Good Fences and Bad Neighbors

by Sam Stein | 10/23/03 5:00am

If there is such a thing as a certainty in Arab-Israeli bio-politics it is this: even the most mundane of compromises are subject to failure. The landscape is simply not conducive to constructive politics -- no matter how significant Israel's concessions, Arab leadership won't be satisfied; no matter how great a concession Israel appears to be making there is inevitably a circuitous nature to it. However, the standards of inactivity and rigidity have been redefined by recent developments in the West Bank, specifically the inability of the Israeli government to put up a separation wall without inciting Palestinian outrage. Having proved unable to coexist peacefully, Palestinians and Israelis now seem destined to disagree violently on how to separate themselves. In doing so, the two cultures have finally proved wrong the idiom, "good fences make good neighbors."

The idea of a wall dividing the Israeli community from Arab antipathy can be considered one of the pillars of the anti-assimilation Zionist movement. Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist extremist and father of this school of thought, spent the greater part of the 1920s and 1930s trying to convince the Zionist establishment of Israel's vulnerability to Arab resentment -- arguing that an impenetrable Iron Wall dividing Jews and Arabs was the only way to guarantee Israeli security: "The only way to reach an agreement [with the Arabs] is an Iron Wall -- that is to say, strength and security in Eretz-Israel whereby no Arab influence will be able to undermine its foundations."

Although he viewed himself as a pragmatist, Jabotinsky was considered by his fellow colleagues as an eccentric (even a fascist), and his theories on Israeli-Arab coexistence were widely dismissed. So why now, after years of political maneuvering and proposed territorial compromises, has the Israeli government decided to heed Jabotinsky's advice, and why is it generating such emotional debate?

Depending on whom you ask either Ariel Sharon is making a grandiose land grab before territorial concessions are forced upon him by external powers, or Palestinian terrorist insurgency has become too unpredictable to contain without physical impediment. Like so many other issues in the Middle East's political drama, the answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle and the facts seem to be dually supportive.

Palestinians point out that the wall under construction will lead to the annexation by Israel of a considerable amount of the West Bank; that even the remotest of Israeli settlements (deep in the West Bank) would be seized. The Israeli government counters that Arafat, having facilitated the need for the construction of a protective fence, is now making the irrational demand that it be built along the Green Line -- the same boundary that made Israel's cities so vulnerable in the past.

Palestinian authorities say the wall will turn the West Bank's centers of population into isolated "human cages;" that even in Jerusalem the dividing line will annex over 100,000 Palestinians, on occasion, cutting neighborhoods in two. Israeli authorities reply that a wall that will stop sniper fire at passing school buses and a double fence that can protect the high ground around Ben-Gurion Airport is essential.

So is the wall being built out of necessity, political motives, or simply as symbolism of the actual state of relations between these two disparate cultures? The first two explanations can be argued from either side, while the third is entirely underappreciated.

To use an analogy that lacks both complexity and sophistication, Israelis and Palestinians are like feuding brothers forced to live together in their parent's home. Simply put, each brother blames the other for the instigation of disagreements and the cause of failed resolution. Neither side will admit culpability, while both sides are growing more and more non-negotiable. The solution (ideally) is to separate the brothers until they can resolve their differences. Understandably, a utopian world would see the brothers diplomatically settle their gripes, but, as I said earlier, if Israeli-Arab politics has proved one thing it's that the must mundane of compromises are subject to failure. So why not separation?

The construction of a separation wall, as hard as it is for an idealist to admit, seems like a desperate yet viable attempt to resolve grievances. It's difficult to use the label "practical resolution" to describe a separation wall. To begin with, the wall fails to solve the core Palestinian demands (statehood and economic stability), addresses only Israeli concerns (border security), and promises to be a decisive sociopolitical issue for future generations. Nonetheless, worsening violence and the failure of assimilation calls for desperate, if not reactionary measures.

If such a solution is to have any shelf life Israel must avoid dissecting Palestinian communities. If, in fact, the goal of the wall is the creation of defensible borders, such an act would be counterproductive. In return, Palestinians must be equally careful not to endanger Israeli communities that lie beyond the wall's boundaries. Such actions would serve only to justify further Israeli intrusion into Palestinian affairs. Otherwise, the wall seems to be one of the few achievable political solutions if not, as Jabotinsky would argue, an overdue inevitability.