The Iron Wall and the Arab Spring

On March 31, 2013, the Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem organized an evening with Avi Shlaim, the noted Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and a fellow of the British Academy. The author of several valuable publications on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he presented the updated version of his book The Iron Wall, which was firstly published in 2001. The new updated version covers the main reasons behind the failure of Oslo, and it also includes more in-depth chapters about the government of Ariel Sharon, analyzing the rise of the importance given to the “security threat” following 9/11- and consequently the negligence of the peace process with the Palestinians- and lastly, it deals with the impact of the Arab Spring on the peace process.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall”

Interestingly, The Iron Wall takes its name from an article published in 1923 by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the revisionist Zionist author who, for the first time, talked about the impossibility of reaching a peaceful and voluntary agreement between Arabs and Jews in the present (1923), and thus that “the only way to obtain such an agreement, is the iron wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure”. Jabotinsky claimed that this agreement will be reached only once “will they drop their extremist leaders […] And the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions. Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizen, or Arab national integrity”.

Professor Shlaim quoted this article at the start of his speech, and he also reaffirmed and confirmed the main theme underlying his book: ever since its birth, Israel has been reluctant to engage with Palestinians in meaningful diplomatic process to achieve an effective peace agreement. According to the historian, this nationalist strategy, embodied in the Jabotinsky’s theory of the Iron Wall, has been the main and only modus operandi employed by the different Israeli governments in dealing with the Palestinian conflict.

Rabin was the only one to shift to Stage Two

Prof. Shlaim affirms that the only Israeli Prime Minister who tried to shift from stage one- the iron wall- to stage two – negotiations- was Yitzhak Rabin, with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Hence, his assassination was not just an assassination of a prime minister, but it was meant to assassinate the peace process itself.

Since the breakdown of the peace process and the subsequent outburst of the second intifada, the Israeli policy has been focused on maintaining the status quo and not engaging in political agreement with the Palestinians. Therefore, the continuing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, the creation of the myth of the “missing Palestinian partner”, the too much acclaimed “war on terror” promoted by Ariel Sharon after 9/11 and the “security threat” have been used by the Israeli government to disengage from negotiations and to implement a unilateralist policy to the borders of Great Israel.

Impact of the Arab Spring

Another important new section of the book deals with the impact of the Arab Spring on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it strives to determine its assets and setbacks on both sides. According to Professor Shlaim, Arab dictators played a fundamental role in propping up the metaphorical iron wall, and they somehow enabled Israel to continue its military regional domination. Now these dictators have fallen one by one and since then, Israel has been worried by any event that could have altered the status-quo. On the other hand, Prof. Shlaim also underlines the assets that the Arab Spring provides to the region, as he sees its social and political mobilization as a powerful force for bringing about change and democracy.

However, despite the last two years had an inherent potential for peace and integration, Israel has proved itself to have a reactionary, anti-revolutionary, colonialist government. In addition, Prof. Shlaim believes that the rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative (Saudi Plan), which would have assured Israel not only peace with the Palestinians, but also with all the member states of the Arab League, and the shift of the Israeli electorate towards the right wing, leave no hopes for a future of peaceful agreements, but only for a higher and unbreakable Iron Wall.