Eight Decades of tile‘ Iron Wall‘ Concept
There are hundreds of books that cover the ground Avi Shlaim covers in his new work, The Iron Wall. What is important is not the material but rather the conceptual framework. Does a book help us understand what is going on? Does it provide a useful context, analysis and set of concepts that help the reading public critically evaluate the import and truthfulness of the daily news? Writing as someone who is politically active and not "only" an academic, I also want to know: Does this book help me put a finger on the core issues? Does it explain things in a way that I can translate ultimately into an effective political program?
Looked at in this way, Shlaim's book does make a significant contribution to the literature. To be sure, Shlaim adheres to the normal standards of a well-grounded academic work (scope of coverage, sound research, ample footnotes and bibliography). He permits himself occasional critical comment on what he considers key points, such as Ben-Gurion's propensity to prefer domination and territorial expansion over peace, or Netanyahu's "betrayal" of Jabotinsky. Most important, from the point of view of someone seeking to apply Shlaim's analysis to the political situation today, the book lends itself to crystallizing such a political analysis. Still, Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford, is a prominent member of the group known as the "New Historians." On that basis alone, his work is liable to be attacked as "polemic."

An Unbreakable Wall

Against the background of the major ideological streams, policies and practices of the pre-state Yishuv (Jewish population) and Zionist movements, The Iron Wall, as its subtitle indicates, examines Israel's relations to the Arab world from 1948 until the fall of Netanyahu. The title of the book is taken from the phrase Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky used to define what should be Zionism's policy towards the "Arabs of the Land of Israel": an "iron wall." In his famous article by that name published in 1923, Jabotinsky articulated a cardinal principle of the Zionist enterprise: that Zionism should go about doing what it has to do to bring about a Jewish state in the whole Land of Israel, regardless of the Arab response. (He described his own attitude towards Arabs as one of "polite indifference.") Still, he realized that Palestinians were a national group with national aspirations, which he was quite willing to grant them if they would settle for a kind of autonomy within a Jewish state encompassing the entire Land. He also realized that this would not be accomplished without resistance. "Every indigenous people," he wrote, "will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent 'Palestine' from becoming the Land of Israel."
The trick, then, is to extinguish that "gleam of hope." Before the Palestinians agree to limited civil and national rights, their resistance must be broken. Thus the "iron wall." "It is my belief and hope," wrote Jabotinsky,
that we will then offer [the Palestinians] guarantees that will satisfy them and that both peoples will live in peace as good neighbors. But the sole way to such an agreement is through the iron wall, that is to say, the establishment in Palestine of a force that will in no way be influenced by Arab pressure… A voluntary agreement is unattainable… We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.
Far from being the expression of a maverick, as Jabotinsky is frequently portrayed, this position towards the Palestinians came, Shlaim contends, to characterize mainstream Zionism itself. In hindsight, and facing a new Sharon government, it appears that the iron wall remains the lynchpin of Israeli policy until today.

Defining 'Right' and 'Left'

One of the major contributions of Shlaim's work is to move the ideological fault line regarding peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world leftwards. In the public consciousness, "left" and "right" divide neatly between Labor and what is today the Likud (based on Begin's Herut party, the direct descendent of Jabotinsky's Revisionists). Yet Shlaim shows convincingly that in this regard Ben-Gurion shared much more with Jabotinsky than he differed from him. Addressing the Jewish Agency Executive after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1936 (or "the disturbances," as Israelis refer to them), Ben-Gurion said: "A comprehensive agreement is undoubtedly out of the question now. For only after total despair on the part of the Arabs, despair that will come not only from the failure of the disturbances and the attempt at rebellion, but also as a consequence of our growth in the country, may the Arabs possibly acquiesce to a Jewish Eretz Israel." Peace, for example, was desirable only if it advanced the Zionist agenda: "It is not in order to establish peace in the country that we need an agreement… peace for us is a means. The end is the complete and full realization of Zionism. Only for that do we need an agreement."
Rather than support of, or opposition to, the "peace process" as it has been defined since the Oslo Accords of 1993 - the usual fault line between "right" and "left" in Israel - Shlaim's book suggests that the iron wall approach might be a better measure. Thus Ben-Gurion, Dayan, Golda Meir, Rabin and Peres (until, perhaps, 1993), Barak, Yigal Allon and most of the Ahdut Ha'avodah branch of the Labor movement, as well as the Labor-oriented military establishment, join Jabotinsky, Begin, Netanyahu, Sharon and the Likud-oriented right in what Shlaim calls variously the "activist camp," the "party of retaliation" and "hawks" - clearly the vast majority of Zionist/Israeli leaders in the past 90 years. On the other side of the iron wall, Shlaim would place Moshe Sharett, Ben-Gurion's long-suffering foreign minister and briefly Israel's prime minister, Levi Eshkol, post-Oslo Rabin and Peres, Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, all "moderates," part of the "party of negotiations," "doves."
Shlaim has an especially warm appraisal of Moshe Sharett, who is popularly viewed in Israel as a weakling, an ineffective politician, a minor and somewhat tragic figure. Yet Shlaim portrays him as a genuine seeker of peace, almost the alter ego of Ben-Gurion. When Ben-Gurion and Dayan were rushing Israel to war with Egypt in the 1950s and unleashing a vicious lieutenant-colonel Ariel Sharon on Palestinian civilians from Qibya to Gaza (as well as unprovoked attacks on Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian positions), Sharett recorded in his diary: "What is our vision on this earth - war to the end of all generations and life by the sword?" One wonders what our history might have been had the "party of negotiations" prevailed over the "party of retaliation." Although the iron wall is a constant thread running through Zionist history, its predominance was not a foregone conclusion.
Such a reconceptualization helps explain how the Oslo Accords were structured and the negotiations carried out in accordance with the Jabotinsky-Ben-Gurion principle of the iron wall, leading us right back to Ben-Gurion's characterization as peace being only a means to an end.

Current Relevance

Again, as both an activist and informed reader, I find Shlaim's critical review of Yishuv/Israel-Arab relations to be very useful. It has helped me understand better the meaning and dynamic of the "peace process," and why it reached its dead end. Taking the "iron wall" as a constant in Israeli policies towards the Arabs for the past eight decades, Shlaim's discussion highlights several features that are as current today as they were in the 1920s:
Ethnocracy in a non-defined "Land." Ben-Gurion's phrase "self-reliance," coupled with a rejection of the "external factor" in ensuring Israel's survival, translates into a carte blanche to forge ahead at all costs. Israel is basically an ethnocracy (a country run by and for a particular national/ethnic/religious group, the Jews) for whom territorial expansion into the entire "Land of Israel" is a prime goal. Thus Israel is able to make claims that, as Shlaim points out, ignore the territorial claims and sovereignty of neighboring states, not to mention the Palestinians.
Israel is a country that has long tried to dominate, control and defeat its neighbors, rather than seek true accommodation. Except for certain brief periods (Sharett's rule from late 1953 into 1955; a year or two of Eshkol's rule before 1967; perhaps the earliest stages of Oslo, 1993-95), Israel's attitude towards the Arabs has been one of an almost autistic pursuit of Zionist goals by any means necessary:
Military: threat, action and control;
Demographic: expulsion, selective granting of citizenship; settlement and resettlement; deportation ("active" transfer), "encouraging" Arab emigration ("passive" transfer) and revocation of citizenship or residency ("quiet" transfer); massive building for Jewish populations; while severely curtailing housing and infrastructure for others; and more;
Bad faith: "creating facts" on the ground that fundamentally prejudice any negotiations or compromise, while dragging out the status quo, so that the illusion of accommodation is maintained. "Security," while a legitimate concern, becomes a cover-term for doing whatever necessary to "create facts," completely removed from criticism, oversight, legal or parliamentary procedures or the rights and interests of others;
Manipulating the image of "victim."
• Repression and despair as policy.
This is the heart of the "iron wall" concept. According to Shlaim, "the iron wall was not an end in itself but a means to the end of breaking Arab resistance to the onward march of Zionism. Once Arab resistance has been broken, a process of change would occur within the Palestinian national movement, with the moderates coming to the fore. Then and only then would it be time to start serious negotiations." This certainly seems a basis of the Oslo process whereby the imminent collapse of the PLO was a major consideration in choosing it as a negotiating partner - Oslo being virtually a dictation of terms of surrender.
"Peace" is a means to an end, subordinate to prior interests such as territory, settlement and domination/security; it is not an end in itself. Every country acts according to its self-interest, of course, but the Israeli concept of "peace" is completely self-serving. It requires the Palestinians to either surrender, be forced into a minority "ethnic" status with minimal rights, or leave. Given the fact that the PLO sued for peace on only 22 percent of historic Palestine, that the Arab world is for the most part willing to accept Israel within the 1967 (and not 1947) borders, and that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been forced or "induced" to leave the country, the "iron wall" approach might be said to be working, at least in the short run. Certainly there is no real desire for peace or for normal relations with Arabs. Ben-Gurion was explicit on this point: While peace is important, Shlaim quotes him as saying, "we have to remember that there are limits to our desire for peace with the Arabs… First and foremost, we have to see to Israel's needs, whether or not this brings improvement in our relations with the Arabs… The second factor is our existence in American Jewry… the third thing - peace with the Arabs. This is the order of priorities."

Insights into a Real World

I am not sure that Shlaim would agree with all my conclusions. My point here is that a well-grounded, well-reasoned and critical historical work such as The Iron Wall is significant because it allows the reader to apply its insights to the "real world." After reading Shlaim's book, no one should be "surprised" or "confused" as to why the second Intifada broke out. No one should be surprised that Sharon managed to form a national unity government (not the first) comprised of pan-party adherents of the "iron wall" approach, or by the "betrayal" of Peres in agreeing to serve as Sharon's foreign minister. Perhaps a new Social Democratic party may arise that would galvanize the "party of negotiations." Be that as it may, Avi Shlaim has written a book that is well grounded, very readable and useful for those seeking a critical understanding of Israel's relations to the Arabs.