholars properly contextualize the role that theory plays in Israeli political and military decision-making, and how has this role developed since 1948?

Looking at Israeli statecraft in historical perspective, there is a correlation between military power and diplomacy. The weaker the Zionist movement was, the more imaginative was its diplomacy. The more military power Israel accumulated, the less creative, the less flexible, was its diplomacy. In the pre-statehood period, the Zionist movement was extremely weak and vulnerable in military terms, but it had an amazingly resourceful and active diplomacy.

The watershed moment came in 1948. That year, after Israel was forced to defend itself, the use of force became very attractive and beguiling to cut through the Gordian Knot of compromise. Since 1948, Israel has not avoided negotiations altogether, but it has tended to rely ultimately on its military power to pursue political interests. Since its birth in 1948, Israel has been rather reluctant to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians to resolve what is essentially a political conflict. On the other hand, it has been too ready to resort to military force. The trouble with this strategy is that there is no military solution to what is at the core a political dispute between the two sides. The current offensive in Gaza shows how tragic it is to avoid diplomacy and rely exclusively on military force.

The Israelis are the stronger party, they are the victors. History is, in a sense, the propaganda of the victors. Palestinians are the weaker, defeated party, so it is much more difficult for them to share their narrative. This situation is what one notices in the current media coverage of the Gaza crisis. Israel is much more effective at not just putting across its narrative, but imposing its narrative on the media.

Ideology offers only a very thin veneer for what is realpolitik. The Likud has a maximalist interpretation of the aims of Zionism and Israel’s borders. The hallmark of Likud foreign policy has been, since 2001, unilateralism. Since the Likud came to power in 2001, the essence of its strategy has been to redraw the borders of greater Israel without negotiating or compromising with the Palestinians. Stage one in this strategy was the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and stage two, which continues to this day, is the consolidation of Israel’s economic and military control over the West Bank. Israel pursues a very hard-headed, narrow nationalistic policy which is based on superior military force. The only hope for peace is through negotiations on the borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Israel is unwilling to engage in serious talks.

Netanyahu has no vision of peace. He is the proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict. He offers no hope, either to Israelis or to the Palestinians. It is a very bleak picture.

Often discussions of Israel and Palestine revolve around seemingly false groupings of each side into two homogenous blocs. Are there elements of accuracy to such simplification — have historical narratives been constructed to favor such a simplistic interpretation of Israeli society and opinion, and what have been the ramifications of such a process?

Neither side is homogenous. Israel is not a homogenous society. Even the present government, which is probably the most right wing in the state’s history, is not homogenous. It consists of Likud, the ruling party, but other parties that are further to the right, including HaBayta Yehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennett. This party completely rejects the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Bennett has stated categorically that he will do anything to oppose a Palestinian state, and he advocates a straightforward annexation of Area C on the West Bank — sixty-percent of the territory. Compared to Bennett, Netanyahu is a moderate. HaBayta Yehudi and other elements within the ruling coalition, as well as the right wing of the Likud itself, are putting pressure on Netanyahu to resort to military force on an even greater scale when dealing Hamas in Gaza. Public opinion in Israel is fully in support of the military and ground offensive in Gaza. Ironically, Netanyahu is by no means an extremist when it comes to the use of military force.

The Palestinian side, too, is not monolithic. There has been a very deep division since 2007 between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinian community is split down the middle, totally divided. Yet Palestinians have made an effort at national reconciliation. In April, Hamas and Fatah reached a reconciliation accord, and on the basis of that a Palestinian unity government was born. That government is moderate in both composition and policy. As far as policy is concerned, it accepts all the three conditions for receiving foreign aid: It recognizes Israel; it honors all previous agreements between the PLO and Israel; and it has renounced violent force. Now there is a united Palestinian government, with Hamas handing over power in Gaza to Ramallah. Israel is very unhappy about this manifestation of Palestinian unity and moderation. One of the aims behind the attack on Gaza is to distract and undermine this unity government. 

In your book, Iron Wall, you write that Jabotinsky’s inflexible thinking largely shaped Israel’s first government under David ben-Gurion, and that those seeking political solutions to the Arab-Israeli impasse were often silenced. Are these the same or transformed factors that seem to prevent a similar political solution today?

The peace camp in Israel has always been fairly weak. In the 1950s there were two schools of thought: retaliation and negotiation. David ben-Gurion represented the hardline school of relying on military force. Moshe Sharett represented the school that wanted to keep the use of military force to a minimum, and create an atmosphere conducive to dialogue with the Arabs. The ben-Gurion school was dominant, and had the support of the entire Israeli defense establishment.

Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak in 1999, an event which ushered into Israel a new moderate government. Yet any hope for negotiation was short-lived. After the collapse of the Camp David summit between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in July 2000, Barak invented the notion that there was no Palestinian partner for peace. That declaration explains perfectly the moderate camp’s weakness in Israel. By saying this, Barak paved the way for the election of the Likud and Ariel Sharon in 2001. It was simple: if there was no Palestinian partner, Israelis would not vote for a party that believe in negotiations. They would vote for a strongman like Sharon, who was good at killing Palestinians.

Ehud Barak, by coming up with the notion that there was no Palestinian partner for peace, destroyed his own party and the peace camp in Israel.

It is important to note that this notion is a myth — there is a Palestinian peace partner. This is the genuine partner that signed the Oslo Accord with Israel. The trouble is that there is no Palestinian partner on the terms on offer by Likud and Netanyahu today. No Palestinian leader, however, moderate, would agree to a Palestinian state that consists of Gaza and a series of enclaves on the West Bank without true sovereignty. Such a state is what is on offer. There is no genuine Israeli partner for peace — Netanyahu’s aim is not peaceful coexistence, but Israeli hegemony and military domination.

Although states often mobilize history as propaganda, it seems that in Israel these historical narratives assume a unique sense of immediacy in the sense that they have not yet been completed — government support for continued settlement construction exemplifies this situation. Has the Israeli state, at least according to the current government, completed its birth, that is, might current leaders consider Israel still in the process of nation-building rather than nation-maintenance along the lines of a “heroic-moralist” version of history?

The Zionist project was a huge success. By 1967, there was a secure and viable Jewish state in Palestine. The victory had terrible consequences. It completely derailed the course of Zionist history. Since independence, Israel was transformed from a Jewish and democratic state into a colonial empire.

I have never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its original borders. What I object to uncompromisingly is the Zionist colonial project between the 1967 borders. Israel is not still in the process of nation-building. What has occurred since 1967 is Israeli occupation, and this is the root of all evil.

National myths are used to cover up this ugly reality. One aspect of these myths is that Israel is the victim. The reality is very different. Israel has the fourth-strongest in the world and a nuclear monopoly in the region. The Palestinians are a largely defenseless people who are subjected to the most savage application of military force by Israel. The Palestinians are the real victims of this tragic conflict, and it is the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians that works against the political resolution of this conflict.

In his interview last year, Aaron David Miller argued that neither Israeli nor Palestinian politicians have a desire for peace, thus blocking any reconciliation process from inception. Would you agree with this analysis, and have there ever been a true — or at least more likely — environment for peace, or a genuine desire from either side for reconciliation?

I disagree with Aaron David Miller as far as the Palestinians are concerned. The turning point was the Oslo Accord in 1993. At that point, both national movements had moderated their programs and were ready for an historic compromise. The hesitant handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn marked the beginning of a two-state solution. Ultimately, the Oslo Peace Process broke down after the collapse of the Camp David Summit in 2000.

Why did it break down? The Likud answer to this question is that the Oslo Accord was doomed to failure from the start because it did not recognize the historic right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and it did not take care of Israeli security. My explanation is that the Oslo Accord, for all its faults, was a positive step in the right direction. The process broke down because Israel, after Rabin’s murder and the election of a Likud government led by Netanyahu in 1996, Israel reneged on the original deal. When pressed for a more precise reason for this breakdown, it is possible to answer in one word: settlements. The expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is the central, most fundamental reason for the breakdown of the attempt at compromise between the two sides. Settlements represent land-grabbing, which can never go hand-in-hand with peacemaking.

The United States has played a crucial part in the failure to achieve a settlement. America has tended to act not as an honest broker, but as Israel’s lawyer. This American partiality towards Israel has been a major factor in the failure of negotiations.


AVI SHLAIM is is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and a fellow of the British Academy. He is considered one of Israel’s “New Historians,” and is the author of many books, including The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World and Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine.

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