One hundred years ago, in November 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the greatest leaders of the Zionist movement and definitely the one with the greatest foresight, wrote in Berlin a seminal article in the Razsviet (Dawn, in Russian) newspaper, titled “The Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” His main argument was that in order for the Zionists to succeed in settling the Land of Israel and persist in living there, they must create an “Iron Wall” that will thwart Arab ambitions to eradicate the Zionist enterprise.
It is worth quoting him at some length:
I do not mean to assert that no agreement whatever is possible with the Arabs of the Land of Israel. But a voluntary agreement is just not possible. As long as the Arabs preserve a gleam of hope that they will succeed in getting rid of us, nothing in the world can cause them to relinquish this hope, precisely because they are not a rabble but a living people.
And a living people will be ready to yield on such fateful issues only when they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogans “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups. And only then will the moderates offer suggestions for compromise. Then only will they begin bargaining with us on practical matters, such as guarantees against pushing them out, and equality of civil and national rights.
Working under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and hence being a veteran of the Oslo Process, I read these wise 100-year old words with mixed feelings. Last month, Jabotinsky’s grandson, also called Ze’ev, a retired pilot whom I had instructed at the Israel Air Force Academy ages ago, wrote that Oslo had cracked the Iron Wall, and rekindled in the hearts and minds of the Palestinians the hope that eventually they will succeed in their long-range plan to destroy Israel. Needless to say, the Hamas terrorists who breached the literal wall aimed at guarding Israelis living near Gaza only reinforced his words.
On the other hand, no one can seriously tell what might have happened had Yigal Amir not assassinated Rabin. Until then, the Iron Wall seemed to have worked: Egypt, Israel’s mightiest enemy, came to the peace table in 1977 because Anwar Sadat had realized, after the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria in 1973, that Israel could not be defeated militarily. Jordan then followed in 1994, and in 2002 the Arab League adopted the Saudi Initiative calling for peace with Israel. Finally, with the Abraham Accords, other Arab countries accepted Israel as an accomplished fact.
This, however, doesn’t yet apply to the Palestinians. Unlike the other Arab players, their dispute with Israel is over the same piece of land. Had Rabin not been assassinated, normalization between Israelis and Palestinians might have progressed, and radical elements on both sides might have been marginalized, opening the door to a two-state solution.
That, sadly, didn’t happen, and we know what the Palestinians now think: A public opinion poll conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in early September shows that 53% of Palestinians support an armed struggle against Israel while only 20% are in favor for negotiating with it. Another poll, taken by the Arab World for Research and Development during the fourth week of the Israel-Hamas war, showed that 75% of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank support the Oct. 7 massacre, and 85% percent reject coexistence with Israel.
Does this mean that the Israeli Iron Wall has indeed been cracked? Nothing of the sort. Today, like in the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago, after the initial painful surprise came an awesome recovery on the part of Israel. No one in our bad neighborhood — Palestinians included — can miss our response to the Oct. 7 attack, whose aim is the destruction of Hamas. And along with the military side of our resilience, there emerged the famous Israeli solidarity and resourcefulness, combining together in the vow: We Are Here to Stay.
Readers who know Jabotinsky as the godfather of the hawkish Revisionist movement may find it hard to square his views with eventual compromise. But perhaps, having seen once again the futility of trying to defeat Israel on the battlefield, a Palestinian leadership will emerge that will, like Sadat, and as Jabotinsky predicted, begin “bargaining with us on practical matters, such as guarantees against pushing them out, and equality of civil and national rights.’”
When the Palestinians finally accept that, then we should adhere to other important words of Jabotinsky, who advocated equal rights for the Arabs sharing with us the same land. That, however, would demand changes in the hearts and minds of Israelis as well.
Uri Dromi is the founding president of the Jerusalem Press Club, was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments (1992-1996).