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Israel’s ‘Iron Wall’: A brief history of the ideology guiding Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel’s ‘Iron Wall’: A brief history of the ideology guiding Benjamin Netanyahu

A view of Khan Yunis in Gaza on Feb. 2, 2024, after weeks of continuous Israeli bombardment and bulldozing. Abdulqader Sabbah/Anadolu via Getty Images


By Eran Kaplan, San Francisco State University

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled that Israel’s military will soon launch an invasion of Rafah, the city in the southern Gaza Strip. More than 1 million Palestinians, now on the verge of famine, have sought refuge there from their bombed-out cities farther north. Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s warning against the move, Netanyahu appears, for now, undeterred from his aim to attack Rafah.

The attack is the latest chapter in Israel’s current battle to eliminate Hamas from Gaza.

But it’s also a reflection of an ideology, known as the “Iron Wall,” that has been part of Israeli political history since before the state’s founding in 1948. The Iron Wall has driven Netanyahu in his career leading Israel for two decades, culminating in the current deadly war that began with a massacre of Israelis and then turned into a humanitarian catastrophe for Gaza’s Palestinians.

Here is the history of that ideology:

A wall that can’t be breached

In 1923, Vladimir, later known as “Ze’ev,” Jabotinsky, a prominent Zionist activist, published “On the Iron Wall,” an article in which he laid out his vision for the course that the Zionist movement should follow in order to realize its ultimate goal: the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine, at the time governed by the British.

A man in a double breasted suit, wearing round glasses.
Vladimir ‘Ze’ev’ Jabotinsky, in Prague in 1933. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of L. Elly Gotz, CC BY


Jabotinsky admonished the Zionist establishment for ignoring the Arab majority in Palestine and their political desires. He asserted the Zionist establishment held a fanciful belief that the technological progress and improved economic conditions that the Jews would supposedly bring to Palestine would endear them to the local Arab population.

Jabotinsky thought that belief was fundamentally wrong.

To Jabotinsky, the Arabs of Palestine, like any native population throughout history, would never accept another people’s national aspirations in their own homeland. Jabotinsky believed that Zionism, as a Jewish national movement, would have to combat the Arab national movement for control of the land.

“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised,” he wrote.

Jabotinsky believed the Zionist movement should not waste its resources on Utopian economic and social dreams. Zionism’s sole focus should be on developing Jewish military force, a metaphorical Iron Wall, that would compel the Arabs to accept a Jewish state on their native land.

“Zionist colonisation … can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach,” he wrote.

Jabotinsky’s heirs: Likud

In 1925, Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist movement, which would become the chief right-wing opposition party to the dominant Labor Party in the Zionist movement. It opposed Labor’s socialist economic vision and emphasized the focus on cultivating Jewish militarism.

In 1947, David Ben Gurion and the Zionist establishment accepted partition plans devised by the United Nations for Palestine, dividing it into independent Jewish and Palestinian Arab states. The Zionists’ goal in accepting the plan: to have the Jewish state founded on the basis of such international consensus and support.

Jabotinsky’s Revisionists opposed any territorial compromise, which meant they opposed any partition plan. They objected to the recognition of a non-Jewish political entity – an Arab state – within Palestine’s borders.

The Palestinian Arab state proposed by the U.N. partition plan was rejected by Arab leaders, and it never came into being.

In 1948, Israel declared its independence, which sparked a regional war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. During the war, which began immediately after the U.N. voted for partition and lasted until 1949, more than half the Palestinian residents of the land Israel claimed were expelled or fled.

At the war’s end, the historic territory of Palestine was divided, with about 80% claimed and governed by the new country of Israel. Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.

In the new Israeli parliament, Jabotinsky’s heirs – in a party first called Herut and later Likud – were relegated to the opposition benches.

Old threat, new threat

In 1967, another war broke out between Israel and Arab neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It resulted in Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. Yitzhak Rabin led Israel’s military during that war, called the Six-Day War.

From 1948 until 1977, the more leftist-leaning Labor Party governed Israel. In 1977, Menachem Begin led the Likud to victory and established it as the dominant force in Israeli politics.

However in 1992, Rabin, as the leader of Labor, was elected as prime minister. With Israel emerging as both a military and economic force in those years, fueled by the new high-tech sector, he believed the country was no longer facing the threat of destruction from its neighbors. To Rabin, the younger generation of Israelis wanted to integrate into the global economy. Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, he believed, would help Israel integrate into the global order.

In 1993, Rabin negotiated the Oslo Accords, a peace deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The two men shook hands in a symbol of the reconciliation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The agreement created a Palestinian authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as part of the pathway to the long-term goal of creating two countries, Israel and a Palestinian state, that would peacefully coexist.

That same year, Benjamin Netanyahu had become the leader of the Likud Party. The son of a prominent historian of Spanish Jewry, he viewed Jewish history as facing a repeating cycle of attempted destruction – from the Romans to the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis and the Arab world.

Netanyahu saw the Oslo peace process as the sort of territorial compromise Jabotinsky had warned about. To him, compromise would only invite conflict, and any show of weakness would spell doom.

The only answer to such a significant threat, Netanyahu has repeatedly argued, is a strong Jewish state that refuses any compromises, always identifying the mortal threat to the Jewish people and countering it with an overwhelming show of force.

No territorial compromise

Since the 1990s, Netanyahu’s primary focus has not been on the threat of the Palestinians, but rather that of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. But he has continued to say there can be no territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Just as Palestinians refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu refuses to accept the idea of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu believed that only through strength would the Palestinians accept Israel, a process that would be aided if more and more Arab states normalized relations with Israel, establishing diplomatic and other ties. That normalization reached new heights with the 2020 Abraham Accords, the bilateral agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and between Israel and Bahrain. These agreements were the ultimate vindication of Netanyahu’s regional vision.

It should not be surprising, then, that Hamas’ horrific attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, took place just as Saudi Arabia was nearing normalization of relations with Israel. In a twisted manner, when the Saudis subsequently backed off the normalization plans, the attack reaffirmed Netanyahu’s broader vision: The Palestinian group that vowed to never recognize Israel made sure that Arab recognition of Israel would fail.

The Hamas attack gave Netanyahu an opportunity to reassert Israel’s – and Jabotinsky’s – Iron Wall.

The massive and wantonly destructive war that Netanyahu has led against Hamas and Gaza since that date is the Iron Wall in its most elemental manifestation: unleashing overwhelming force as a signal that no territorial compromise with the Arabs over historical Palestine is possible. Or, as Netanyahu has repeatedly said in recent weeks, there will be no ceasefire until there’s a complete Israeli victory.The Conversation

Eran Kaplan, Rhoda and Richard Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies, San Francisco State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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