Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

From Iron Wall to Iron Dome… and Beyond

Almost a century ago, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote his famous essay “The Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In a nutshell, he argued that the Palestinian Arabs would not agree to a Jewish state so that the Zionist movement had to develop itself “behind an iron wall” of defense. But there was another side of his argument that is far less mentioned…

First, though, a few words about the background of his essay – and how it developed from there onwards. Jabotinsky penned the essay after none other than British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill (!) prohibited Zionist settlement on the east bank of the Jordan River (what ultimately became the new Hashemite Kingdom called “Jordan”). As a result, Jabotinsky followed up his words with actions, forming the Zionist Revisionist party. That eventually became Menachem Begin’s “Herut Party”, later morphing into the Likud in the 1970s that came to power in 1977. It has been the dominant party in Israeli politics since then, with only a few “electoral vacations” along the way (one more starting this Sunday).

Israel’s “Iron Dome”, anti-missile defense system is merely the latest incarnation of Israel’s “Iron Wall” policy; indeed, the choice of “Iron” harks back to Jabotinsky’s initial essay. One shouldn’t assume, though, that it’s only Israel’s Right-wing parties that accept the “Iron Wall” approach. The Labor governments (Rabin 1 & 2 as well as Barak in the late 1990s) adhered to the same general policy. How could they not, being former IDF Chiefs of Staff themselves?

Jabotinsky, though, was not a warmonger or a believer in “war forever” with Arab world. Rather, his “Iron Wall” was designed to bring the Arabs to the peace table. The idea here was that only when they realized that they could not “penetrate” the Iron Wall, would they come around to suing for peace with the State of Israel. This would occur when their extremist leadership loses power as a result of their position’s bankruptcy. Then, and only then, would Israel be willing to mutually make concessions in the pursuit of peace.

The last 40 years have proven his prescience. Several Arab countries have indeed come to the realization that Israel’s “Iron Wall” cannot be eliminated or overcome: Egypt, Jordan, and now several of the Gulf States, Sudan, and possibly a few others in the near future. On the other hand, the Palestinian position is ambivalent – actually suffering from a split personality. The PLO has officially foresworn violent means to obtain their own state, even working with Israel’s security apparatus to maintain power in the territories. On the other hand, as we have most recently witnessed in Gaza, Hamas is still willing to bash its head against Israel’s Iron Wall (and Iron Dome).

Despite Jabotinsky’s reputation as a “hard-liner”, he was actually a “Liberal” in the classic sense of the term, viewing Palestinian civic rights as a given (if and when they cease to be an irredentist threat within Israel). Thus, the latest “revolutionary” development in Israeli politics – an Arab party becoming part of the governing coalition – is actually classically Revisionist. The irony, of course, is that this has led to the political inheritors of Jabotinsky’s ideology losing power! Put another way, the very success of Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” philosophy in becoming acceptable to most Zionist parties, i.e., a Zionist consensus, means that it can service both sides of the political spectrum, now that the Iron Wall has proven itself.

As Shakespeare would put it: the Likud, Jabotinsky’s political progeny, has been “hoist with its own petard.”

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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