Bibi’s Political Forefather?
When Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen link the prime minister’s policies to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, they’re getting the early Zionist leader all wrong
Instead, Jabotinsky justified his demand by invoking the need to save European Jewry from extermination. Years before the Holocaust, he sensed an “elemental calamity” approaching for the Jews of Europe. In a tragically prophetic speech in Warsaw on the Ninth of Av in 1938, he begged the crowd to listen to him and immigrate to Palestine at what he saw as “the very last moment” before catastrophe: “For heaven’s sake! Save your lives, every one of you, as long as there is time—and time is short!” Jabotinsky tirelessly carried this message with him across the continent, a desperate, would-be rescuer of its Jews.
It was Jabotinsky’s obsession with sheltering millions of European Jews, not some anti-Arab bigotry, that drove his territorial claims. Even as he expressed “the profoundest feeling for the Arab case,” Jabotinsky argued that it simply could not compare to the Jewish need for refuge. “When the Arab claim … [for] Arab State No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6 … is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved,” he said, “it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.” Yossi Klein Halevi, a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, told me, “You can’t understand [Jabotinsky’s] thinking on the Arab-Zionist conflict, his maximalism, without understanding his role as the lone Jewish voice for emergency rescue.” To Jabotinsky, Arab desire, however legitimate, could not measure up morally to Jews’ existential crisis.
3. Jabotinsky called for never-ending war against Palestinian Arabs until they succumbed.
In referring to Jews “crushing” and “immiserating” Palestinian Arabs with military might until they break, writers like Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan are offering a shallow interpretation of Jabotinsky’s iron wall.
Jabotinsky first proposed the iron wall in 1923 less as a literal buffer than a demonstration of strength meant to convince the Arabs that the Jews were there to stay. Given the natural defiance of the native population to Jewish settlement, Jabotinsky understood that as long as a “spark of hope” remained that the Arabs could expel the Jews, they would not relent. Only when “there is no hope left … when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall,” he wrote, would “extremist groups lose their sway” and moderates rise to “offer suggestions for compromise.” When that happened, Jabotinsky said later, he was prepared “to let even Kalvarisky [a founder of the Brit Shalom peace movement] lead the orchestra.” But until then, any true peace would need to wait for the necessary psychological shift.
The iron wall was not meant to be an excuse for ruthless force, but a display of resolution and permanence that would eventually lead to reconciliation. According to Avi Shlaim, Jabotinsky “was not opposed to talking with the Palestinians at a later stage.” But the danger of the concept of the iron wall, in his view, was that “that Israeli leaders less sophisticated than Jabotinsky would fall in love with a particular phase of [the wall] and refuse to negotiate even when there was someone to talk to on the other side.” Sallai Meridor, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and Betar youth member, told me that, contrary to conventional wisdom, “the iron wall article suggests that Jabotinsky was ready for significant compromise under certain circumstances. He was strongly against offering it as long as the Arabs had not given up completely on the desire to get rid of the Jews, but he foresaw that [if they did so], there could be an agreement based on mutual concessions” on the major issues for both sides. As eager as Jabotinsky was to establish Jewish sovereignty, he was just as eager to make peace with the Arabs once they recognized the inevitability of the Jewish state.
Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from recent critics, who, by reading history backwards from the present, have demonized and simplified Jabotinsky’s legacy to attack their current political foe, Netanyahu. But if Jabotinsky really is central to Bibi’s thinking, then perhaps those critics are as wrong about the present as they are about the past.
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