Security in a Vale of Tears

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Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall — Israel and the Arab World
(first published by W.W. Norton, New York, 2000; paperback edition: Penguin Books, 2001)


Avi Shlaim’s book The Iron Wall is not new: first published in early 2000, it was issued in paperback in 2001. In my opinion, however, it is a book which merits reading and re-reading, by reason of the depth of understanding it promotes, the professional rigour and thoroughness of the research behind it, and the gripping (almost unputdownable) nature of the narrative material, which I believe will stand the test of time.

Add to this the fact that, in a body of mainly favourable reviews, there are people out there who really don’t like this book, and you have a challenging recipe for something which is new, complex and vital. Confirmation that this is so comes with news from the author that the book has been translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish, and has so far sold over 30,000 copies.

At face value, this book is like a political biography of the first 50 years of the international relations of the state of Israel. It takes the form of a carefully documented and meticulously researched diplomatic history of the relations between Israel and its neighbours in the period from 1948 to 1998, looked at in the particular contexts of political personalities and their machinations, party politics, and the impact of successive electoral shifts on the nation-state’s policies and collective actions and reactions, including five wars — Independence (1948/49), Suez (1956), the Six-day war (1967), the October 1973 war (also known as the Yom Kippur war), and the war in Lebanon (1982—83).

This narrative is of itself riveting, and in my opinion makes the book an essential text just by virtue of providing a genuine historical perspective to a subject-matter on which people have been prone to lose all sense of proportion in argument. Certainly it helps the reader to get away from the crude u2018pro’ and u2018anti’ positions which so inflame popular passions when the subject of Israel is even mentioned. At a deeper level, there is an underlying quality to the book which turns it into something even more rewarding: it effectively leads the reader to become involved in, and think profoundly about, the very issues over which the politicians have fought.

At the same time, it touches just sufficiently — that is to say, dispassionately but with implicit cold fury — on the tragic ways in which the events described and some of the political decisions taken have brought immense suffering to the lives of individual people.

Finally, using Israeli government records and primary sources, it makes no bones about debunking certain legends of the nationalist version of history, and about upsetting some notables (especially certain Likud politicians). It is undoubtedly this aspect which has given rise to those opinions of the book which are hostile, and which gives it the refreshing air and spice of, as one reviewer has described it, “an impassioned polemic.”

The Politics of Impregnable Force

Professor Shlaim argues that the key issue over which politics has been fought in Israel— and this is the significance of the book’s title — is the idea of establishing an impregnable force which would ensure the physical survival of the Jewish state and which would in no way be influenced by Arab pressure — the iron wall as originally formulated by Jewish nationalist and Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880—1940) in his articles written in 1923.

A substantial part of the thesis is that successive holders of political power in Israel have, with varying degrees of success or failure, interpreted and re-interpreted this philosophy, some more aggressively, seeking u2018absolute security,’ and some in a more conciliatory fashion, seeking u2018peace and negotiations, but with security.’

Differences of opinion and fundamental attitude on this existed between David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharrett in Israel’s early years. Their implications, and the personality clashes involved, make for fascinating reading in Shlaim’s first three chapters, which culminate with the political demise of the u2018dovish’ Moshe Sharrett.

Subsequently, and to put it rather simplistically, the right-wing parties in Israel have inclined more to the u2018absolute security’ attitude, and the left-leaning parties more to the u2018peace with security’ attitude, but in the long run the overriding need to assuage fundamental existential anxieties over collective national survival has made the iron wall approach the bedrock upon which all political and government action has been based — whether of the u2018left’ or of the u2018right.’

The end result is that while a lot has happened over 50 years, and the state of Israel, with first French and then American military assistance, indeed became impregnable from the outside, the situation of a lack of internal peace remains as severe and problematic as it ever has been. Or, as Shlaim puts it when reviewing the Lebanon war of 1982/3, Israel’s military superiority has not been converted into lasting political achievement (p. 421).

At the heart of this situation is the fate of the non-Jewish inhabitants of the 23% of the original British mandate territory of Palestine which was not part of the kingdom of Transjordan when it was created in 1946 (“With Transjordan’s independence, the British had partitioned Palestine and created an independent Palestine-Arab state with 77% of the original territory.” — source: u2018Palestine Facts‘ website).

Palestine erased: Israel vs. u2018the Arabs’

For Jabotinsky, only once the Arab population in the rump of mandated Palestine had recognized and accepted the immovable nature of the impregnable Jewish force could some sort of peace negotiations with those inhabitants take place. He and many of his contemporaries were well aware of the populational and existential upheaval caused by the moves to establish a Jewish state prior to the Second World War and, in his particular case (he died in 1940 and so did not live to see the birth of the state of Israel) of how the previous inhabitants of the land would react in the aftermath of its actual establishment, whether or not they were possessed of a spirit of enterprise or even a national consciousness.

Shlaim quotes the following from Jabotinsky’s remarks: “Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent u2018Palestine’ from becoming the land of Israel.” ~ The Iron Wall, p. 13

Despite — or perhaps because of — this visionary understanding, which it should be recalled came from a committed Zionist, for about 30 years after independence in 1948 there was a tendency in Israeli government circles and elsewhere resolutely to ignore the Palestinians. They were simply not even rated as a problem or given any recognition at all.

After the armistice agreements which brought to an end the war following the declaration of independence, “the name Palestine was erased from the map” (~ The Iron Wall, p. 47).

Perhaps the foremost political exemplar of this attitude was Golda Meir, who “as prime minister (from 1969 to 1974) …was well-known for her anachronistic and hard-line views about the Palestinian problem, and she achieved notoriety for her statement that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people.” ~ The Iron Wall, p. 311

This attitude was faithfully reflected in world-wide media reporting, in which for years the fundamental issue was seen to be “Israel vs. the Arabs,” and, for that matter, one only had to look at a map to see that it was a question of a u2018tiny, vulnerable Israel’ versus a huge u2018sea of hostile Arabs,’ an image which Shlaim describes as being the perpetuation of the lachrymose version of Jewish history, whereby the Jews are perpetual victims. This image very quickly — much more quickly than any politician would be willing to admit — became divorced from reality as Israel inflicted defeat after defeat on Arab armies and worked tirelessly to ensure it maintained absolute military supremacy in the region.

As one reads further in The Iron Wall, it is fascinating to see the gradual erosion of that international “Israel vs. the Arabs” perspective and the re-emergence of awareness of the original internal problem (“Israel and the Palestinians”), on which so much world attention is focussed today.1

Contributing factors in this were, first, an element of international political expediency, as treaties were made (with Egypt and Jordan) and a limited, stand-offish but very much Israel-controlled sort of peace was achieved with other hostile countries (as in the case of Syria). Secondly there was the persistence of effective Israeli control over demographically non-Jewish areas, the West Bank and Gaza, even as the Camp David peace accords of 1978 saw official representatives of Israel formally acknowledging for the first time the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

An iron wall was therefore successfully established with Israel’s neighbours (Arab states), but new problems — or problems that had always been there but which were kept suppressed — had meanwhile come back closer to the surface within the expanded Jewish state itself.

The Palestinians and Negotiations for Peace

Shlaim is excellent at describing the enormous difficulties for the collective Israeli psyche with which small steps in the direction of the conciliatory approach towards peace were achieved, the resentments and anger which they provoked in some domestic political circles, and the practical actions which were often taken by one set of politicos to sabotage arrangements agreed earlier by a different set of politicos with whom they were not in agreement or whom, in some scenarios, they viewed as traitors or appeasers. He recounts how at such times hardliners opened black umbrellas in the Knesset to evoke Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 (p. 528).

The clear criticism of backtracking and of u2018bad interpretations’ of the iron wall approach (such as occurred under the premierships of Shamir and Netanyahu) has interesting implications for the question of good or bad faith in peace negotiations: for example, describing the controversial confessional interview given by Yitzhak Shamir after he fell from power in 1992, in which Shamir admitted that he would have dragged on the negotiations on Palestinian autonomy for 10 years so that a u2018demographic revolution’ could first be achieved in the West Bank by way of much increased Jewish settlement, Shlaim writes:

“In Washington eyebrows were raised, particularly in the State department, where long-standing suspicions that their ally was wasting their time appeared to be confirmed. Israel’s neighbours… now had it from the horse’s mouth that, from the very start, and despite all the peace rhetoric emanating from Jerusalem, he (Shamir) had secretly hoped to ensure that peace talks would fail.” (~ The Iron Wall, p. 500)

Nationalists might argue that there is no bad faith in such positions, because adherence to the principle of Greater Israel by definition implies that the West Bank and Gaza territories should be part of Israel and should be demographically Jewish. But, as we are reminded almost daily by the television news, this whole question remains to this day perhaps the greatest single difficulty in making progress towards peace.

An independent Palestinian state?

In the preface to the more recent (paperback) edition of The Iron Wall, Shlaim speculates on the prospects for a Palestinian state. “The real question now is whether Israel will give the Palestinians a chance to build their state or strive endlessly to weaken, limit, and control it… At the time of writing (September 2000), Israel is more deeply divided on the question of peace with the Palestinians than ever before… It is divided between moderates and hardliners, and it is not possible to predict which side will come out on top in the domestic political battle.”

Despite the difficulties and uncertainties he outlines, Shlaim sees an independent Palestinian state as inevitable. In an earlier article, I rather deplored this probable outcome, on the Rothbardian2 (but some might say too rigorously libertarian) grounds that all states ultimately end up doing violence to their own people, and are therefore a bad thing, but I recognized that, in a world where the state is the prevailing method of achieving international recognition and giving political form to collective national identity, it is seen as unfair to deny such representation to the Palestinians. Regrettably, I still cannot offer any solution to this quandary, except to go along with what James Ostrowski has written:

“At this moment… the conflict in the Middle East seems insoluble by the United States or by any outsiders. It involves irreconcilable views based on fervently held and unshakeable religious and ideological beliefs. It involves collectivist thinking on both sides — “Every Arab is responsible for the acts of any Arab”; “Every Israeli is responsible for the acts of any Israeli.” What is needed is individualist thinking: which individuals did what to whom and when, and what must the wrongdoers do to make the victims whole?

If there is any hope, it lies in the exhaustion of the disputants and the exhaustion of their ideas. Everything has been tried and has failed except one thing. The answer is before our eyes: freedom itself. Jews and Arabs lived peacefully together in this region for centuries, with neither side compromising core religious principles. What can make that possible again are the principles of classical liberalism: peaceful commercial relations and individual rights. Classical liberalism stands opposed to bloodshed, hate, and conquest. For all sides to agree to these ideals is the best and only guarantor of peace.”

Objective History or Biased Polemic?

This uncertain end result of over 50 years’ existence of Israel embodies a critique of the iron wall approach, and this comes across clearly from reading the book, but it is a quality of the book that the author generally neither rams his attitude down the reader’s throat, nor tries to disguise his preference for a more understanding approach: indeed one of the book’s acclaimed virtues is its historical objectivity — allowing the record to speak for itself.

Only when he comes to right to the end of his narrative, and assails the leadership of American-educated u2018sound bite man’ Netanyahu for making Israeli society sink “into a situation of confusion and disarray … without parallel in the country’s history” (p. 606) and for making the peace process grind to a halt (p. 607), does Shlaim move closer to true polemic.

On the other hand, I personally find Shlaim’s devastating indictments of Netanyahu’s period in office as prime minister to be right on target. And there is another, very personal issue here, which I believe to be particularly relevant for Americans: can one really have any regard for Netanyahu the man and his pronouncements after hearing his instinctive first reaction to the events of September 11, 2001? For the record, his words were “It’s very good…….Well, it’s not good, but it will generate immediate sympathy… “? (The New York Times, September 12, 2001, page A22). It is small wonder that “Netanyahu’s dethronement came as a huge relief in Washington…” (p. 609).

Hawks, Doves and the Security Dilemma

Netanyahu’s outlook falls easily and naturally into the hardliner or hawkish camp which defines all opposition as having to be uncompromisingly resisted, from murderous terror to non-violent political opposition which seeks alternatives to the rule of absolute force.

While it is possible to distinguish some other previous Israeli prime ministers who were more hawkish than others (Yitzhak Shamir, for example), Shlaim’s book interestingly reveals most of them to have fallen into this category. At a key moment, commenting on the Lebanon war, he describes the particular nature of the so-called “security dilemma” as manifested in Israel in the early 1980s:

“In the absence of a world government, individual states are driven to acquire more and more power in order to escape the impact of the power of others. But the quest for absolute security is self-defeating because it generates insecurity on the part of one’s enemies and prompts them to resort to countermeasures that they see as self-defence. The result is a vicious circle of power accumulation and insecurity. In the case of Begin the trauma of the Holocaust produced a passionate desire to procure absolute safety and security for the Jewish people, but it also blinded him to the fears and anxieties that his own actions generated among Israel’s Arab neighbours.”

~ The Iron Wall, p. 423

It seems to me that in the whole enterprise of implementing, consolidating and defending the Jewish state, its rulers from time to time have effectively used both the perceived vulnerability of the collective identity and the particular suffering of the 1933—1945 period continuously to impose violence-perpetuating solutions on their own people. As ever with statist solutions, these have proved themselves unworkable in the long term.

This has been done sometimes deliberately (by those who see it as a necessity for survival), sometimes, as the above quotation on Begin implies, with good intentions, and sometimes unconsciously, out of fear. Either way, it has tended to push u2018peace and negotiations’ advocates, or u2018doves,’ who were more ready to accept outsiders into their midst, out of the mainstream of executive decision-making.

Ultimately, despite some recognition of their idealism, the doves have been regarded as a threat to the security of the state. Sharrett was so perceived, as was Rabin in his second premiership, and is said by some to have been assassinated because of this. Shlaim incidentally makes pretty clear a view expressed by Leah Rabin’s refusal to shake Netanyahu’s hand after the death of her husband that the Likud party, led at the time by Netanyahu, incited his murder, but others I know have very different explanations, which have to do with the way the state slowly destroys itself from within through corruption (and in the process takes the people down with it). Such admittedly fascinating material is beyond the scope of this review, except to note that Shlaim mentions financial scandals, irregularities and suicides amongst politicians as having started to occur, and to undermine the health of the Israeli body politic, as early as 1977 (~ The Iron Wall, p. 349).

The State, the Individual, and the Bogeymen

Such creeping rottenness at the core of the state, which has subsequently thrived in the numerous shady dealings of top politicians, could uncharitably but accurately be described as one way of Americanizing Israel, but lately more interest seems to have been shown in the countervailing phenomenon dubbed the u2018Israelization’ of America, particularly since 9/11.

This concept can be made to cover many things (see for example, recent articles by James Brooks and M. Shahid Alam), but here I am concentrating on that aspect of u2018Israelization’ which has the Israeli state view of the world and of its own situation achieving near-universal cultural acceptance and dominant influence on political and social behaviour in the United States.

I have to add here that this is not the same thing at all as a Jewish view, despite some who would argue to the contrary, mainly because a state view is consciously crafted to be monolithic and defensive of the interests of the state, as defined from time to time by the politicians and the interest lobbies. Ethnic views, on the other hand, retain all the variety of individual difference, and, alongside eager advocates of the state view, will also include a large band of strong individual dissenters: Murray Rothbard is but one example.

The state view is evidenced above all in the propensity for political power actively to personify the state and, by identifying personal, individual safety and well-being with collective security and other u2018services’ provided by the state, to cultivate a collective mentality which instinctively acts to suppress or, more commonly, to ostracize and exclude anti-state dissenters (and hence also to apply the same treatment to dissenters against wars promoted by the state as being in the u2018national interest’).

There is another element to this mentality, which is the demonization of an enemy who is presented for public consumption as being stronger, threatening, evil, usually uncivilized, and harbouring nefarious intentions towards the nation-state in question, even when ‘intelligence’ (aka spying and surveillance) has clearly established that the enemy in question has few if any of the characteristics being claimed for him, and is actually not much of a threat at all. Or even, as in the case of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the offending potential capability has been taken out by force and is therefore no longer a threat.

The Soviet bear for many years fulfilled this demonization function, serving as bogeyman not just for America and other Western states, but for Israel too (as the sponsor/military supplier of hard-line Arab regimes such as Nasser’s). At times, as Shlaim points out, Israel has indeed consciously sought to align itself with the cause of Western civilization against what were seen as the u2018uncivilized,’ u2018unreliable’ mad u2018irresponsible’ hordes of the East. Jabotinsky himself took this view. Early on in the book there are some revealing comments on his u2018strong pro-Western orientation’ deriving from his u2018distinctive worldview:’

“He rejected the romantic view of the East and believed in the cultural superiority of Western civilization. “We Jews have nothing in common with what is denoted u2018the East’ and we thank God for that,” he declared. The East, in his view, represented psychological passivity, social and cultural stagnation, and political despotism. Although the Jews originated in the East, they belonged to the West culturally, morally and spiritually. Zionism was conceived by Jabotinsky not as the return of the Jews to their spiritual homeland but as an offshoot or implant of Western civilization in the East.”

~ The Iron Wall, p. 12

With the demise of the Soviet Union, it became necessary to find another demon. Who better than the Muslims, who just happened to be on Israel’s doorstep and were, for that very reason, all the more threatening to u2018Western civilization’? In any case, had they not featured for a long time as bogeymen in their own right? Nasser was always “another Hitler” (Shlaim, incidentally, convincingly debunks this view), and Yigal Allon for example, foreign minister in Rabin’s first premiership in the mid-1970s, strongly supported “an alliance with other minorities to counter Sunni Muslim dominance in the Middle East. He favored an active interventionist policy and the forging of close links with Kurds, Druze and Christians anywhere in the Arab world…” (The Iron Wall, p. 342)

Which brings us round, once again, to September 11th, 2001, the suspiciously fast, knee-jerk reaction of US officialdom in “blaming it on the Muslims,” the thoughtless reaction Netanyahu had that day when he adopted his anti-terrorism guru persona, and all that has succeeded it, culminating in the administration of George Bush Jr. trying to finish off what for Israel was unfinished Iraqi business left over from 1991, all as part of the u2018war on terrorism.’


The key concept of the security dilemma seems to me to be “absolute safety and security.” The commonsensical reader is naturally led to wonder, can there ever be such a thing? It is a question which has been thrown into sharp relief in the United States after September 11, 2001, with the exponential growth of the homeland security industry, both in the private sector and in government — but especially the latter, where it has represented a further significant erosion of personal freedom in favour of what libertarians believe to be the complete chimera of collective national security.

What are the alternatives if u2018absolute security’ cannot be achieved, and what if the ground shifts beneath the feet of the state’s old leaders as the nature of the real and perceived threats to underlying security changes? New issues may have arisen, but in matters of approach (u2018confrontational,’ relying on the impact of superior force, versus u2018accommodating,’ acknowledging that there must be negotiation and agreement based on mutual understanding and acceptance) the old differences between Ben-Gurion and Sharrett continue in many respects to be fiercely debated in Israel right down to the present day.

I strongly recommend a reading of The Iron Wall, not only to see how these basic issues remain stubbornly resistant to attempts at u2018solutions,’ whether imposed from the outside or home-grown, and are still with us after over 50 years, but also because it is invaluable in helping us to acquire a sense of the momentum of modern history as it is made. As an optional extra to this article, I have prepared a separate Appendix containing a chronological summary of those points where The Iron Wall makes specific references to the relations between Israel and the United States.


  1. Unfortunately, the fact that this world attention on the Palestinian issue is so short-term, and often laced with ignorance of the historical facts, means that much of it comes down to sloganeering for domestic or party political consumption, which is not helpful to any of the parties involved. A book such as Avi Shlaim’s is an essential corrective to this: one only wishes that those who devised the United States National Security Strategy (in particular Section IV. Work with others to Defuse Regional Conflicts), to say nothing of great leaders, had read it before they did so.
  2. Murray Rothbard wrote, in For a New Liberty in 1978 (p. 46): "The distinctive feature of libertarians is that they coolly and uncompromisingly apply the general moral law to people acting in their roles as members of the State apparatus. Libertarians make no exceptions. For centuries the State (or more strictly, the individuals acting in their role as "members of the government") has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries, the State has committed mass murder and called it "war"; then ennobled the mass slaughter that "war" involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it "conscription" in the "national service." For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it "taxation." In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band…" After this, does everyone really still want to create yet another State, even if it is, ostensibly, only in the interests of "fair play"?


August 2, 2003

Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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