The dream of Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel) is as alive as ever in the Jewish state. And to make that dream a reality, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has been using a time-honored Israeli negotiating strategy: appear reasonable, while making impossible demands to gain time in which to change facts on the ground.
Bibi’s latest demand — that the Palestinian Authority (PA) must recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland in exchange for reinstating a temporary freeze on Israeli settlement construction on land that is supposed to form the future Palestinian state — should be seen in that light.
The PA recognized Israel as a sovereign state as long ago as the 1993 Oslo Accords. To further define it now as a “Jewish state” would have compromised the status of the nearly two million Israeli Arabs, as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees around the region who demand their right of return be recognized. It was impossible for the PA to concede this, and the Israeli prime minister knew it.
Thus Bibi effectively halted the talks before they had even started. No doubt Zeév Jabotinsky, the godfather of rightwing Zionism and the Likud party would have been proud. Born in 1880 in Odessa, Jabotinsky believed that the new Israel ought to cover both banks of the River Jordan. To achieve that goal, he introduced the concept of the “iron wall.”
Having analyzed relations between the Arabs and early Zionists, Jabotinsky wrote in 1923: “Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how Arabs will behave and go on behaving as long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the Land of Israel.”
According to him, the colonization process would only succeed if it continued regardless of the “the mood of the natives,” whereby settlement should take place under the protection of a force “that is not dependent on the local population, but behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.”
Jabotinsky’s metaphorical wall of military and political might would crush Palestinian hopes to turn the tide and the “no, never” slogan of the Arab hardliners would make way for voices willing to compromise.
In 2000, Avi Shlaim, one of Israel’s leading new historians, borrowed Jabotinsky’s concept as a title for his book in which he analyzed the relations between Israel and the Arab world throughout the 20th century. According to him, both Israel’s Labor and Likud parties have adopted the iron wall approach in their dealings with the Arabs.
Shlaim slams the prevailing view in the West that Israel wants peace while the Arabs function as deal breakers. He offers one example after the other, in which the Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians were in fact willing to compromise, yet Israel refused to talk business. This was as true for Ben Gurion in the early days of the Israeli state as for Menachem Begin in his dealings with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1980s and Netanyahu today.
It is telling that the guru of the Israeli left, Ben Gurion, once wrote: “It’s not in order to establish peace that we need an agreement. Peace for us is a means. The goal is the complete and full realization of Zionism. Only after total despair on the part of the Arabs… may the Arabs possibly acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel.”
By paying lip service to American demands to make concessions, while at the same time demanding the impossible from the Palestinians, Bibi keeps both the iron wall and the Israeli dream alive.
Almost as soon as the talks were halted, he approved the construction of more than 200 new housing units in East Jerusalem.
Ironically, the iron wall doctrine fits perfectly with the “Road Map for Peace” proposed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations in 2002, which states that the final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement will take into account ‘facts on the ground’ — even if that means there is de facto nothing left on which to build a Palestinian state.
is a Beirut-based journalist