Ariel Sharon’s governing coalition, embracing both Shimon Peres and hardline rejectionists, exposes the contradictions in the conventional left-right distinctions in Israeli politics. Over seven years after the Oslo accords, it is clear that Israeli leaders never envisioned a truly viable and sovereign Palestinian state, only a “peace” that granted Palestinians a limited independence within overall Israeli control. The three million Palestinians who live in the Occupied Territories constitute the major obstacle preventing Israel from the objective of continued control, since Israel can neither incorporate them as citizens nor rule them indefinitely under an increasingly repressive apartheid regime. The Oslo process, capped by the July 2000 Camp David summit and the Taba meetings in January, offered a form of occupation-by-consent. But when the occupation policies of settlement, closure and military control did not break Palestinian resistance and led instead to the second intifada, the broad moderate left-center-right “consensus” in Israeli politics decided to reassert more direct authority.

Sharon’s “national unity” government represents a closing of ranks around the rock-bottom refusal of Zionism and Israel to entertain the possibility of truly sharing this land with the Palestinians—either in one state or in two. The role of the Sharon government is to generate such despair among the Palestinians that they will sue for surrender. It will strive to dash Palestinian hopes for a viable, sovereign state, to defeat the Palestinians once and for all. In this respect, “national unity” draws upon important historical precedent.

Doctrine of Despair

In a famous article entitled “The Iron Wall,” published in 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky articulated a cardinal principle of the Zionist enterprise: Zionism should endeavor to bring about a Jewish state in the whole land of Israel, regardless of the Arab response. Jabotinsky realized that Palestinians were a national group with national aspirations, but was willing to grant them only a kind of autonomy within a Jewish state covering the entire territory. He knew full well that this could not be accomplished without resistance. “Every indigenous people,” Jabotinsky wrote, “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 ‘Palestine’ from becoming the Land of Israel.”

For Jabotinsky, the trick was to extinguish that “gleam of hope.” According to his doctrine of the “iron wall,” the Palestinians will agree to limited civil and national rights only after their resistance is broken. “The sole way to an agreement,” wrote Jabotinsky, “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…A voluntary agreement is unattainable…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.”

Though Jabotinsky is often dubbed an extremist figure, historian Avi Shlaim contends that his “iron wall” doctrine became central to Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. Addressing the Jewish Agency Executive after the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of the state of Israel and grandfather of the modern Labor Party, said: “A comprehensive agreement is undoubtedly out of the question now. For only after total despair on the part of the Arabs, despair that will come not only from the failure of the disturbances and the attempt at rebellion, but also as a consequence of our growth in the country, may the Arabs possibly acquiesce to a Jewish Eretz Israel.” Ben-Gurion not only agreed with Jabotinsky, but argued that peace was only desirable if it advanced the Zionist agenda: “It is not in order to establish peace in the country that we need an agreement…peace for us is a means. The end is the complete and full realization of Zionism. Only for that do we need an agreement.”

The Iron Wall Coalition

Applied to the current context, Shlaim’s historical work suggests that adherence to the iron wall approach might be a better way to categorize political figures than support for or opposition to the Oslo accords. Shlaim’s analysis lumps what we might call the “Ben-Gurion” Laborites—those Labor Party stalwarts, including Shimon Peres, who supported participation in the Sharon government—together with Likud, the direct descendant of Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin’s Revisionists. What unites them is their common acceptance of the “iron wall” approach to the Arab world — and to Palestinians in particular. On the other side of the iron wall are the moderate “doves” of both Labor and Meretz, the more radical Jewish left and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Yitzhak Rabin and Peres have been characterized in Israel as “yonetz,” an ambivalent and confused mixture of “dove” and “hawk.”

The broad middle-right coalition encompasses both Likud and Peres and mainstream Labor, the latter epitomized by Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, another Laborite army general. “National unity” includes other sectors of Israeli society as well: the Sephardi Shas party, other orthodox parties, the Russian immigrant parties and the far right, like Rehavam Ze’evi’s Moledet, which advocates “transferring” Palestinians out of the Occupied Territories. Sharon’s government can muster 73 votes out of the Knesset’s 120—more if we include some right-wing factions that did not join for various reasons.

The Sharon-Peres-Ben Eliezer bloc believes it is possible to build Jabotinsky’s “iron wall.” Their reading of the political map leads them, as it did in 1993, to the conclusion that the Palestinians are defeated. Israel enjoys the almost unanimous support of the US Congress and media, as well as the Bush administration. US backing renders irrelevant the periodic protests of other international parties, including the UN and the European Union. Dependency on the US and Europe on the part of Arab and Muslim countries, as well as considerable common interests with Israel, effectively nullify them as well. Israel exists in an absolutely protected bubble. The “national unity” coalition considers that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has lost the confidence of the people and is on the verge of collapse. As in 1993, the PA will only be useful if it finally “settles” with Israel. Sharon’s idea of “settling” does not include 88-96 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza and pockets of East Jerusalem—the ideas bandied about by Barak and Clinton—but rather the 42 percent of the West Bank currently classified as Areas A and B, the 60 percent of Gaza containing large Palestinian population centers and none of East Jerusalem. So far the Palestinian street is the only effective force for frustrating the “iron wall” approach—and it is being ruthlessly suppressed.

A Future of “National Unity”

Since Israeli control of the Occupied Territories is virtually the only issue upon which “national unity” can be based, it is not surprising that Sharon’s “national unity” government has no political program other than to engineer the surrender of the Palestinians. As Doron Rosenblum, an Israeli commentator, put it: “We have never had a government for more pessimistic reasons than this one: its agenda is completely hidden and unknown…It is making no promises other than to ‘bring back security’.”

But the Sharon government will not be long-lived. The cabinet is unwieldy, consisting of eight parties and 26 ministers, and financial and other domestic issues could cause its collapse in the months ahead. At any rate, general elections must be held by November 2003. With Sharon’s election, the Knesset also abolished direct election of the prime minister. Israel will revert to the old system, whereby voters vote only for party lists, and the leader of the largest vote-getting party then forms the government. This arrangement will restore the parliamentary dominance of two or three large party blocs (Labor, Likud and perhaps Shas), instead of the extreme fragmentation of the the past two Knessets that undermined the stability of the Netanyahu and Barak governments. The Labor-left bloc has far fewer potential partners than the Likud-Shas bloc, and will find it difficult to form a government in future elections. But since Labor garners more votes than Likud, both Labor and Sharon see the abolition of direct election as a way of blocking Netanyahu’s return to power.

Two conclusions may be drawn from all this. First, the vast majority of parties in the Knesset are committed to the “iron wall” approach, making further repression of the Palestinians more likely. Last week, the Israel Defense Forces isolated Ramallah, Birzeit University and some 33 villages, digging deep trenches and stationing tanks in the roads, and the Jerusalem municipality has announced it will begin demolishing dozens more Palestinian homes. Second, even if the Labor Party had a plan beyond the “iron wall,” it probably could not form a government that could transcend that policy in practice. We are likely to see national unity governments in Israel—formal or de facto—for some time to come. A just and lasting peace will not emerge from within Israel; only international pressure can save the Palestinians from being crushed by the iron wall.

How to cite this article:

Jeff Halper "Sharon’s National Unity Government," Middle East Report Online, March 13, 2001.

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