The roots of Sharon's policy on Palestine

He is a follower of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who in 1923 declared that 'voluntary agreement is not possible'

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In 1923 Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the major intellectual influence on Israel's right-wing parties, wrote an article of unusual prescience. At the time there was no state of Israel. Britain controlled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. Less than 100,000 Jews lived there. But in 1917, when Britain was the superpower, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, declared that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

In 1923 Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the major intellectual influence on Israel's right-wing parties, wrote an article of unusual prescience. At the time there was no state of Israel. Britain controlled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. Less than 100,000 Jews lived there. But in 1917, when Britain was the superpower, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, declared that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

The article was entitled On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs). Jabotinsky stated that "a voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future." Of course, where we are today, 2004, is a bit beyond the "foreseeable future" of somebody writing in 1923; none the less, the prediction still holds. As a result, referring to Jewish immigration to Palestine, Jabotinsky wrote that "we must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement 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."

The key phrase here is "iron wall". It accurately describes Israeli policy since the foundation of the state in 1949. (It also provides the title for Avi Schlaim's excellent history of Israel and the Arab world, published in 2000.)

I quote two paragraphs from Jabotinsky because they are as relevant today as they were when written 80 years ago: "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 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."

Jabotinsky concluded: "It is my hope and belief that we then offer them guarantees that will satisfy them and that both peoples will live in peace as good neighbours. But the sole way to such an agreement is through the iron wall, that is to say, the establishment in Palestine of a force that will in no way be influenced by Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to achieve a settlement in the future is total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at a settlement in the present."

The first version of the iron wall was to equip the well trained Israel Defence Force with the latest American arms. This worked well against threats from Arab neighbours. The technology was also useful as recently as this weekend, when Israel assassinated the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, by means of a missile attack on his car. Without American help, such a feat would have been impossible. Nonetheless, since as long ago as December, 1987, when the first intifada broke out, followed later by suicide bomb attacks, Israel has lacked an effective iron wall.

If you follow the Jabotinsky approach, it would explain why the Oslo process yielded nothing in terms of real peace. For what reason did the Palestinians walk away from Prime Minister Barak's generous offers at Camp David and later at Taba in January, 2001? Because, as Jabotinsky wrote: "As long as 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."

In spite of this, I do not accept Jabotinsky's bleak views. For they depend upon the assumption that entire peoples can maintain extreme political policies for ever, that the average person has no sense of "live, and let live" and that compromise is never acceptable. Northern Ireland, for instance, which might have been thought a perfect setting for Jabotinsky"s grim logic, shows a different result.

What matters, though, is that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, is a follower of Jabotinsky. As announced last week, he will remove settlements from Gaza and from the West Bank which cannot be defended. Instead of a metaphorical "iron" wall he is constructing a real concrete barrier between the two peoples. And because, as Jabotinsky said "the only way to achieve a settlement in the future is total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at a settlement in the present" he doesn't negotiate with Yasser Arafat or any of the other Palestinian leaders.

As to the famous "road map" to peace upon which Blair has rested his hopes and to which President Bush pays lip service, forget it for the time being. It doesn't accord with the principles upon which Mr Sharon bases his policy. As Jabotinsky wrote: "a voluntary agreement is just not possible."

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