The old 'iron wall' strategy is beginning to fail Israel

Israel's is still using military moves from before the founding of the state. And they are no longer working.

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Mowing the lawn. That's how some Israeli securocrats described their recent air-strike campaign in Gaza. Periodic bombardment won't eliminate Hamas or resolve the conflict, but they hope to re-establish a temporary deterrent against militant rocket fire.

Callousness aside, the metaphor shows that Israel has no political strategy for dealing with the challenge posed by Hamas in Gaza. Nor, for that matter, does it have any strategy for dealing with the efforts of President Mahmoud Abbas, who tomorrow takes his quest for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood to the General Assembly.

The Israelis may not drop bombs on Ramallah, but neither have they offered Mr Abbas any credible pathway for ending the occupation through diplomatic petitioning.

Pathological as it may seem, Israel's leaders are following a long-term survival strategy based on blasting the Palestinians into temporary submission, while strengthening their defences for a renewal of hostilities they see as inevitable.

On the wall of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office hangs a portrait of Zeev Jabotinsky, ideological forefather of his Likud Party. In his 1923 pamphlet The Iron Wall, Jabotinsky warned that it was Israel's fate to be perpetually at war. "That the Arabs of the Land of Israel should willingly come to an agreement with us is beyond all hopes and dreams," Jabotinsky wrote, because native peoples have always resisted the arrival of foreign settlers to claim their land. "As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living."

As a result, Jabotinsky warned, Israel would have to be created unilaterally, behind an impregnable "iron wall" of military force - only once it had been brutally demonstrated to to the Palestinians that resistance was futile and that they had been utterly defeated, he argued, would they be willing to accept the diminished status Israel could then offer them. "A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left."

In that spirit, Israeli military doctrine has long rested on aggressive "deterrence", unleashing overwhelming force against any challengers. From the raids on nationalist Palestinian villages that made Moshe Dayan an Israeli hero in 1948 to Ariel Sharon's Unit 101, which bludgeoned Palestinian villages suspected of housing fedayeen fighters in the 1950s, "deterrence" has meant imposing a prohibitive cost on the entire Palestinian population for any resistance. The same logic has driven recent Israeli policy on Gaza.

Dayan, like Jabotinsky, knew the root of the conflict. He told mourners for a young kibbutznik murdered near the Gaza border in 1956 it was naive to imagine peaceful coexistence with "the sea of hatred" just across the fence: "For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate ..."

A sword in the hand was the condition for Israel's survival, Dayan warned - a theme echoed 45 years later by Ariel Sharon, the former general elected prime minister in 2001. Sharon told Haaretz that the war of 1948 had never ended, and talk of a peace settlement was naive because the Arab world was not willing to accept a Jewish state.

Instead, he advised, Israel should always be ready for war, while pursuing "a long-term, gradual solution" that focused on suppressing Palestinian violence, and eventually possibly recognising a limited Palestinian state on 42 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza "within the framework of a non-belligerency agreement, for a lengthy and indefinite period" - a long-term hudna, Hamas might call it.

Sharon's 2005 Gaza withdrawal was illustrative: It wasn't part of any peace process; indeed, he avoided even negotiating security arrangements with the Palestinian Authority. His purpose was to let go of a sliver of land of little importance to Israel, to ease international pressure while Israel strengthened its West Bank occupation.

The obvious flaw in Sharon's interview, though, was his view that behind the proverbial iron wall, time was on Israel's side. "In another 10 or 15 years the Arab world will have less ability to strike at Israel than it has today … because Israel will be a country with a flourishing economy, whereas the Arab world may be on the decline. True, there is no guarantee of this, but ... because of technological and environmental developments, the price of oil will fall and the Arab states will find themselves in a crisis situation, while Israel will be strengthened."

Last week's Gaza events showed otherwise. Israel's firepower not only failed to cow Hamas, but revealed itself once again as a strategy of diminishing returns in a region renewing itself after a long period of authoritarian decline.

The new regional preeminence of the Muslim Brotherhood, moreover, has made nonsense of US-Israeli hopes of isolating Hamas - on the contrary, the movement now enjoys a supportive relationship with such key regional US allies as Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. Israel has effectively been forced to negotiate with it. Two decades of US monopolisation of the peace process can no longer even manage, let alone resolve the conflict. Israel may have hoped its Gaza operation would demonstrate a willingness to use "iron wall" tactics despite the unfavourable regional environment. But its outcome demonstrates that while the serious regional players see no benefit in going to war with Israel, they are also not prepared to tolerate Palestinian humiliation as the price of Israel's security.

The "iron wall" has failed to deliver the promised Palestinian surrender, instead leaving Israel increasingly isolated. The playbook of 1923 may have little to offer Israelis, or their neighbours, today.

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York