Israel’s Iron Wall Still Stands After Nearly a Century

Avi Shlaim

Over the years, the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim and his fellow “New Historians” have punctured a long series of Zionist myths about the country’s past and present. Now, Shlaim — once a supporter of the Oslo “peace process” — is adding the two-state solution itself to that list of dispelled myths.

Israel's wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, in 2009. Montecruz Foto / Flickr

Interview by
Douglas Gerrard

Avi Shlaim, a professor emeritus at Oxford University, is a leading historian of Israel and the Middle East. Born in Baghdad and raised in Ramat Gan, he’s known as one of the New Historians, a group of intellectuals whose research, beginning in the 1980s, undermined traditional Zionist narratives of Israeli history. His books include Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.

Earlier this year, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled that he was close to a decision to unilaterally annex the Palestinian West Bank, an aggressive and illegal move long championed by the Israeli right. Though Netanyahu ultimately abandoned the plan for temporary and tactical reasons, it illustrated a major theme of Shlaim’s historical work: the central role of unfettered military coercion in Israel’s conception of security vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

In light of these developments, Douglas Gerrard spoke to Shlaim about the history of the two-state solution, the promise and reality of the Oslo Accords, the future of Gaza, and the prospect of a binational state in Israel-Palestine.


DG

The Israeli proposal to annex parts of the West Bank now appears unlikely to come to fruition, but it seems significant that it was on the table at all. Would you agree — and this is perhaps a leading question — that this means the two-state solution is dead?

AS

It has become very fashionable to say that the two-state solution is dead. In reality, it was never born. Since 1967, no Israeli government has ever intended to allow an independent Palestinian state. This was the case even with Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo Accords. Rabin would talk about “medinah minus” — a demilitarized state minus — rather than a fully-fledged state. He was proceeding in a very cautious, security-focused way, and he never said the final destination would be a state.

And this is the Labor Party, whose policy since 1967 was, in theory, one of territorial compromise. The Likud are an ideological party: they believe in Greater Israel and the integrity of the homeland. And despite Netanyahu flirting with the idea of a Palestinian state in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech — in which he said he accepted a demilitarized state, under a long list of qualifications — they have always opposed the creation of a state. So that’s the Israeli side of things. On the American side, there has been a lot of talk about a two-state solution, but no American president has ever been willing to put the necessary pressure on Israel.

DG

The Oslo Accords are probably the most interesting period here, because they’re often talked about as a byword for compromise, and seen as the high water mark of the two-state solution. But Rabin never proposed a return to the 1967 borders, and in fact, he continued to expand settlements in the West Bank while negotiations were ongoing.

AS

When discussing Oslo, it is important to recognize that it was a monumental breakthrough — the first accord between the two principal actors in the conflict. The PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist, Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and the two sides agreed to resolve their differences peacefully. These are all landmarks in the history of the conflict.

But at the same time, what initially attracted Rabin to the Oslo Accords was that they didn’t require Israel to dismantle settlements. When he was first elected, Rabin was more interested in the Syrians than the Palestinians. He went all out for a deal with Hafez al-Assad, because if Syria was out of the game, that would have changed the entire strategic landscape. But for a peace treaty with Syria, Israel would have had to dismantle settlements on the Golan Heights. Whereas after its blunder during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein, the PLO was in such a weak bargaining position that they agreed not to make it a condition for Israel to stop expanding settlements.

This was the most fundamental flaw in the Palestinian approach to Oslo.

Another way in which Oslo was a turning point is that it was a move away from international law. On almost every major issue in the conflict, international law comes down on the side of the Palestinians. International law gives the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, it requires the removal of the settlements under the Geneva Convention, and it enshrines the Palestinian right of return in UN resolution 194. But the Oslo process disregarded international law, because it was a pragmatic deal made between two unequal parties. This was a selfish move by Arafat: it gave Israel a free hand, and it took the prospect of settlement freeze or dismantlement off the table.

I had a debate about this at the time with Edward Said. Edward was very much against Oslo: he likened the accord to a Palestinian surrender, accused Arafat of behaving undemocratically, and predicted that nothing good would emerge from an agreement between a very strong Israel and a very weak PLO. He was worried that all the final status issues — the settlements, the borders, the right of return, the status of Jerusalem — were left undiscussed. What I felt was that Oslo was a modest step in the right direction, that they were following a smart gradualist strategy, building trust between the two parties, and that toward the end, the difficult issues would be addressed. I was quite euphoric at the time. I was confident that it was the beginning of a two-state solution.

DG

Despite what Rabin was proposing, with the main settlements remaining under Israeli control?

AS

I believed it would kick-start an irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the end point of which would be a Palestinian state. My mistake was that the process was reversible. In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic, and in 1996, the Likud came back into power under Netanyahu, who immediately proceeded to dismantle the Oslo accords.

And yes, it would have been very tough to uproot the large settlement blocs. But the isolated, outlying settlements could have been abandoned, and there was some flexibility regarding land swaps, with Israel keeping some settlements and compensating the Palestinian Authority with state land in the Negev desert. The model for this sort of settlement was the deal [senior Labor Party official] Yossi Beilin and [then-PLO negotiator] Abu Mazen made in Stockholm in 1995. They reached full agreement there; they agreed to an independent Palestinian state in the whole of Gaza, around 95 percent of the West Bank, with a capital in East Jerusalem. They signed the agreement, they embraced, and in Yossi Beilin’s memoirs, he recalls feeling Abu Mazen’s tears on his cheek. This was the real deal; this was Beilin preparing a final status agreement for Rabin, who was likely to agree to it because 90 percent of the settlers at that time were within the area Israel would have retained. They were close to a final settlement. But then Rabin was assassinated, and Beilin presented his plan to Shimon Peres, his successor, with the suggestion that it be Labor’s platform for the coming election. Peres refused; he thought he would be accused of dividing Jerusalem.

After Rabin’s assassination, Peres had a 20-point lead in the race against Benjamin Netanyahu. There was also a de facto ceasefire with Hamas. But then the Shin Bet came to Peres and told him they were able to assassinate Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas bomb-maker. Peres gave the okay, and they blew his brains out with an explosive mobile phone. All hell was let loose: Hamas retaliated with a series of suicide bombings that killed sixty Israelis in the lead-up to the election. Now, in Israel, there is a rule: Jewish terror hurts the Right, while Palestinian terror hurts the Left. Peres would undoubtedly have won the election if he had adopted the Beilin–Abu Mazen plan, but he didn’t. Instead, Netanyahu came to power and proceeded to dismantle the Oslo accords.

DG

So how should we understand Oslo from the perspective of 2020? Do you really believe it could have led to a two-state solution, if not for Rabin’s assassination?

AS

I could maintain this, and that this gradualist process would have reached its logical conclusion in a two-state solution. But history doesn’t disclose its alternatives. It merely tells us what happened.

The historical significance of Oslo is that Rabin was the first and only Israeli prime minister who, in good faith, went toward the Palestinians on the political front. He moved beyond brute military strength and embarked on stage two of the strategy of the Iron Wall. None of his successors were serious about negotiations; Netanyahu negotiated only in bad faith, and Ariel Sharon did not negotiate at all. Ehud Barak, who was prime minister in between those two, was a particular disappointment, because though he was a Labor leader, he presided over the biggest spike in settlement activity.

DG

You mentioned in passing the idea of the Iron Wall, which has been a central theme in your writing, and is also the name of your book charting Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors. Can you explain what the Iron Wall is and how it accounts for the bipartisan nature of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?

AS

In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Israeli right, published an article entitled “On the Iron Wall: We and the Arabs.” It was divided into two parts: first, an analysis of the problem, and second, a policy prescription. The analysis said that the Palestinians are a people, not a rabble, and no people in history have ever willingly made way for another people to build a state on their land. This meant that Palestinian opposition to the Zionist project was inescapable, and that a voluntary agreement between the two sides was unattainable. The only way to realize the Zionist objective was unilaterally and by military force. The Arabs would hit their heads against the ramparts repeatedly, but eventually, they would realize they couldn’t defeat the Jews on the battlefield. They would despair of getting rid of the Jews, and at that point, the moderates would come to the fore. And then and only then would it be time for stage two of the strategy, which was to negotiate with the Palestinian leaders about their status and rights in Palestine.

People used to think the Iron Wall was the strategy of the Israeli right, but what I showed is that it was a bipartisan strategy; a national strategy, rather than a right-wing one. After the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and the most significant Labor Zionist, adopted the premises, analysis, and prescription of the Iron Wall. And this was the basic Zionist strategy in the conflict in the last one hundred years. The essence of this strategy is negotiations from strength.

Moreover, I argue that from Israel’s perspective, the strategy worked. In 1979, Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in return for the Sinai, and then in 1993, the PLO negotiated a peace agreement, both from a position of palpable weakness. This meant that Israel was able to dictate their terms. The same happened in 1994, when Israel concluded a peace treaty with Jordan.

The problem was that Israel’s leaders fell in love with the Iron Wall; they fell in love with military power and forgot about the policy prescription, which is using military superiority to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.

DG

That idea, of keeping the Palestinians in a position of permanent subordination, seems like a perfect encapsulation of Netanyahu’s approach to the conflict.

AS

Netanyahu has never shown any interest in resolving the conflict through negotiations. But at the same time, he is a status-quo politician. The occupation suits him as it is. He doesn’t want or need formal annexation, because if Israel moves ahead with annexation, it officially becomes an apartheid state, and that creates the prospect of international sanction.

DG

Why does annexation make apartheid any more unavoidable than, say, the Nation State Law?

AS

Realistic proposals for annexation involve around 30 percent of the West Bank: the main settlement blocs in Area C, and the Jordan Valley, which has mainly strategic value. And the immediate question is what would happen to around fifty thousand Palestinians in the annexed area. The settlers object to annexation for three reasons: first of all, because they want the whole thing; second, because it creates the prospect of a Palestinian statelet down the line, and third, because they do not want to give equal rights to the Palestinians in any annexed area. Netanyahu has assured them on all three points. Significantly, this means that the Palestinians in the annexed area will not have equal rights — perhaps permanent residence rights, but definitely not citizenship. This is Netanyahu’s central dilemma, because without citizenship for a group of Arabs within the state of Israel, there is no denying it is an apartheid state. This is why he is stalling.

DG

If Netanyahu is so resistant to the idea of annexation, how did the proposal get this far?

AS

What has changed is the election of Donald Trump — or, rather, the people around him. Since 1967, the American position has been that the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace. Then Trump comes along and says the settlements are not illegal, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that America recognizes Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights — dropping a hint that if Israel annexes the West Bank, he will recognize that, too. And the architects of these changes, like Jared Kushner and David Friedman, all have ties to the settler movement. Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, is an extreme right-wing Zionist and a fundraiser for a hard-line settlement, Beit El on the West Bank. These people are to the right of Netanyahu.

DG

I would like to ask you about Gaza, because your work identifies Israeli intransigence and unwillingness to negotiate as the primary cause of the conflict. But in 2005, under Ariel Sharon, Israel evacuated all its settlers from Gaza. How does the Gaza disengagement fit in with that history?

AS

The first point to make is that Gaza was not part of the biblical “Land of Israel,” so it is easy for both Labour and Likud leaders to make compromises there without compromising Greater Israel.

The second point is about Sharon himself. He is one of five key prime ministers in Israel’s history: Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state; Levi Eshkol, who presided over Israel becoming a colonial empire in 1967; Menachem Begin, who signed the first agreement with an Arab country; Rabin, who began in his own way to look for a settlement with the Palestinians; and Sharon, the unilateralist par excellence, who began to draw the borders of Greater Israel while shunning any negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sharon was determined for Israel to impose its terms on the Palestinians by military force. He did two significant and connected things: first, to unilaterally disengage from Gaza in 2005. Until 2005, Gaza was a classic colonial situation, where a handful of Jewish settlers lived with 1.5 million Palestinians, controlling 25 percent of the territory, 40 percent of the arable land, and all the scarce water resources.

From 1967 onward, Israel had pursued a policy of de-development in Gaza — this is what Sara Roy called it in her book on the subject — explicitly preventing Gaza from developing, and instead using it as a cheap source of labor and a market for Israeli products. But by 2005, the game was not worth the candle: Hamas was launching attacks, and the cost of protecting the settlements was escalating. And so Sharon calculated that it would be better to have a clean break, withdraw the eight thousand Jewish settlers from Gaza, and turn it into an open-air prison.

The second thing Sharon did was to construct the security barrier on the West Bank, what Palestinians call the apartheid wall. Sharon was committed throughout his career to the dream of Greater Israel, but he realized that, because of demography, Israel could not permanently control both the West Bank and Gaza. He never abandoned the dream, but he scaled it down to what was realistic in the long term.

This is where the two elements fit in: the disengagement removed 1.5 million Palestinians from the demographic equation, and then the wall marked off the areas that were to be kept permanently — the final borders of Greater Israel. The withdrawal from Gaza was presented as a contribution toward peace, but it was nothing of the sort. It wasn’t a first step, to be followed by further withdrawal; it was a final step to reinforce Israeli control over the West Bank. Twelve thousand new settlers were introduced there the following year.

Stage one of the strategy of the Iron Wall is to deal with the Palestinians from a position of military strength. But stage two is to negotiate from strength. Sharon was in power for five years, and during that time, there were no negotiations with the Palestinians. He was very proud of this record. Sharon personified the most right-wing, hard-line, rejectionist, and racist brand of Zionism. He will go down in history not as a tough negotiator but as a non-negotiator.

DG

The annexation proposal has prompted a lot of discussion about the future of the West Bank — with some even suggesting that there may be a second Nakba, an Israeli ethnic cleansing campaign. But there seems to be comparatively little talk about Gaza. Does Israel have a plan in Gaza beyond periodic bombings? What is the likely future there?

AS

You may have heard the phrase “mowing the lawn”: that is the policy in Gaza. There is no political solution there, no endgame, no light at the end of the tunnel. There is just a military assault every few years in order to damage the infrastructure so Gaza will take longer to get back on its feet.

What the blockade does is undermine the Palestinian national movement by keeping Gaza entirely isolated from the West Bank. There is no port in Gaza; there was briefly an airport, but Israel bombed it and put it out of action before it became operational. Although the Israelis withdrew from the Gaza Strip, they remain the occupying power under international law. They continue to control access to Gaza by land, sea, and air.

For their part, Israel argues that they can’t negotiate with the Palestinians on Gaza because they’re divided among themselves. They are helped by the fact that that the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is a corrupt, incompetent, collaborationist regime, working with Israel to enforce the occupation.

But Israel’s claim is not true — there have been several attempts to form national unity governments including Hamas and Fatah, and Israel has always disrupted them. In 2006, Hamas won a fair and free election and formed a government, intent on negotiating a long-term ceasefire with Israel. It had moderated its program from full liberation to a two-state solution on the 1967 lines. Israel refused, and America and the EU followed them in both refusing to deal with Hamas and using economic warfare to undermine their government.

Then, in March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government, which again was very moderate, and offered Israel negotiations on a ceasefire. Again, Israel refused to negotiate. Moreover, as was made clear in the Palestine Papers, Israel conspired with America, Fatah, and Egyptian intelligence to overthrow Hamas. A plan was made for a Fatah coup, which Hamas preempted by means of a violent seizure of power in June 2007. The unity government lasted about three months before it was destroyed by Israel, and after Hamas seized power, Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza. This, of course, is a form of collective punishment proscribed by international law.

DG

Together with Ilan Pappé, Benny Morris, and a few others, you are part of a group known as the New Historians, who in the 1980s and ’90s were very influential in challenging Israel’s founding myths. The New Historians have quite different politics now: Benny Morris has shifted dramatically to the right, while Ilan Pappé has rejected Israel’s legitimacy from the start. You’ve long been distinguished from Pappé in accepting Israel as legitimate within its pre-1967 borders; however, I have read that you have recently shifted to a binational, one-state position. What accounts for this shift in your thinking?

AS

1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. But Israel was created, and in 1949, it signed armistice agreements with its Arab neighbors. These are the only internationally recognized borders Israel has ever had, and the only ones I regard as legitimate. I reject, completely and totally, the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line, and if in the past Israel had withdrawn to its original borders, I would have accepted it. What has changed is that I no longer see a way that Israel will end the occupation or allow the Palestinians to exercise national rights. The only way they can achieve national or equal rights now is via a one-state solution. The only other options in Israel are apartheid, transfer, or mass expulsion, and these are, of course, totally unacceptable.

DG

What are the chances of such a solution?

AS

It is a noble vision: What could be more attractive than one state for all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity? But it isn’t a realistic option in the foreseeable future. On the Palestinian side, intellectuals had long supported the one-state solution, but increasingly the population does, too, because they have given up on independence. In Israel, there is no significant support for it. In the 1920s, there was an organization called Brit Shalom that supported it, and prominent figures like Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. But there was no mass support for it then, and there isn’t now.

This does not affect my commitment to a one-state solution, which is both democratic and right. The other point I would make is that things change. No one in the mid-1980s would have predicted that, in South Africa, there would be free elections in the 1990s. The United States could withdraw its support for Israel, if it formalizes apartheid. The UN could apply sanctions if this happened. The whole political landscape could change. So I am pessimistic about the prospects for change in the short term. But not in the long term.