In the run-up to this week’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Israeli Defense Forces chief of Staff General Gabi Eisenkot pronounced the country “invincible.”
This was a bold statement. The country faces a growing threat from Iran and its puppets in Lebanon and Gaza, and the possibility of a clash with Russia over Syria. And yet, few Israelis have disagreed with this assessment.
There is a mood of confidence here, and its origin lies in a doctrine of strategic defense that has proven itself over nearly a century of intermittent warfare.
That doctrine was first enunciated in a 1923 article titled “The Iron Wall” by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a visionary Zionist leader and the ideological father of the Likud. The Jews of Palestine were then a small, embattled minority. Only three years had passed since the first Arab riots in Jerusalem against them. The Jewish community’s socialist leaders hoped they could appease Arab enmity by offering economic cooperation, progress and prosperity.
Jabotinsky derided this as childish, and insulting to the Arabs, who would not barter away their homeland for more bread or modern railroads. They would, he said, resist while they had a spark of hope of preventing a Jewish state.
“There is only one thing the Zionists want, and that is the one thing the Arabs do not want,” he wrote. Nothing short of abandoning the Zionist project would placate Arab hostility and violence. If the Jews wanted to remain, they would have to come to terms with a harsh reality: This was a zero-sum game. There could be no peace until the Arabs accepted Israel’s right to exist.
Jabotinsky saw that the Arabs (in Palestine and beyond) were far too numerous to be defeated in a single decisive war. The Jews needed to erect an iron wall of self-defense and deterrence — a metaphorical wall built of Jewish determination, immigration, material progress, strong democratic institutions and a willingness to fight. Gradually, the enemy would be forced to conclude that this wall could not be breached.
The Iron Wall concept was intended to deter aggression until psychological victory was won, and extremists, “whose watchword is ‘Never!’” were replaced by more moderate leaders willing to live peacefully with a Jewish state.
David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, despised Jabotinsky and his political heir, the future Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He certainly rejected their ideological commitment to a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River.
In 1947, he accepted a two-state partition. The Arabs of Palestine, and their allies in the Arab world, rejected it.
The war that followed created the Jewish state, but as Jabotinsky had predicted, the Arabs refused to accept it. Ben Gurion came to the reluctant conclusion that his rival’s doctrine — deterrence by gradual demoralization of the enemy — was correct. In 1953, Ben Gurion essentially adopted this concept (without, of course, crediting Jabotinsky). Israel would be forced to fight a long, existential war composed of many small wars. It must win each time, and use the interim to strengthen the national wall of iron by cultivating Israel’s advantages in human resources, technology and military experience.
Egypt, Jordan and Syria bounced off the Iron Wall in the Six Day War of 1967. That was enough for Jordan, which withdrew permanently from armed conflict with Israel. But in 1973, Egypt and Syria tried again, launching a surprise attack that caught the Israeli Defense Forces completely unprepared. It was their last best shot and it failed. Israel did not crumble. Four years later, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem and cut a deal with Begin. A few years later, King Hussein of Jordan followed. The rest of the Arab states have gradually come to terms with the permanence of Israel.
The Palestinian Arabs have a harder time reading the writing on the Iron Wall. Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have resisted any deal that would end the Palestinian “right of return,” which is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a political disciple of Jabotinsky’s, has embraced the diplomatic precept of the Iron Wall doctrine and stalled until the PLO accepts Israel. “The only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement in the present.”
In the meantime, Israel maintains its essential security doctrine. It defends its skies with an anti-missile system whose first component was dubbed “iron dome.” And the metaphorical wall has now reached outer space.
“Israel’s ability to develop and launch satellites projects a clear message of national might,” says Isaac Ben-Israel, the chairman of the Israel Space Agency. “This contributes to and reinforces the image of the Iron Wall in the eyes of Israel’s enemies.”
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Israeli Defense Forces continue to build and fortify the tangible security barriers — defenses against terrorism in the West Bank and aggression along the northern front with Iran’s puppet Syria and its surrogate Hezbollah. There is also a barrier separating Israel from Gaza, where Hamas has lately been staging marches under the under the century-old Palestinian banner of Never!
Hamas is marching again during the Independence Day weekend. It is a futile gesture. The Iron Wall is no longer simply a metaphor. It is a description of the Jewish state itself. And, as Eisenkot says, it is invincible.
Zev Chafets, former aide to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.