The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

by Avi Shlaim Ph.D.

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“Fascinating. . . . Shlaim presents compelling evidence for a revaluation of traditional Israeli history.”—New York Times Book Review

For this newly expanded edition, Avi Shlaim has added four chapters and an epilogue that address the prime ministerships from Barak to Netanyahu in the “one book everyone should read for a concise history of Israel’s relations with Arabs” (Independent). What was promulgated as an “iron-wall” strategy—building a position of unassailable strength— was meant to yield to a further stage where Israel would be strong enough to negotiate a satisfactory peace with its neighbors. The goal still remains elusive, if not even further away. This penetrating study brilliantly illuminates past progress and future prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393346862
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/20/2014
Edition description: Updated and Expanded
Pages: 900
Sales rank: 744,821
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Avi Shlaim is a professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2006. His books include Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace; War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History; The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. He lives in Oxford.

Read an Excerpt


The Zionist

In 1907 Yitzhak Epstein, a Russian-born teacher who had settled in Palestine, published an article entitled "A Hidden Question" in the Hebrew periodical Ha-Shiloah. Its subject was the attitude of the Jews toward the Arabs of Palestine. "Among the grave questions raised by the concept of our people's renaissance on its own soil," wrote Epstein, "there is one that is more weighty than all the others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs." This question, he added, "has not been forgotten, but rather has remained completely hidden from the Zionists, and in its true form has found almost no mention in the literature of our movement." Epstein's anxiety was brushed aside by the majority of his Zionist contemporaries. But the hidden question came back to haunt the Zionist movement and the State of Israel throughout the first fifty years of its existence.

Zionism and the Arab Question

The Zionist movement, which emerged in Europe in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, aimed at the national revival of the Jewish people in its ancestral home after nearly two thousand years of exile. The term "Zionism" was coined in 1885 by the Viennese Jewish writer Nathan Birnbaum, Zion being one of the biblical names for Jerusalem. Zionism was in essence an answer to the Jewish problem that derived from two basic facts: the Jews were dispersed in various countries around the world, and in each country they constituted a minority. The Zionist solution was to end this anomalousexistence and dependence on others, to return to Zion, and to attain majority status there and, ultimately, political independence and statehood.

    Ever since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. and the exile to Babylon, the Jews yearned to return to Zion. This yearning was reflected in Jewish prayers, and it manifested itself in a number of messianic movements. Modern Zionism, by contrast, was a secular movement, with a political orientation toward Palestine. Modern Zionism was a phenomenon of the late nineteenth-century Europe. It had its roots in the failure of Jewish efforts to become assimilated in Western society, in the intensification of antisemitism in Europe, and in the parallel and not unrelated upsurge of nationalism. If nationalism posed a problem to the Jews by identifying them as an alien and unwanted minority, it also suggested a solution: self-determination for the Jews in a state of their own in which they would constitute a majority. Zionism, however, embodied the urge to create not merely a new Jewish state in Palestine but also a new society, based on the universal values of freedom, democracy, and social justice.

    The father of political Zionism and the visionary of the Jewish state was Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a Hungarian-born Jew who worked as a journalist and a playwright in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Herzl was an assimilated Jew with no particular interest in Judaism or Jewish affairs. It was the virulent antisemitism surrounding the Dreyfus Affair in the early 1890s, which he covered as the Paris correspondent of a Vienna daily newspaper, that aroused his interest in the Jewish problem. He concluded that assimilation and emancipation could not work, because the Jews were a nation. Their problem was not economic or social or religious but national. It followed rationally from these premises that the only solution was for the Jews to leave the diaspora and acquire a territory over which they would exercise sovereignty and establish a state of their own.

    This was the solution advocated by Herzl in the famous little book he published in 1896, Der Judenstaat, or The Jewish State. The Jews, he insisted, were not merely a religious group but a true nation waiting to be born. The book provided a detailed blueprint for a Jewish state but left open the question whether the site for the proposed state should be Palestine, on account of its historic associations, or some vacant land in Argentina. The publication of The Jewish State is commonly taken to mark the beginning of the history of the Zionist movement. It firmly identified the author's name with political Zionism, with the view that the Jewish question was a political question with international ramifications and that it therefore needed to be attacked in the forum of international politics. This was in contrast to the practical Zionism of Hovevi Zion, the Lovers of Zion, who had started in 1881 in a number of Russian cities, against the background of persecution and pogroms, to promote immigration and settlement activities in Palestine. The publication of The Jewish State also catapulted Herzl into a position of leadership in Jewish affairs, a position he retained until his death in 1904.

    In line with his explicit political orientation, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. The congress was initially scheduled to take place in Munich because it had kosher restaurants. But the leaders of the Munich Jewish community declined to act as hosts, arguing that there was no Jewish question and that the holding of a congress would only supply ammunition to the antisemites. The Basel Program stated, "The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law." By adopting this program the congress endorsed Herzl's political conception of Zionism. The Basel Program deliberately spoke of a home rather than a state for the Jewish people, but from the Basel Congress onward the clear and consistent aim of the Zionist movement was to create a state for the Jewish people in Palestine. To his diary Herzl confided, "At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it."

    The publication of The Jewish State evoked various reactions in the Jewish community, some strongly favorable, some hostile, and some skeptical. After the Basel Congress the rabbis of Vienna decided to explore Herzl's ideas and sent two representatives to Palestine. This fact-finding mission resulted in a cable from Palestine in which the two rabbis wrote, "The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man."

    This cable encapsulated the problem with which the Zionist movement had to grapple from the beginning: an Arab population already lived on the land on which the Jews had set their heart. The received view is that the Zionist movement, with the exception of a few marginal groups, tended to ignore the Arabs who lived in Palestine and constituted what came to be called the Arab question. Some critics add that it was this ignorance of the Arab population by the Zionists that prevented the possibility of an understanding between the two national movements that were to claim Palestine as their homeland. It is true that the majority of the early Zionists exhibited surprisingly little curiosity about the land of their devotions. It is also true that the principal concern of these Zionists was not the reality in Palestine but the Jewish problem and the Jewish association with the country. It is not true, however, to say that the Zionists were unaware of the existence of an Arab population in Palestine or of the possibility that this population would be antagonistic to the Zionist enterprise. Although vaguely aware of the problem, they underestimated its seriousness and hoped that a solution would emerge in due course.

    Herzl himself exemplified the Zionist tendency to indulge in wishful thinking. He was certainly aware that Palestine was already populated with a substantial number of Arabs, although he was not particularly well informed about the social and economic conditions of the country. He viewed the natives as primitive and backward, and his attitude toward them was rather patronizing. He thought that as individuals they should enjoy full civil rights in a Jewish state but he did not consider them a society with collective political rights over the land in which they formed the overwhelming majority. Like many other early Zionists, Herzl hoped that economic benefits would reconcile the Arab population to the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. As the bearers of all the benefits of Western civilization, the Jews, he thought, might be welcomed by the residents of the backward East. This optimistic forecast of Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine found its clearest expression in a novel published by Herzl in 1902 under the title Altneuland (Old-Newland). Rashid Bey, a spokesman for the native population, describes Jewish settlement as an unqualified blessing: "The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them? They live with us as brothers, why should we not love them?" This picture, however, was nothing but a pipe dream, a utopian fantasy. Its author completely overlooked the possibility that an Arab national movement would grow in Palestine in response to the Zionist drive to transform the country into a Jewish national home with a Jewish majority.

    In defense of Herzl it should be pointed out that at the end of the nineteenth century Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire, and an Arab national movement was only beginning to develop there. Still, his preference for playing the game of high politics was unmistakable. His most persistent efforts were directed at persuading the Ottoman sultan to grant a charter for Jewish settlement and a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But he also approached many other world leaders and influential magnates for help in promoting his pet project. Among those who granted him an audience were the pope, the king of Italy, the German kaiser, and Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary. In each case Herzl presented his project in a manner best calculated to appeal to the listener: to the sultan he promised Jewish capital, to the kaiser he intimated that the Jewish territory would be an outpost of Berlin, to Chamberlain he held out the prospect that the Jewish territory would become a colony of the British Empire. Whatever the arguments used, Herzl's basic aim remained unchanged: obtaining the support of the great powers for turning Palestine into a political center for the Jewish people.

    In its formative phase, under the direction of Herzl, the Zionist movement thus displayed two features that were to be of fundamental and enduring importance in its subsequent history: the nonrecognition of a Palestinian national entity, and the quest for an alliance with a great power external to the Middle East. Bypassing the Palestinians was the trend in Zionist policy from the First Zionist Congress onward. The unstated assumption of Herzl and his successors was that the Zionist movement would achieve its goal not through an understanding with the local Palestinians but through an alliance with the dominant great power of the day. The weakness of the Yishuv, the pre-Independence Jewish community in Palestine, and the growing hostility of the Palestinians combined to make the reliance on a great power a central element in Zionist strategy. The dominant great power in the Middle East changed several times in the course of the twentieth century; first it was the Ottoman Empire, after World War I it was Great Britain, and after World War II it was the United States. But the Zionist fixation on enlisting the support of the great powers in the struggle for statehood and in the consolidation of statehood remained constant.

Chaim Weizmann
and the British Connection

The chief architect of the alliance between the Zionist movement and Great Britain was Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952). The charter that Herzl had unsuccessfully sought from the Ottoman Turks was secured by Weizmann from the British in 1917 in the form of the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann forged the alliance with Britain and made it the cornerstone of Zionist policy in the course of a long and distinguished career that spanned the first half of the twentieth century.

    Born in Russia, Weizmann went to university in Berlin and Geneva and was active in the Zionist movement from its inception, attending some of the early congresses. In 1904 he moved to London and took up a faculty post in chemistry in the University of Manchester, but in the middle of World War I he transferred to London to direct a special laboratory the British government had created to improve the production of artillery shells. In London he promoted the Zionist cause by making contacts and converts in the highest political circles. His remarkable skills in diplomacy and persuasion swiftly carried him to the top. In 1920 he was elected president of the World Zionist Organization, and he was to retain this office, with an interruption from 1931 to 1935, until 1946. When the State of Israel was created, he served as its first president until his death in 1952.

    One of Weizmann's early contributions was to resolve the ongoing dispute between the political Zionists and the practical Zionists. The political Zionists, following in Herzl's footsteps, gave priority to diplomatic activity to secure international support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The practical Zionists, on the other hand, stressed the organization of Jewish immigration to Palestine, land acquisition, settlement, and the building of a Jewish economy there. The debate was not just about means but about the true meaning of Zionism. At the Eighth Zionist Congress, in 1907, Weizmann presented a new term, "synthetic Zionism," and argued that the two approaches supplemented each other, representing, in effect, two sides of the same coin. The policy implication of the new term, that the two approaches should be practiced simultaneously, seemed to satisfy both factions.

    Most of Weizmann's own efforts were directed at enlisting the British government's support for the Zionist project in Palestine. He had no direct knowledge of the Arab problem and no distinctive policy of his own for dealing with it. In general it seemed to him that the Arabs of Palestine were not a separate political community with national aspirations of its own but a tiny fraction of the large Arab nation, and he also expected that economic self-interest would temper their opposition to Zionism. About the moral superiority of the Jewish claim over the Arab claim to a homeland in Palestine, he never entertained any doubt.

    To a very great extent Weizmann's attitude toward the Palestine Arabs was shaped by his broader strategy of gaining British support for Zionism. The deeper and more complex his negotiations with the British government became in the course of World War I, the less attention he paid to the local difficulty with the Palestine Arabs. To elicit British support for what he ambiguously termed a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, he minimized the danger of organized Arab resistance. In making his case, however, he appealed not only to the British imperial interest in having a friendly nation in a region of great strategic importance but also to British idealism. His efforts were crowned with success when, on 2 November 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild a letter that said,

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by the Jews in any other country.

The Balfour Declaration, as this letter came to be known, represented a major triumph for Zionist diplomacy. At the time of its issue, the Jewish population of Palestine numbered some 56,000 as against an Arab population of 600,000, or less than 10 percent. Considering that the Arabs constituted over 90 percent of the population, the promise not to prejudice their civil and religious rights had a distinctly hollow ring about it, since it totally ignored their political rights. Britain's public promise to the Jews could not be reconciled either with its earlier promise to Hussein the sharif of Mecca to support the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom after the war in return for an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire or with the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to divide the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence in the event of an Allied victory. These irreconcilable wartime promises returned to haunt Britain on the morrow of the Allied victory. As far as Weizmann was concerned, however, the Balfour Declaration, despite all its ambiguities and limitations, handed the Jews a golden key to unlock the doors of Palestine and to make themselves the masters of the country.

    In the aftermath of the war, Weizmann's attitude toward the Palestine Arabs continued to be governed by the need to retain British backing for the fledgling Jewish national home. Having sponsored a Pan-Arab movement under the leadership of the sharif of Mecca during the war, Britain had no sympathy with the idea that the Arabs of Palestine formed a distinct political entity. Its policy was to make the Hashemite princes, the sons of the sharif of Mecca, rulers of semi-independent Arab states. Prince Faisal, commander of the Arab revolt against the Turks, became the king of Syria, but after the French ejected him from their sphere of influence, the British procured for him the Iraqi throne. Abdullah, his elder brother, was appointed ruler of the emirate of Transjordan, created by Britain in 1921. Iraq and Transjordan thus became the two main pillars of Britain's empire in the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I (see map 1).

    It took Weizmann no time at all to orient himself on the new map of the Middle East. Taking his cue from the British, he disregarded the claims of the Palestine Arabs and strove to reach agreement with the 'Hashemite rulers of the neighboring Arab countries. This was the basis of the agreement he signed with Faisal on 3 January 1919. It endorsed the Balfour Declaration and envisaged "the most cordial goodwill and understanding" between Arabs and Jews in realizing their national aspirations in their respective territories in Palestine. The agreement had a very short life, however, because it ran counter to public opinion in the Arab world. Whether or not Faisal had the authority to sign an agreement affecting the Palestine Arabs in the first place, he was forced by his own nationalist followers to declare that the separation of Palestine from Syria was not acceptable and that Zionist aspirations for a state clashed with Arab ideas. In Arab eyes the main result of the Weizmann-Faisal intermezzo was to identify Zionism as the ally of British imperialism in the Middle East and as an obstacle in their own struggle for self-determination.

    In the period 1918-20 the Zionists put forward their own maximalist interpretation of the Balfour Declaration. They wanted international recognition of the Jewish claim to Palestine, and they wanted the Jewish national home to stretch across both banks of the river Jordan. When Weizmann was asked at the Paris peace conference what was meant by a Jewish national home, he famously replied, "To make Palestine as Jewish as England is English." He was careful, however, not to speak openly in terms of a state, so as not to give substance to the charge that the Jewish minority planned to make itself master over the Arab majority. Although a Jewish state with a Jewish majority was his ultimate and unchanging aim, he believed in working toward this goal in a gradual, evolutionary, and nonprovocative fashion.

    Weizmann's policy toward the Palestine Arabs is usually described as moderate, but it was moderate in style much more than in substance. Although patient and prudent and willing to listen to the Arabs, he was uncompromising in his defense of Jewish interests in Palestine. He was prepared to accept the Arabs as partners in running Palestine through an elected council based on parity between the two communities, but he did not accept them as equal partners in negotiations on the future of the country. According to him, these negotiations had to be conducted exclusively between Britain and the Jews.

    Small wonder that Jewish-Arab relations deteriorated seriously after the Balfour Declaration was issued. Weizmann's assumption that the Palestine Arabs would remain politically passive and that the Arab-Jewish conflict would find its resolution on the social and economic plane turned out to be mistaken. A Palestinian national movement emerged in the interwar period, partly in response to the Zionist challenge. Under the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the Palestinian national movement became not only active but aggressive in its opposition to Zionism. The mufti systematically rejected all the compromise proposals put forward by the British, instigated riots and disturbances against the Jews, and led a full-scale revolt in 1936-39 against the British authorities and their Jewish protégés.

    Weizmann turned out to be equally mistaken in his assumption of the essential identity between British and Jewish interests in Palestine. Mounting Arab resistance, with occasional outbursts of violence, forced Britain to reassess its own wartime commitments to Zionism. The result was a gradual retreat from the promise embodied in the Balfour Declaration and a more evenhanded policy toward the two warring communities in Palestine. Winston Churchill's white paper of 1922 limited British support for the Jewish national home in three significant ways: it laid down for the first time economic criteria for Jewish immigration, it proposed. elected institutions based on proportional representation instead of parity, and it excluded Transjordan from the area available for Jewish settlement. This adverse shift in British policy continued throughout the interwar period, reaching its climax in the white paper of 1939.

    Weizmann's disappointment with the British was as bitter as that of any other Zionist leader. His response, however, was characteristically prudent and pragmatic. Having staked everything on the British connection, he recognized that there was now no alternative to continuing reliance on the mandatory power if the national home was to survive. This is why he opposed a showdown with Britain: there was simply no way the Zionists could impose on Britain their own interpretation of what the Balfour Declaration entailed. His advice was to continue to build the Jewish national home step by step, immigrant by immigrant, settlement by settlement.

    This advice did not command unanimous assent in the Zionist camp. In the early 1920s, against the background of growing Arab militancy and British moves to appease the Arabs, voices were raised in favor of revising the official policy of the Zionist movement. The most powerful voice was that of Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky
and Revisionist Zionism

Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was an ardent Jewish nationalist, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, and the spiritual father of the Israeli right. Born in Odessa to a liberal Russian Jewish family, he worked as a journalist in Rome and Vienna and at an early age began to devote his outstanding skills as a writer, orator, and polemicist to the Zionist cause. During the First World War he persuaded the British to form Jewish volunteer units within the British army and himself served as an officer in the Zion Mule Corps in Egypt.

    In 1921 Jabotinsky was elected to the Zionist Executive. From the very start he was at odds with Chaim Weizmann, whose principal sparring partner he remained for the rest of his life. In 1923 he resigned from the Zionist Executive, charging that its policies, especially its acceptance of the 1922 white paper, would result in the loss of Palestine. At successive Zionist congresses Jabotinsky established himself as one of the great orators of his day and as the chief spokesman for the opposition. He formed a new party, the World Union of Zionist Revisionists in 1925, and the youth movement Betar. After a decade in opposition to the official leadership of Zionism, he and his group seceded from the movement altogether and established the New Zionist Organization, which elected him as its president. Jabotinsky strongly opposed the partition of Palestine. Growing militancy led him to take over the leadership of the dissident military organization, the Irgun. He died in America in 1940 on a mission to organize Jewish participation in the Allied war effort. Jabotinsky was an exceptionally talented and versatile man, an original thinker and ideologue, and a powerful political leader. His followers worshiped him, while his enemies detested him with equal passion.

    Although the Revisionist movement was dominated to a large extent by Jabotinsky and his ideas, it was not a one-man show. It gained significant grassroots support in the 1920s, during a period of crisis in the history of Zionism. The Balfour Declaration had inspired great hopes that Zionism would be speedily fulfilled with the help of Great Britain, but Britain's postwar policy produced a mood of disappointment and disillusion in the Yishuv. Jabotinsky tapped into this mood to build his movement and to articulate the ideology of Revisionist Zionism.

    One of the paradoxes of this phase in Zionist history is that there was no fundamental difference between Jabotinsky and Weizmann regarding the role of Great Britain. Both men, in different ways, were disciples of Theodor Herzl in that they both assumed that the support and protection of a great power were absolutely indispensable in the struggle for statehood. Jabotinsky's strong pro-Western orientation stemmed from his distinctive worldview. He rejected the romantic view of the East and believed in the cultural superiority of Western civilization. "We Jews have nothing in common with what is denoted 'the East' and we thank God for that," he declared. The East, in his view, represented psychological passivity, social and cultural stagnation, and political despotism. Although the Jews originated in the East, they belonged to the West culturally, morally, and spiritually. Zionism was conceived by Jabotinsky not as the return of the Jews to their spiritual homeland but as an offshoot or implant of Western civilization in the East. This worldview translated into a geostrategic conception in which Zionism was to be permanently allied with European colonialism against all the Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean.

    The root cause of Jabotinsky's dispute with the official Zionist leadership was his conception of the Jewish state. He laid down two principles that formed the core of the Revisionist Zionist ideology and its political program. The first was the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, over both banks of the river Jordan within the original borders of the Palestine mandate. The second was the immediate declaration of the Jewish right to political sovereignty over the whole of this area.

    This maximalist definition of the aims of Zionism once again raised a question: Did the Arabs of Palestine constitute a distinct national entity and, if so, what should be the Zionist attitude toward them and what should be their status within the projected Jewish state? Jabotinsky's answer is contained in two highly important articles he published in 1923 under the heading "The Iron Wall." They gave the essence of Revisionist theory on the Arab question and provided its fighting slogan. The first article is entitled "On the Iron War (We and the Arabs)." It begins on a personal note in which Jabotinsky engagingly described his emotional attitude to the Arabs as one of "polite indifference." But he went on to reject, as totally unacceptable, any thought of removing the Arabs from Palestine. The real question, he said, switching to a philosophical mode, was whether one could always achieve peaceful aims by peaceful means. The answer to this question, he insisted, depended without a doubt on the attitude of the Arabs toward Zionism, not on Zionism's attitude toward them.

    Jabotinsky's analysis of the Arabs' attitude led him to state categorically, "A voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future." As most moderate Zionists had already found out, there was not the slightest chance of gaining the agreement of the Palestine Arabs to turn Palestine into a country with a Jewish majority. This was because they regarded their country as their national homeland and wanted to remain its sole owners. Jabotinsky turned sharply against those Zionists who portrayed the Palestine Arabs either as fools who could be easily deceived by a watered-down version of Zionist objectives or as a tribe of mercenaries ready to give up their right to a country in exchange for economic advantage: "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."

    Having explained the logic of Palestinian hostility to Zionism, Jabotinsky turned to the policy implications. One option, he noted, was to offer the non-Palestinian Arabs money or a political alliance in return for their agreement to Jewish control of Palestine. This option was rejected for two reasons. First, it would do nothing to modify the implacable hostility of the Palestinian Arabs to Jewish colonization. Second, to pledge Jewish money and political support to the Arabs of the Middle East would be to betray the European colonial powers, especially Britain, and this would be a suicidal act. Jabotinsky therefore concluded,

We cannot promise any reward either to the Arabs of Palestine or to the Arabs outside Palestine. A voluntary agreement is unattainable. And so those who regard an accord with the Arabs as an indispensable condition of Zionism must admit to themselves today that this condition cannot be attained and hence that we must give up Zionism. 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.

This, in a nutshell, was Jabotinsky's policy regarding the Arab question: to erect an iron wall of Jewish military force. On the need for an iron wall, he claimed, there was agreement among all Zionists. The only slight difference was that "the militarists" wanted an iron wall constructed with Jewish bayonets, whereas "the vegetarians" wanted it built with British bayonets. But they all wanted an iron wall. Constant repetition of Zionist willingness to negotiate with the Arabs was not only hypocritical but harmful, and Jabotinsky regarded it as his sacred duty to expose this hypocrisy.

    Toward the end of the article Jabotinsky went to some length to dispel any impression his analysis might have given that he despaired of the prospect of reaching an agreement with the Arabs of Palestine:

I do not mean to assert that no agreement whatever is possible with the Arabs of the Land of Israel. But a voluntary agreement is just not possible. As long as the Arabs preserve a gleam of hope that they will succeed in getting rid of us, nothing in the world can cause them to relinquish this hope, precisely because they are not a rabble but a living people. And a living people will be ready to yield on such fateful issues only when they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogans "No, never" lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups. And only then will the moderates offer suggestions for compromise. Then only will they begin bargaining with us on practical matters, such as guarantees against pushing them out, and equality of civil and national rights.

The article concluded with a profession of faith that peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Palestine would be possible, but only as a result of the construction of an impregnable wall:

It is my hope and belief that we will then offer them 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. In other words, the only way to achieve a settlement in the future is total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at a settlement in the present.

Moderate Zionists criticized the article, especially on the grounds that it was written from an immoral standpoint. Jabotinsky therefore wrote a second article, entitled "The Morality of the Iron Wall," in which he turned the tables on his critics. From the point of view of morality, he held, there were two possibilities: either Zionism was a positive phenomenon, or it was negative. This question required an answer before one became a Zionist. And all of them had indeed concluded that Zionism was a positive force, a moral movement with justice on its side. Now, "if the cause is just, justice must triumph, without regard to the assent or dissent of anyone else."

    A frequent argument against Zionism was that it violated the democratic right of the Arab majority to national self-determination in Palestine. Jabotinsky responded that the Jews had a moral right to return to Palestine and that the enlightened world had acknowledged this right. He then turned to the argument that the method of the iron wall was immoral because it tried to settle Jews in Palestine without the consent of its inhabitants. He pointed out that since no native population anywhere in the world would willingly accept an alien majority, the logical conclusion would be to renounce altogether the idea of a Jewish national home. Even to dream of a national home would then become immoral. The article concluded with an assertion of the morality of the iron wall: "A sacred truth, whose realization requires the use of force, does not cease thereby to be a sacred truth. This is the basis of our stand toward Arab resistance; and we shall talk of a settlement only when they are ready to discuss it."

    Although "On the Iron Wall" became the bible of Revisionist Zionism, its real message was often misunderstood, not least by Jabotinsky's own followers. For him 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 had been broken, a process of change would occur inside the Palestinian national movement, with the moderates coming to the fore. Then and only then would it be time to start serious negotiations. In these negotiations the Jewish side should offer the Palestinians civil and national rights. Jabotinsky did not spell out in this article what precisely he meant by "national rights," but other pronouncements suggest that what he had in mind was political autonomy for the Palestinians within a Jewish state. What does emerge from the article is that he recognized that the Palestine Arabs formed a distinct national entity and that he accordingly considered them entitled to some national rights, albeit limited ones, and not merely to individual rights.

    In the realm of ideas Jabotinsky was important as the founder of Revisionist Zionism. In the realm of politics his impact was much greater than is commonly realized. For it was not only Revisionist Zionists who were influenced by his ideas but the Zionist movement as a whole. "On the Iron Wall," in the words of one perceptive observer, should be treated as "a forceful, honest effort to grapple with the most serious problem facing the Zionist movement and as a formal articulation of what did become, in fact, the dominant rationale for Zionist and Israeli policies and attitudes toward the Arabs of Palestine from the 1920s to the late 1980s."

    The Zionist movement was not a monolithic political movement but a collection of rival political parties, the largest being the Labor Party, which was inspired by Marxist ideas and socialist ideals. One fundamental difference between Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism related to the use of force. Labor Zionists were reluctant to admit that military force would be necessary if the Zionist movement was to achieve its objectives. Jabotinsky faced up to this fact fairly and squarely. He went further in suggesting a reversal of the Zionist order of priorities. Labor Zionists wanted to proceed toward statehood by immigration and settlement and accorded a lower priority to the building up of a military capability. Jabotinsky never wavered in his conviction that Jewish military power was the key factor in the struggle for a state. It was the Labor Zionists who gradually came around to his point of view without openly admitting it. So in the final analysis the gap was not all that great: Labor leaders, too, came to rely increasingly on the strategy of the iron wall.


Table of Contents

List of Mapsxi
Preface to the Paperback Editionxvii
Prologue: The Zionist Foundations1
1.The Emergence of Israel 1947-194928
2.Consolidation 1949-195354
3.Attempts at Accommodation 1953-195595
4.The Road to Suez 1955-1957143
5.The Alliance of the Periphery 1957-1963186
6.Poor Little Samson 1963-1969218
7.Immobilism 1969-1974283
8.Disengagement 1974-1977325
9.Peace with Egypt 1977-1981352
10.The Lebanese Quagmire 1981-1984384
11.Political Paralysis 1984-1988424
12.Stonewalling 1988-1992461
13.The Breakthrough 1992-1995502
14.The Setback 1995-1996546
15.Back to the Iron Wall 1996-1998564

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