Israel: Back to the Iron Wall

Avi Shlaim

Unabridged text of article published in the New Statesman under the title 'Sharon's iron wall',
Special Issue: Israel, Monday, 31st October 2005 

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.

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 -- learnt 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 1993 Oslo accord between Israel and the PLO was a major turning-point in the 100-year old history of the conflict over Palestine. It marked the transition from the first to the second stage of 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 by 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. Twelve years on, the Palestinians are bitterly disappointed with the results of the historic compromise that they had struck with Israel.

The Oslo peace process broke down partly because the Palestinians reverted to violence but mainly because Israel, under the leadership of the right-wing 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 its real intention was to repackage rather than to end the occupation.

With the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001, Israel regressed to the first stage of the iron wall strategy with a vengeance. Sharon has nothing to offer the Palestinians on the political front. The two main pillars of his long career were mendacity and the most savage brutality towards Arab civilians. He had always been the champion of violent solutions, a kind of Jewish Rambo. He 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 delivers an end to the violence. He knows that this condition is impossible to meet; that is why he insists on it. He treats the Palestinian Authority not the government of a state in the making but a sub-contractor who is failing in his primary duty - to safeguard Israel’s security.

While using the rhetoric of peace, Sharon’s real purpose is politicide: to deny the Palestinians any independent political existence in Palestine. In June 2003, to inject some life into the comatose peace process, the Quartet launched the “road map”: a plan in three stages leading to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. Sharon’s government pretended to go along with the road map but its policies remained completely unchanged. It continued to order 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 road map.

Last but not least there is the so-called security barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank. Its declared purpose 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 the 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. The wall is a flagrant violation of international law. It was condemned by the International Court of Justice and by the UN General Assembly but construction continues regardless. It is not for nothing that Sharon used to be called “the bulldozer”. For Jabotinsky the iron wall was a metaphor for military strength, in the crude hands of Ariel Sharon it is turning into a hideous physical reality and an insurmountable barrier to reconciliation and peace.

Realising that time and demography were not on Israel’s side, Sharon began to look for ways of distancing Israel from the main Palestinians population centres while keeping as much of their land as possible. The plan he came up with 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 road map and to the building of peace based on a two-state solution. But to his right-wing 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 the West Bank. Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, the withdrawal from Gaza is part of a long-term Likud effort to deny the Palestinian people an independent political existence on their land. It undermines the very basis for a two-state solution.

Ariel Sharon is the last in a long line of Israeli leaders to invoke spurious arguments of security in order to defend policies that are indefensible. The Palestinians do not pose a threat to Israel’s basic security but 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 is not fighting for its security or survival but to retain some of the territories it conquered in the course of the June 1967 war. Israel within the Green Line is 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 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 of morality point to the first option because the longer Israel persists in denying the Palestinians the right to self-determination, the more its own legitimacy would be called into question. Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories 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.