Avi Shlaim

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, is the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.

More than any other capital city, Jerusalem demonstrates the power of symbols in international politics. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the most bitter and protracted of modern times, and the Jerusalem question, a compound of religious zealotry and secular jingoism, lies at its heart. The Oslo Accords, which launched the Palestinians on the road to self-government,...

Ehud Barak: Ehud Barak

Avi Shlaim, 25 January 2001

The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the holy Muslim shrine on 28 September last year, reopened the question of whether the Oslo Accord is capable of producing a viable settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ever since it was signed on 13 September 1993 on the White House lawn and sealed with Yitzhak Rabin and...

A History of Disappointment

Avi Shlaim, 22 June 2000

Fouad Ajami’s The Dream Palace of the Arabs is at once an intellectual tour de force, and an intimate and perceptive survey of the Arab literary, cultural and political worlds. Ajami was born in Southern Lebanon and raised in Beirut, and he has a rare ability to listen to and convey his culture’s inner voice. Equally rare is the quality of his English prose. Like Conrad, of whom he’s an admirer, Ajami fell under the spell of the English language, and this new book displays his skills as scholar, as stylist and as literary critic.

Ehud Barak’s landslide victory in the general election of 17 May marked the beginning of a new era in Israeli politics. The election was critical for the future shape of the country’s chronically divided society as well as for its relations with the Arab world. Under the reformed electoral system, each voter casts two ballots – one for the prime minister and one for the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. In the contest for the premiership Barak defeated Binyamin Netanyahu by 56 to 44 per cent and his victory has produced a political earthquake comparable to the upheaval of 1977, when the Likud swept to power under Menachem Begin. Some Israelis saw it as the sunrise, after three dark and terrible years of Likud rule.’

The Fighting Family

Avi Shlaim, 9 May 1996

Menachem Begin and his Likud union of nationalist and liberal parties won their first electoral victory on 17 May 1977, bringing to an end three decades of Labour rule. The Likud was to dominate Israeli politics for the next 15 years. Colin Shindler’s book provides the first comprehensive survey of the Party’s origins, rise and decline, while paying particular attention to the role played by its successive leaders.

Overtaken by Events

Avi Shlaim, 30 November 1995

Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated earlier this month by a right-wing extremist claiming to act in the name of God, inflicted more punishment and pain on the Palestinians than any other Israeli leader. As Chief of Staff in 1967, he presided over Israel’s spectacular military victory and the capture of the West Bank. For the next 25 years, in various capacities, he tried to hold on to the Occupied Territories by brute force. Ironically, it was his brutality towards the Palestinians that earned him his reputation inside Israel as a responsible and reliable politician. But the policy of force had been overtaken by events. Consequently, during his second term as prime minister, which began in June 1992, Rabin the predator began to mutate into Rabin the peacemaker.

Israel’s Dirty War

Avi Shlaim, 18 August 1994

Benny Morris is one of the most original and prolific contributors to the new or revisionist Israeli historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What distinguishes the new historians most clearly from the traditionalists is that they are critical of the claims made by Israeli governments, claims which were turned into national myths and as such continue to influence popular attitudes to the Arabs even now.

It can be done

Avi Shlaim, 9 June 1994

Of all Zionist slogans, the most persuasive has always been Israel Zangwill’s ‘a land without a people for a people without land’. Had this slogan been true, there would have been no conflict; the Jews could have peacefully realised their dream of statehood in their Biblical homeland. Unhappily, an Arab community had lived on the land for centuries and its refusal to share it with the Jewish immigrants from Europe spawned the conflict which reached its climax in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel and the uprooting and dispersal of some 730,000 Palestinians.

Arafat’s Camel

Avi Shlaim, 21 October 1993

Despite all its limitations and ambiguities, the Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho marked a major breakthrough in the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. In one stunning move, Arafat and Rabin have redrawn the geopolitical map of the region.

Sleepless Afternoons

Avi Shlaim, 25 February 1993

In his farewell address in 1796 George Washington counselled the new nation to refrain from ‘passionate attachment’ to or ‘inveterate hatred’ of any other nation and to cultivate instead peace and harmony with all. A passionate attachment to another nation, he warned, could create the illusion of a common interest where no common interest exists. To speak, as George Ball and his son do, of America’s passionate attachment to Israel involves a slight exaggeration for, as Charles de Gaulle once remarked, there are no love affairs between states. Even the love affair between American Jews and Israel is only skin deep: American Jews admire Israel for her body, while Israelis are attracted to American Jews for their money.

All the difference

Avi Shlaim, 25 June 1992

The 40th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1988 was accompanied by the publication of a number of books which critically re-examined various aspects of what Israelis call their War of Independence. The authors of these books – Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and myself – are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘new historians’ or the ‘Israeli revisionists’. Revisionist historiography challenged the traditional Zionist version of the birth of Israel on a number of points: Britain’s policy towards the end of the Mandate, the causes of the Palestinian refugee problem, the Arab-Israeli military balance in 1948, Arab war aims and the reasons for the political deadlock after the guns fell silent.’’

Changing Places

Avi Shlaim, 9 January 1992

Since its origins at the end of the 19th century, the Jewish-Arab battle for the possession of Palestine has been accompanied by a battle of persuasion to win the hearts and minds of the world. Although in essence the struggle was between two people for one land, the Zionists won a good deal of international sympathy by portraying Palestine as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’.

‘Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal’

Avi Shlaim, 9 May 1991

In March 1954 Isser Harel made his first official visit to the United States as head of Mossad. Warmly received by Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, he presented his American opposite number with an ancient dagger inscribed with the words from the Psalms: ‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.’ Like the celestial guardian, Mossad was expected to uphold a high standard of morality, to show integrity and commitment in the service of a noble cause. The contrast between Mossad and the secret services of other states was deliberately emphasised, just as the Israeli Army was designated Israel Defence Force to suggest that its role was purely defensive. With the passage of time a popular image developed of Mossad, based partly on fact and partly on fantasy, as the best intelligence service in the world – an image reinforced by novels like John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl and Agents of Innocence by the American writer David Ignatius. In recent years, however, a number of scandals have badly tarnished the reputation of Israel’s security services and stimulated calls for greater public accountability. One of the most damaging blows was struck by Victor Ostrovsky – like the author of Spycatcher, a disgruntled former insider – in a book which the Israeli Government unsuccessfully tried to suppress, By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer. Interestingly, the title of Ostrovsky’s book was inspired by another Biblical injunction, which Mossad adopted as its motto: ‘By way of deception, thou shalt do war.’’é

Israel and the Gulf

Avi Shlaim, 24 January 1991

Two major security challenges confronted the Israeli government headed by Yitzhak Shamir in the second half of 1990: the Palestinian uprising, now in its third year, against Israeli rule in the occupied territories, and the crisis triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August last year. To begin with, the Gulf crisis overshadowed the intifada, but within a short time it also contributed to a serious escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, pushing it to the brink of an inter-communal war. Increasingly, the solution to the Gulf crisis became linked in the public debate with a solution to the Palestinian problem, giving rise to a new buzz word – linkage.


Bombers not Martyrs

4 November 2004

In the piece she wrote about suicide bombers (LRB, 4 November 2004) Jacqueline Rose applied one standard to all terrorists, Arab and Jewish. Avril Mailer challenges Rose’s facts about Shlomo Ben Yosef, the right-wing Jewish militant who was sentenced to death by the British in Palestine in 1938 (Letters, 16 December 2004). Mailer’s overall agenda is to suggest that the Jews wanted peace...
Harald Prins (Letters, 20 June) offers an intriguing comment on my review of the ideology of Revisionist Zionism. He suggests that since the Land of Israel claimed by the Revisionist Zionists as their God-given space on earth corresponds to the biblical kingdom of Judah, on the west bank of the River Jordan, they should focus on this area and leave the rest of Palestine to the Palestinians. He knows...

Changing places

9 January 1992

Vernon Bogdanor (Letters, 13 February) is right to point out that in my article on the Madrid Peace Conference I give the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt while judging Israel harshly. This is because I see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a conflict between occupiers and occupied, oppressors and oppressed, and my sympathies here, as always, are with the underdog. Bogdanor seems to regard terrorism...

The Great Lie: Israel

Charles Glass, 30 November 2000

An Israeli Jewish woman told me a story about her father’s return, many years later, to the house in Vienna that his family had abandoned in 1938. More than any of the other possessions he...

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My Israel, Right or Wrong

Ian Gilmour, 22 December 1994

The foreign policy record of the Clinton Administration has been dismal. Even when the United States has shown more sensible and decent inclinations than Europe, as over Bosnia, the White House...

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Cleansing the Galilee

David Gilmour, 23 June 1988

The Palestinian refugee problem was created forty years ago and seems no nearer a solution as it enters its fifth decade. The 750,000 people who left their towns and villages in 1948 have...

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