The “Iron Wall” was the creation of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of
right-wing Zionism and spiritual leader of today’s Likud Party.
The Iron Wall That Was
-- M.J. Rosenberg, Israel Policy Forum
Thirty-eight percent of Israelis support the Arab League Initiative (formerly, the Saudi peace plan) while 69 percent of Palestinians do.
That is the finding of a September poll conducted jointly by the Harry Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
The Saudi plan was first issued in 2002 and re-issued in 2007. It calls on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for full peace, recognition, and normalization with the Arab world. Every Arab state has signed on to the plan committing themselves to peace with Israel in exchange for territories which have, over the past 41 years,been transformed from an Israeli asset to an Israeli nightmare.
The Saudi plan is not perfect. But it is not a peace treaty and does not claim to be the last word on anything. It envisions negotiations between Israelis and Arabs to work out the modalities of peace agreements, as called for in United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which the plan specifically endorses. Under its terms, all final status issues would have to be worked out to the satisfaction of both Israelis and Arabs. The framers of the plan (most notably, Saudi King Abdullah) put it forth with the hope that Israel would accept the offer in principle so that negotiations on the particulars could commence.
So what was Israel’s response?
Fifty-five years after the Arab world rejected Israeli statehood, it reconsidered and offered peace and recognition, and the Israelis yawned.
Professor Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in the fall issue of Middle East Policy that this Israeli attitude is something new. Traditionally, it was the Arabs who were the rejectionists while the Israelis said that they would go anywhere, at any time, to negotiate peace with the Arabs.
Most famously after the Six Day War, the Arab Summit in Khartoum issued the famous “three no’s” which governed pan-Arab policy for thirty years: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel. This rejection occurred at a time when the Israelis might have been ready to withdraw from the territories (when there were as yet no settlers).
That is when everyone started saying that the Arabs “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
That shoe is on the other foot now.
So what changed?
According to Lustick, Israel abandoned the “Iron Wall” concept which governed its policies through its first five decades.
The “Iron Wall” was the creation of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Zionism and spiritual leader of today’s Likud Party.
Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, believed that the Jewish state would not be able to achieve acceptance by the Palestinians because the two nationalisms were in fundamental and irreconcilable conflict over the same territory.
He wrote this about the Palestinians in 1923: “There has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country. Any native people views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. . . . Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement.”
Accordingly the Jews should not even seek Palestinian consent to Jewish settlement. They should, instead, build a Jewish state behind a metaphorical “iron wall.” They should build a state so strong that the Arabs would have no choice but to accept its permanence. Peace would be achieved not by any Arab recognition of Jewish rights, but rather by recognition of the Israeli reality.
Jabotinsky wrote: “As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation. . . . Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. I am optimistic that they will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbors, can then live in peace.”
In other words, the Israelis should simply build their state and wait the Arabs out. Once they understood that Israel wasn’t going anywhere, the Arabs would agree to peace.
The “Iron Wall” concept was first vindicated in 1977 when, after failing to defeat Israel in four wars, the Egyptians essentially threw in the towel. President Anwar Sadat announced that he would go to Israel and sign a peace agreement. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s political heir, welcomed Sadat and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for Egyptian recognition. Begin had no illusion that the Egyptians had come around to accepting Israel, just that they accepted reality. That was good enough.
The Israeli-Egyptian peace has held for almost 30 years, 30 years without a single dead Israeli or Egyptian soldier.
“The Iron Wall” concept was also vindicated when Jordan agreed to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. The Jordanians did not suddenly accept the premise of Zionism; they accepted reality. Most significantly, the Palestinians did the same when the PLO accepted the two-state solution in 1988 and signed the Oslo Agreement recognizing Israel in 1993.
So Jabotinsky’s terms have been met. The Arabs (not the extremist minority but the mainstream) are finally reconciled to Israel’s permanence. They are, essentially, suing for peace.
But now the Israeli government says that is not good enough. Now there’s a new demand.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that the Arabs must “recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also said that they “must not only recognize Israel’s right to exist but to exist as a Jewish state.”
Suddenly, Israel needs not just security, but an endorsement by Arabs of its special character. But states don’t recognize each other as anything in particular. The United States recognizes Canada without regard to the special character of Quebec. Germany recognizes Belgium without regard for whether the Flemish or the Walloons are dominant.
Why would Israel need Arabs to recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state? That is nobody’s business but Israel’s. As the late Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban once put it, “Our right to exist is independent of any recognition of it.” That is even truer about Israel’s right to exist “as a Jewish state.”
Those who seek that kind of acceptance from the Arabs are barking up the wrong tree. Listen to Jabotinsky: it’s not going to happen. The Israelis can argue among themselves about the nature of their state. The Arab world, and especially the Palestinians, can only offer security and peace. That used to be enough. It should be now.
MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center
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