By Avi Shlaim
In this interesting collection of past writings, Avi Shlaim emotionally takes the side of the Palestinians, yet intellectually and rationally views the conflict as a clash between two national movements. While this balance is maintained in his earlier work, more recent writings are coloured by selective outrage.
The expansion of the settlements, Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu’s disastrous administration in the 1990s are all dissected in the book, yet little attention is paid to the rise of Hamas and its rejectionist ideology. Hamas’s decision to send suicide bombers into Israel in March 1994 to destroy the Oslo accord is not recorded. It was designed to prevent normalisation between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians and to undermine the Israeli peace camp.
Shlaim makes no distinction between Palestinian nationalists and Islamists. Mere assertion rather than concrete evidence informs the contention that disengagement from Gaza was “a victory for Hamas and a humiliation for the IDF”. The depiction of the Gaza conflict earlier this year fits the template version with lip service paid to “primitive rocket attacks”.
Shlaim features Zionism descriptively in his early chapter on the Balfour Declaration but, by the end of the book, the settlement drive has become “a Zionist colonial project”. So, are settlers the only Zionists? Peace Now, Yossi Beilin, the architect of Oslo, and even refuseniks who will not serve in the West Bank have not disavowed Zionism.
Shlaim reiterates his belief in a two-state solution — a proper, contiguous Palestinian state, side by side with Israel. Not the Sharon version of enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements. Yet he writes that he wished to draw attention to this by agreeing to speak to the Oxford Union in 2007 in support of the motion that “this House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict”. The logic escapes me.
The demise of the Oslo process, the intifada and the presence of recycled, failed politicians at the helm in Israel have created deep fissures within the Israeli peace camp. Shlaim’s later writings bear testimony to this frustration. He remarks disparagingly on Benny Morris’s change of view, but Shlaim himself has renounced his support for the Oslo accord. There is no dishonour in recognising that the situation has changed. Better to grasp the hard reality than the wishful thinking that Hamas’s Khalid Meshal is really a latter-day Arafat, ready for a compromise.
The final chapter argues for the right freely to criticise Israeli government policy, as if there were no platforms around to expound different views, as if Jonathan Freedland, Howard Jacobson and David Aaronovitch did not exist.
Shlaim’s is a selective, partial view of the complex Israel-Palestine situation. As President Obama’s excellent Cairo speech demonstrated, the road to peace can be travelled only by recognising that there are two sides to this terrible, apparently interminable conflict.
Jewish Chronicle 1 October 2009