Book Review: The Iron Wall and Israel-Palestine’s New Chapter

West Bank barrier as seen from Israeli side. (Jonas Witt/Flickr)

Wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen and unrest in many other Arab countries has recently shifted attention away from the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, much like disputes involving Iran, solving the conflict in the Holy Land is a key to unlocking the problems in the wider region. Unfortunately, the situation has only become more intractable in the past few years. Positions have hardened, particularly among Israeli decision-makers. This is partly due to the instability in the Middle East as a whole and the sense of insecurity this breeds. In order to fully understand it, however, the conflict must be looked at from a broader historical perspective than just the Arab uprisings since late 2010.

The history of the conflict and, more specifically, an individual school of thought that has dominated Israeli political leadership is tracked in a new edition of Oxford University history professor Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, which was first published in 1999 and covered events through the first 50 years of the state of Israel. Broader than Shlaim’s previous works both in terms of the period of time and the geographical area it covered, it was more of a popular work of history and appealed to a wider audience than just academics. This, combined with the intense interest the Oslo peace process generated in the late 1990s, helped to make it a bestseller. The intense drama inherent to the history of Israel and Shlaim’s flowing narrative style, weaving together a disparate cast of characters and variety of events, are certainly also responsible for its high readability. However, it is the simplicity of its basic argument, and its high explanatory power, that make the book stand out.

Shlaim traces the history of the principle of the “iron wall,” an idea seared deep into the Israeli psyche, particularly the political class. The original concept was developed in a 1923 article by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Israeli right, and can be summarized as supporting the erection of a figurative iron wall of Jewish military force against the Arabs. Shlaim traces both implicit and explicit reference to this idea throughout Israel’s history, in both words and actions. His strongest argument is that members of the Israeli leadership, with rare exceptions, have misinterpreted the concept, or at least not fully understood it.

Shlaim writes that they have failed to realize that Jabotinsky thought an agreement with the Palestinians, and peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, was possible. The thinking was that once military deterrence had been built, the Jews could negotiate from a position of strength. The Iron Wall argues that Israel has failed to understand this by consistently choosing the military option over diplomacy. The few leaders that showed some moderation have been sidelined. The removal of prime minister Moshe Sharett in 1956, in particular, marked a turning point, as “the final collapse of the moderate school of thought on Israel’s relations with the Arabs and the final triumph of Ben-Gurionism.” The only other Israeli leader that came close to that camp was Yitzhak Rabin, until his assassination at the hands of a right-wing extremist in 1995.

At the end of the period covered by the first edition of The Iron Wall the peace process was faltering, with the accession to power of the rightist Benyamin Netanyahu, who reneged on the historic compromise Rabin had struck with the Palestinians and reverted to unilateral action. The book has now received a significant makeover through the updated edition, which contains material from dozens of new publications, in particular memoirs, as well as new archive material.

Among the new autobiographies Shlaim references are those of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, US president George Bush, and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon. The new edition also draws on just about every personal account of the 2000 Camp David negotiations. We thus learn how Bush held his first cabinet meeting since the 9/11 attacks after a phone call with Sharon and are able to trace the global implications of the iron wall principle and its influence in the so-called War on Terror. Shlaim has also added three chapters covering Ehud Barak’s premiership of 1999-2001, which includes Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the failure of the Camp David process, and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, as well as the Sharon leadership of 2003-2006.

Clearly, much has happened since the publication of the first edition, but none of it has caused Shlaim to reconsider the original thesis of the book: That in its dealing with the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular, Israel has missed every opportunity to resolve the long-running conflict peacefully. Rather, it has made the situation worse. In the process of reevaluating the situation, Shlaim has become increasingly disillusioned and vocal in his criticism of Israel.

In the preface to this updated version, Shlaim, whose life is intimately tied to the history of Israel, writes particularly candidly about the development of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I still accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel within the pre-1967 borders. What I reject, and reject totally and uncompromisingly, is the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders,” he writes. “It is particularly distressing to see the IDF, which in my day was true to its name and in which I served loyally and proudly, transformed into the police force of a brutal colonial power.”

Shlaim was born in Baghdad in 1945 to an Iraqi-Jewish family, which five years later joined a major exodus of Jews to Israel from Iraq, where his family was estimated to have lived for two-and-a-half millennia. They were Arab Jews, who had lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors. His parents had little knowledge and no sympathy for the Zionist cause. Shlaim dedicates the book to the memory of his father, who never recovered from the ordeal of exile and lamented the creation of the Jewish state. Given this background, Shlaim does not claim clinical detachment from his subject matter, even though he affirms his commitment to high standards of objectivity.

Shlaim’s criticism of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 is further articulated in his collection of essays Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009), where he explains his position on the events in 1948 surrounding the creation of the state of Israel: “I believe the creation of the State of Israel involved a terrible injustice to the Palestinians. But I fully accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders.” He goes on to claim that though the Palestinians suffered a catastrophe, the Jews had previously suffered an even greater injustice, “In the circumstances of 1948, after the hideous suffering inflicted on the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany, it was inescapable fact that something on a titanic scale had to be done for them and there was nothing titanic enough except Palestine.”

Shlaim belongs to a small group of academics referred to as “revisionist Israeli historians” or simply as “new historians.” The original group also included Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe. Their defining characteristic is challenging the standard Zionist narrative of the causes and development of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Morris’s book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Pappe’s Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948–1951, and Shlaim’s own Collusion Across the Jordan, all published in 1988, shook and eventually shattered some of the foundational myths of Israel.

Their work dovetailed with the declassification of Israeli foreign policy documents and the revelations they brought to light. Shlaim, for example, talks about “the popular-heroic-moralistic version of the 1948 war” used as propaganda by the Israeli establishment and taught in Israeli schools, which is based on two main misrepresentations of the Arab-Israeli military balance and the aims of the conflict. The first of these is the fact that, at each stage of the 1948 war, the IDF significantly outnumbered all the Arab forces organized against it. Secondly, Arab forces were far from united in their determination to destroy the fledging Jewish state. The Jordanians, for example, wanted to annex the Arab part of Palestine for themselves. The other forces were motivated by national and dynastic interests, rather than “securing Palestine for the Palestinians.”

There has since been a break in the ranks of the new historians. After the commencement of the Second Intifada in 2000, Morris started to place the blame for the lack of a political settlement squarely at the feet of the Palestinians. Shlaim, on the other hand, continued to be conscious of his membership of the group and it is very much in this spirit that he wrote this second edition. The historiography around the revisionists has itself subsequently become a subject of his study and features in The Iron Wall. The book draws on how the revisionist contestations were introduced into Israeli school textbooks and referenced by parties to the peace negotiations. The academics’ arguments were afterwards challenged by politicians, with Sharon stating explicitly that Israeli children should not study the new historians. In fact, all trace of the thinkers was removed from textbooks when Limor Livnat became minister of education, under Sharon. Ya’alon, who later became defense minister, regarded the new historians as not only deluded, but dangerous.

Despite the efforts to curb Shlaim’s contributions to the debate, The Iron Wall remains a critical work on fostering understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The epilogue to the new edition traces the period from Ehud Olmert’s election as prime minister up to the return of Netanyahu in 2009. Once again, this new material—and the subsequent reelection of Netanyahu this year—only confirms the original theory of the book, as does Israel’s erection of a literal wall that snakes its way down the West Bank, creating a firm barrier between reconciliation of the country’s two populations.

Written at a time when the Oslo peace accords were still hanging on by a thread, the first edition might have risked irrelevancy if things had turned out differently. The Second Intifada and the 9/11 attacks ensured this promise was a mere blip on the radar, however. The new edition clearly illustrates how the obsession with security has continued to determine the course of Israel’s history, and the enduring strength of the iron wall has provided none of the opportunities for negotiating peace that were initially envisioned.