Israel's 'iron wall' is sealing the country off from peace

If trust is to be rebuilt, the security doctrine that has defined Israeli defence for decades must be reconsidered

TOPSHOT - Israeli soldiers and armoured vehicles are pictured on November 19, 2019 near the border with Syria in the annexed Golan Heights. Israel's anti-missile defence system intercepted four rockets fired from neighbouring Syria on Tuesday, the army said. "Four launches were identified from Syria towards Israeli territory which were intercepted by the Israeli air defense systems," the Israeli army said in a statement.
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The outcome of Israel’s recent elections sent a stern message to the country’s Arab citizens as well as to Arabs in general. It was that none of the major parties, Likud or the Blue and White alliance of Benny Gantz, was willing to form a coalition with the Arab Joint List to help secure a majority in the Knesset.

If forming a coalition with Israeli Arab political parties was so controversial, if integrating with Arabs at home was so fraught with risk, then one must wonder how Israel seeks to integrate better into the region, something that has long been a strategic aim of the Israeli state. The reason for this is that Israeli leaders have long acted according to a belief that only when their enemies accept that defeating Israel militarily is almost impossible will they agree to make peace with it.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drone, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc, stands on display during the Singapore Airshow at the Changi Exhibition Centre in Singapore, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Plane makers and airlines are exploring new designs to reduce fuel burn and cut carbon emissions in a warming climate. Blending the wings with the fuselage to cut drag is one of several possible solutions. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The roots of this thinking can be found in a famous article, written in 1923, by the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It is often referred to as the Iron Wall essay. In it, Jabotinsky argued that Jewish settlement in Palestine “can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.” Faced with such an “iron wall,” Jabotinsky wrote, Arab extremist leaders would in time give way to moderates more willing to reach a settlement.

The iron wall doctrine came to dominate Israeli security strategy fairly early on. Even Jabotinsky’s great foe, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, embraced its basic principle during the state’s infancy.

Today, with Israel governed more than ever by the intellectual descendants of Revisionist Zionism, the iron wall remains at the heart of Israel’s approach to security. This has provoked much satisfaction from some of Israel’s friends and admirers, who applaud the country’s willingness to hit its enemies hard.

An image grab shows on November 20, 2019 reportedly shows Syrian air defence batteries responding to Israeli missiles targeting the southern outskirts of Damascus. The Israeli army confirmed that it carried out strikes against military sites in Damascus today, in response to rocket fire from Syria the previous day. "We just carried out wide-scale strikes of Iranian Quds Force & Syrian Armed Forces targets in Syria in response to the rockets fired at Israel by an Iranian force in Syria," the Israel Defense Forces tweeted. Syria's state media earlier said Syrian anti-aircraft defences intercepted a "heavy attack" by Israeli warplanes over the capital Damascus.
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A persistent – and demeaning – feature of this approach, however, is the assumption that the Arabs, or today the Iranians, only really understand violence. While there are cases in which resorting to military action may be necessary to deter threats, as in Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from surrounding the country with hostile forces, the iron wall can also defeat the purpose of facilitating acceptance of Israel in the region.

In their ability to cower their enemies in the region, the Israelis have led to three broad reactions, all of which render peace less likely.

The first is that Israel’s frequent use of overwhelming force has provoked profound resentment and recrimination, even hatred, in Arab countries. This has made regimes think twice about reaching a settlement with the Israelis, as it could undercut their legitimacy with their own populations.

If integrating with Arabs at home is so fraught with risk, then one wonders how Israel seeks to integrate better into the region

A second reaction is that while Israel has imposed its military superiority over the decades with great success, this has prompted its enemies to upgrade their own military capabilities and find vulnerabilities in Israeli defences. Iran’s development of missile and drone technology and its arming of its proxies with such weapons are cases in point. Today, large parts of Israel could be hit in a future war, which was not the case two decades ago.

And most significantly, the success of the iron wall doctrine has for a long time made it much easier for Israel to avoid taking steps that might facilitate peace. In the years that followed Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war, for example, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir rejected an Egyptian proposal to reach a settlement over the Sinai peninsula. This helped to reinforce Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to go to war in 1973 to regain the territory.

Similarly, when Arab states approved of a peace initiative at a summit in 2002, Israel virtually ignored it. The proposal offered peace between all Arab states and Israel in return for allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Even if there may have been controversial aspects of the plan, Israel could have negotiated. But it felt no impulse to do so, or to give up occupied land.

That logic prevails to this day. The government of current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly feels that Israel is powerful enough that it has no need to surrender Arab land it took in 1967. Today the United States backs that position, and has either recognised or is likely to recognise Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and large parts of the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu can thank the iron wall for that.

In other words, the iron wall has become just that: a wall between Israel and the countries around it that make it less probable that Israel will be integrated into the region. Those who hail Israel’s prioritisation of its security should be aware that they are actually acclaiming the main cause of its intransigence. That is hardly a formula for garnering long-term acceptance of Israel by the other nations of the Middle East.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut