[Avi Shlaim is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy. One of Israel’s foremost “New Historians,” he is the author of, among other works, Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (1988), and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2000). A vocal critic of Israel and its policies and despite acknowledging the “gross injustice” that befell the Palestinians in 1948, Shlaim nevertheless insists there are fundamental distinctions between Israel before and after 1967. In this wide-ranging interview with Jadaliyya, he discusses Israel’s New Historians, his current support of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his Iraqi heritage, and his troubled relationship with Israel of which he remains a citizen.]
Jadaliyya (J): How would you characterise Israel’s New Historians?
Avi Shlaim (AS): The “New History” is a term coined by Benny Morris. It is a bit self-congratulatory, because it implies that everything that went before it is old history. But like any label it is quite useful to distinguish a trend in Israeli historiography. The trend, or the group of New Historians consisted of Benny Morris, Illan Pappé and myself. All three of us published books in 1988 on the fortieth anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, and between us we mounted a frontal attack on the myths that have come to surround the establishment of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war. We became known as the revisionist—or new—Israeli historians because we challenged the standard Zionist version of the conflict, and assigned a much greater degree of responsibility to Israel for causing, escalating, and perpetuating the conflict. One thing I would say about the term “New History” is that it draws attention to the fact that most of what went on before was a nationalist version of history. Ours was a more scholarly version of history based on archival research.
Most nations have rewritten their history but nationalist versions of history have something in common wherever they are. Their hallmarks are what I call the four S’s: simplistic, selective, self-righteous, and self-serving. The Jewish Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin liked to say that the Jews are like any other people only more so, and by the same token Zionist history is like any other nationalist version of history—only more so. So the main contribution of Israel’s New History has been to challenge the nationalist biases of the traditional Zionist historiography of the conflict.
J: Initially there was an impact: Israeli school textbooks were rewritten to shed some light on a narrative that had been suppressed, but the curricula were rewritten once again during the Sharon government of 2001-2005. The New Historians were also virulently denounced within Israel. Would you say they still matter in Israel?
AS: History is not written in a vacuum, but in a particular political context. The context in which the New History emerged in the late 1980s was the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War. This had been a war of choice in that there was no threat to Israel’s security but the [Menachem] Begin government nevertheless decided to invade Lebanon for geopolitical reasons. It was a very controversial war in Israel, it ended in tears, it ended in disaster, it ended in the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, and it didn’t achieve any of its aims. The criticism began during the war, and as such was the first Israeli war in which there was dissent while the war was in progress.
The controversy around the Lebanon War created a space in which the New Historians could make an impact, because what we were saying was that the Lebanon war was not unique contrary to the claim that all of Israel’s wars were defensive in character This enabled us to go further back into Israel’s history and look at the other wars. The Sinai War of 1956 was also a war of choice as there was no Egyptian threat to Israel’s security in 1956. Rather, it was a colonial conspiracy between Israel, Britain and France to attack Egypt and topple its leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser. So the climate in Israel was receptive to new and critical ideas about the past, and that helped us.
Subsequently, the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were signed in 1993, and with this the Palestinians ceased to be an absolute and irreconcilable enemy. Israelis realised that reconciliation is possible, that the fault wasn’t just on the Palestinian side, that Israel was at fault as well and that there was a way forward, a way to reconcile the two parties to the conflict. So the first years of Oslo gave a further boost to the New History and it had an impact.
One of the most significant achievements of the New History was the rewriting of Israeli history textbooks for secondary schools. In particular, the findings of Benny Morris that Israel was largely responsible for the Palestinian Exodus were incorporated in the new textbooks. This is not to say that the old version of the 1948 war was cast aside and replaced by our version. It is to say that there was greater openness and the new textbooks said to Israeli schoolkids: imagine what it would have been like to be an Arab child in the midst of this war. So it raised doubts in Israeli minds about the old versions that the Arabs left of their own free will and on orders from above, and that Israel was in no way responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee problem. So for about ten or twelve years after our books appeared, we were making steady progress and earning greater legitimacy.
Some of our ideas infiltrated into the intellectual mainstream, particularly the idea that Israel was responsible for the refugee problem. Some of my friends said to me, “You used to be a young Turk but you have become an old jerk because you are now the establishment”. I never accepted this because I never joined the intellectual mainstream, and in any case the embrace by the establishment of our work was very short-lived. This is because the next significant event in Israel’s history was the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. Because of the militarisation of the Second intifada, the violence, and more especially the suicide bombings which had a very unsettling psychological effect on Israelis, the climate in Israel changed completely. It became much more hostile to critical scholarship like ours.
So just as the Oslo decade helped us, the outbreak of the Second Intifada led to a move against us. Israelis returned to very fundamentalist positions of us against them, of we are in the right and they are in the wrong. That’s the beginning of the decline of the influence of the New History in Israel.
J: And this decline has continued in the right-wing climate that currently exists. What is left of the New Historians in light of the conversion of Benny Morris and the attacks against this group?
AS: The decline continues to the point where the group is no longer a group and the term New History is no longer meaningful in the Israeli context. One indicator of this trend away from the new history and back towards the old history is Benny Morris’ conversion. After the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Benny Morris veered to the extreme right and radically revised his views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, concluding that the Palestinians alone are responsible for it. He said that the Palestinians are all liars, and that Arafat is an inveterate liar and you cannot trust anything he says. He also said that for the Palestinians signing the Oslo accord was just part of their theory of stages of dismantling Israel gradually, and that it was therefore a mistake. He concluded there are only two possibilities: either the Palestinians throw us out or we throw the Palestinians out, and that there is no distinction between Israel proper and the occupied territories because the Palestinians want everything. So Morris reverted to an extremely crude, right-wing, bi-polar view of this conflict as an existential conflict with no room for a diplomatic solution. Morris is mildly interesting because he reflects the trend in Israeli society since the outbreak of the Second intifada, which is a steady shift to the right and a steady shift towards blaming the Palestinians, demonising them, and also a shift towards more and more overt racism. In an interview in Ha'aretz in 2004, Morris said the Palestinians are like animals and they should be put in some sort of cages.
From then on, Illan Pappé and I completely dissociated ourselves from him and his right-wing views, his crude views of the conflict and above all his racism. Benny Morris wrote an article in the Guardian with his new views for which he didn’t have a scintilla of evidence and I wrote a reply the next day under the heading A Betrayal of History. I pointed out in this article that Morris used to be a positivist historian who would only go by written records, but here in this article he didn’t produce any evidence for his claims. For instance, he claimed that truth is not a value in Islam, so Muslims never tell the truth. He also said that peace with Syria is impossible because he could imagine Hafez al-Assad on his deathbed telling his son not to make peace with the Jews because they are like the Crusaders of the Middle Ages who will just disappear. I would like Morris, the empirical historian, to give us some concrete evidence of Syrian intransigence but there isn’t any because it is Israel that was always intransigent, not the Syrians.
So you’re right that the new history has been declining in influence. Additionally, the original group is no longer a group: there are profound divisions between Benny Morris on the one hand, who represents old history with a vengeance, and there is Illan Pappé and myself on the other hand.
J: You mentioned the left in passing. What is left of the Israeli left? With their tremendous decline in influence in recent years, do you see left-oriented groups gaining ground in the near future?
AS: Very little is left of the left in Israel. The Labour party under Rabin used to represent one approach to the conflict which was different from that of the Likud; the Labour party stood for territorial compromise, while the Likud is an ideological party that stood for Greater Israel, for the whole land of Israel. So there was a difference between the two main parties but this difference has become blurred. The critical point in the blurring of this division is the Camp David summit of July 2000. In the 1999 election Prime Minister Ehud Barak defeated Binyamin Netanyahu, presenting himself as a disciple of Yitzhak Rabin who wanted to resume the Oslo path to peace. Crunch time was the summit at Camp David, and the summit failed. The main responsibility for its failure lay with Ehud Barak. Bill Clinton also bears a share of the responsibility because he didn’t act as an honest broker but as Israel’s friend and ally. So Arafat refused to sign on the dotted line and the summit collapsed.
Clinton had promised Arafat that if the summit failed there would be no finger-pointing, but as soon as it failed he pointed the finger at Arafat and Ehud Barak also blamed Arafat for the failure. Barak returned home and came up with the claim that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. This was a tragic mistake and it had a real impact on Israeli politics, because if there is no Palestinian partner for peace then negotiations are pointless and hopeless. If there is no Palestinian partner for peace, Israelis don’t need to vote for a party like Labour that believes in negotiations. And rather than a moderate leader, a man of compromise, they would look for a strong one who is good at killing Arabs. Ariel Sharon was the leader of the Likud and he had an impressive record of killing Arabs and committing war crimes, and the Israeli public voted for the strong leader because the majority of Israelis, left, right and centre believed this myth that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. So Barak did the most terrible disservice to his own party by propagating this myth of Palestinian intransigence, and in so doing he also all but destroyed the peace camp, Peace Now. There was a Likud victory in 2001 and either it or an offshoot of the Likud, Kadima, which is also a right-wing party, has been in power ever since.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party is a shadow of its former self and no longer represents a clear alternative to the Likud. It has become a nationalistic party, and has changed its name from the Labour Party to the Zionist Union, which tells you everything. So it’s a Zionist party which believes in the land of Israel, that Jerusalem is the unified and eternal capital of the Jewish people, and that Israel should keep all the major settlement blocks in the West Bank in a final settlement. It is therefore not a moderate party, it is not a socialist party, it is not a left-wing party, it is a hybrid sort of centre-left party with no coherent ideology and with no clear alternative to the policies of the Likud. That is why it has done so badly in successive elections. There are also other long-term demographic reasons for the decline. The way I might put it is that Labour Party supporters die but new supporters are not born.
The old generation of European immigrants used to support the Labour Party but the political landscape has changed, and young Israelis don’t vote Labour because anyone under the age of 50 was born after the occupation, so for them the occupation is the natural order of things and a party that wants to end the occupation doesn’t really mean anything to them. Another factor is the rising proportion of Oriental Jews in relation to Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. For various reasons Oriental Jews tend to be more hawkish than Ashkenazi Jews. There is another factor which is education: there is a direct correlation between the level of education and dovish views. A lot of the supporters of the Likud and extreme right-wing parties are not well-educated and have a black and white vision of the world. One last long-term factor is the increase in the number of Orthodox Jews In Israel. Orthodox Jews don’t read New History they have their own history, the Bible, and they are simply not interested in the results of archival research so they also vote for the parties of the right. In this context support for the Labour Party has been dwindling and I don’t see any prospect for it to come back to power.
J: Regarding your personal relationship to Israel, you say that you served in the Israeli military “proudly and loyally”, but you have also been in England for many years and are a UK citizen. How would you describe your relationship to Israel? Are you still an Israeli citizen?
AS: I have dual nationality, Israeli and British. When I go to Israel I go on my Israeli passport and everywhere else I use my British passport. So that question is easy to answer. But my attitude towards Israel is more complex and it is not static but changing. It has evolved gradually. I grew up in Israel, my family moved to Israel when I was five years old, I went to school in Israel, I served in the IDF [Israeli Defense Force], but that was in the mid-1960s. When the  Six-Day war broke out, I was a first-year student of History at Cambridge and volunteered to go back and fight for my country, but the war was over in six days and I completed my History course at Cambridge. But my attitude towards Israel began to change after the Six-day war very gradually. I became more critical of Israel and one personal reason for my disenchantment is that I had served in the IDF very happily and loyally because in my time it was true to its name: it was the Israel Defense Force and we only faced the regular armies of the Arab world. I believed in the idea and I believed that we were surrounded by enemies. But as a result of the victory in June 1967, Israel became a colonial power, an imperial power and the IDF became the brutal police force of a brutal colonial power. So it is not my army anymore and the ethos of the idea has changed catastrophically since my time. We were brought up on the notion of Tohar HaNeshek- the purity of arms- that you do not use arms against civilians and you only use arms for defensive purposes. Well, this is not the IDF today. The IDF today commits war crimes systematically and it has committed war crimes in each of the last three assaults on the Gaza Strip and it targets civilians. So I am completely disenchanted with the way that the army has developed. It has become an army of occupation. As for the rest of Israeli society it has been moving steadily to the right and so I’ve become disenchanted with Israel as a nation-state because of the occupation.
J: Do you visit Israel often?
AS: No, because of my political reservations about the country. I just don’t like the politics, the right-wing politics, the chauvinism, and the escalating racism of the Israeli public. I don’t go very often but I do go, my mother is 92 years old, she lives in Israel and I go and visit her. There is another factor in response to your question about my attitude to Israel and that is the fact that I am an Oriental Jew. I was born in Baghdad in 1945 and in 1950 my family moved to Israel. I am now writing a memoir about my early life, it is not an autobiography but a history of my family.
We were Arab Jews. I know the term isn’t popular in Israel but that is what we were. We spoke Arabic at home, my parents’ music was Arabic music. We had a very happy life in Iraq with no problems and this is against a background of a long history of harmony between Muslims and Jews. Anti-Semitism is not an Arab phenomenon, anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon. Zionism isn’t an eastern phenomenon it is a European phenomenon, it is a solution to the problem of the Jews in Europe. My family had no problem living in Iraq and they had no sympathy with Zionism. But because of the political context and because of the political clash between Arab nationalism and Zionism, lives for Jews in Iraq became almost impossible and there was a major exodus of 100,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel in 1950 and we were part of it.
I say all this because the principle victims of the Zionist movement are the Palestinians. But as I look into my family’s history, I am increasingly conscious that there are other victims of Zionism—the Jews of the Arab lands. There was a Jewish community in Iraq which had been there for two and a half millennia, and had no wish to leave. It is only because of the rise of nationalism in the twentieth Century that peaceful coexistence was no longer possible. So my attitude towards Israel is also influenced by my background.
J: Have you had any contact with fellow Iraqis,or have you attempted to retrace your family’s presence in Baghdad prior to 1950?
AS: No I haven’t. When I casually meet Iraqi Jews, they always speak with great nostalgia about life in Iraq. My two grandmothers who came with us to Israel but never learnt Hebrew, used to talk about Iraq as Jannat Allah—God’s paradise. They never found their feet in the new state. My father was 50 when we arrived in Israel. He was a very wealthy man, but lost all his money and struggled with Hebrew. He never adjusted to the new environment. The shock was too great for him. He was a broken man. He used to say with a sigh, the Jews prayed in vain for a state of their own for two thousand years—why did it have to happen in my lifetime?
It would have been possible for me to visit Iraq after the 2003 war, but I didn’t want to visit Iraq under Anglo-American occupation, so for ideological reasons I wouldn’t go back. But, I am proud of my Iraqi heritage, I am proud to define myself as an Arab Jew and the joke here at the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, until Tariq Ramadan became a fellow, was that I was the only Arab among the fellows because I was an Iraqi.
J: Moving to more contemporary issues, you claimed in an article published in The Guardian earlier this year that “Obama was the most pro-Israel president since Truman”. Would you reassess this now in light of Donald Trump’s presidency and his positions and policies on Israel/Palestine?
AS: America bears a large share of the responsibility for the diplomatic stalemate in the last fifty years between Israel and the Palestinians, because in the aftermath of the 1967 War, the United States arrogated to itself a monopoly over the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. It should have been the United Nations that dealt with this conflict because it is an international conflict. But the US assumed or usurped a monopoly that wasn’t hers and excluded all other players both during the cold war and after it. It still excludes Russia and the UN and the EU. But it has failed to bring about peace.
The American-sponsored peace process, which began in 1991 after the Gulf war, is all process and no peace. It is a charade. It is pretence. It is worse than a charade because the peace process gives Israel the cover it needs to pursue its aggressive colonial project on the West Bank. And the trouble with American support for Israel is that it is unconditional, so America gives Israel money, it gives Israel arms and it gives Israel advice. Israel takes the money, takes the arms and rejects the advice.
Israel pays no price for its defiance of the United States. Now Obama knows more about Palestinian history than any other American president, Obama made the Cairo speech in 2009 in which he solemnly pledged support for Palestinian statehood. He promised but he didn’t deliver. Obama was very good at talking the talk, but he didn’t achieve anything. He never used economic leverage with Israel to push Israel into a settlement with the Palestinians. During his eight years in office, Obama steadily increased American military and economic aid to Israel and his parting shot was an aid package of $38 billion for the next ten years. So Obama has no achievements in relation to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but at least he tried. He identified settlement expansion as the main problem and went head-to-head with Netanyahu three times over this issue but each time he backed down. Netanyahu had his way; he continued with settlement expansion and continued to receive American aid.
With Trump there was a major change in American policy toward the conflict because there is no pretence of even-handedness. Obama tried to pretend to be even-handed but Trump is overtly and openly one-sided and pro-Israeli. The people that Trump relies on are Zionists. His main advisor on Israel-Palestine is his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner who doesn’t have any experience of government or public affairs. Kushner’s family supports the right-wing settlements on the West Bank. Trump’s ambassador to Israel is David Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer, who is an extreme right-wing Zionist well to the right of Binyamin Netanyahu. Friedman raises about £2 million a year for Beit El which is a hard-line settlement on the West Bank. He is also strongly in favour of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Furthermore, there are some members of Netanyahu’s government, the Jewish Home, who advocate the annexation of Ma'ale Adumim on the outskirts of Jerusalem. While the government hasn’t agreed to that, it is reported that Friedman supports annexation of parts of the West Bank to Israel. Following a meeting between Trump and Netanyahu in the White House, a journalist asked Trump if he supported the two-state settlement, to which he answered: “if Bibi is ok with two states I am for it and if Bibi wants the one state that’s what we’ll have”. In other words, he abdicated an independent American position on how to settle this conflict. He was deferring to “Bibi” and he had no notion of Palestinian rights or what the Palestinians might have to say on the subject. So, we have never had an American president who is more ignorant of the realities of this conflict and the respective rights and wrongs under international Law and who is more openly and overtly one-sided than Trump. So, I don’t have any hope that Trump will deliver the “ultimate deal” he has promised.
J: Are you still a proponent of a two-state settlement?
AS: I was a proponent of a two-state solution for most of my life because there can never be absolute justice for the Palestinians. I believe that the creation of the state of Israel involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians but I don’t want to go a step further and say that Israel should be dismantled in order to deliver justice to the Palestinians. I accept the reality of Israel within its original borders, I accept the legitimacy of Israel within its original pre-1967 borders.
Edward Said described the two communities as two communities of suffering. We have to take into account the tragic history of the Jews as well as the suffering of the Palestinians. The two-state solution seemed to be not a perfect solution but a reasonable solution. The PLO by signing the Oslo Accords gave up the claim to 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine in the hope that they would get an independent Palestinian state on the remaining 22 percent, on the West bank and Gaza. So I supported the two-state solution but Israel under both Labour and Likud governments continued to expand settlements. This is incompatible with a two-state solution.
The settlements represent land-grabbing, and land-grabbing and peace-making don’t go together, it is one or the other. By its actions, if not always in its rhetoric, Israel has opted for land-grabbing and as we speak Israel is expanding settlements. So, Israel has been systematically destroying the basis for a viable Palestinian state and this is the declared objective of the Likud and Netanyahu who used to pretend to accept a two-state solution. In the lead up to the last election, he said there will be no Palestinian state on his watch. The expansion of settlements and the wall mean that there cannot be a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. The most that the Palestinians can hope for is Bantustans, a series of enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements and Israeli military bases.
So a two-state solution is no longer a viable option and that is why I have become a supporter of the one-state solution, a single state with equal rights for all its citizens. Ideologically, I don’t have any problem with a one-state solution. Ideologically, it is very attractive, it is a noble vision of two communities living in harmony in one space with equal rights for all its members. But, I am not naïve enough to think that the one-state solution is a realistic prospect because there is no support for a one-state solution in Israel. And if pushed really hard I think Israel would withdraw to the wall on the West Bank and annex whatever bits it wants of the West Bank. It would annex the main settlement blocks in Ma'ale Adumim, and the whole area around Jerusalem, and it would do so unilaterally rather than have a one-state so I am not in the least bit optimistic that the one-state solution is a viable proposition. But this is where I stand and I blame Israel for eliminating the alternative of a two-state solution.
J: How do you perceive Hamas’ latest positions and particularly those proclaimed in its new policy document released in May 2017?
AS: Hamas turned itself into a political party and ran for election in January 2006 and won that election. There were a lot of international monitors and they all agreed that it was a free and fair election. So I regard Hamas as the legitimate government of Palestine. But Israel rejected the results of the elections and America to its shame followed Israel in rejecting the results of the election and so did the European Union. The Americans pretend to be democracy-promoters. They claim they invaded Iraq in order to promote democracy, but the only genuine Arab democracy with the possible exception of Lebanon, is Palestine which had an election, the people spoke, they voted for Hamas, and Israel and its western allies rejected the results because the people voted for the “wrong” group of leaders. So, I have always regarded Hamas as the legitimate government of Palestine and I also think that Hamas has steadily moderated its program. Its leaders made many statements accepting the two-state solution and the recent document, which although it hasn’t annulled the 1988 charter, is a new set of guidelines for Hamas and it is much more explicitly moderate. All the anti-Semitism of the charter is gone, the new document makes it clear that Hamas’ quarrel isn’t with the Jews but with Zionists. It says explicitly that Hamas would accept an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders if it is approved by the people in a referendum. So the problem isn’t Hamas, the problem is Israeli intransigence because Israeli rejection of Hamas is not conditional but absolute.
So Hamas isn’t the obstacle to peace, it is Israel which is the main obstacle to peace. The last Hamas document is a further step on the road to moderation and it is a pity that there has been very little recognition of the significance of this move in the West.
There is another problem and that is that Israel says that the main reason it can’t negotiate with the Palestinians is because the Palestinians are fragmented. That is complete rubbish because there have been many attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Every time they reach an agreement, Israel launches a war in Gaza in order to disrupt the t and the last time was 2014 when Fatah and Hamas formed a consensus government. The Israeli strategy is divide and rule, and it is also to separate Gaza from the West Bank in order to defeat the struggle for Palestinian statehood.
J: What are your views on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement
AS: BDS is a global grass-roots movement which has been gathering support at a very impressive pace and it has had a large number of successes with major companies divesting from Israel. It has also had considerable impact on public opinion throughout the world, delegitimising the Israeli occupation. The Israelis take it very seriously. They have formed a unit with a budget of GBP 40 million in order to fight BDS by launching personal attacks on individuals and delegitimising them rather than engaging with the arguments of BDS. And it seems to me that there is no hope that western governments will change their policy of support for Israel. Twelve European parliaments have recognised Palestine but only the Swedish government has recognised Palestine, so recognition of Palestine by western governments is not happening. The British government under Theresa May is completely one-sided in its support for Israel. Theresa May has described Israel as a beacon of freedom and tolerance and she said she takes pride in the Balfour Declaration, and that she plans to celebrate it this year on its anniversary [2 November]. So the British prime minster has taken ownership of the Balfour Declaration, which is a classic colonial document and couldn’t be more one-sided. I am therefore not hopeful that western policy would bring Israel to heel.
I am in favour of EU sanctions against Israel because Israel fails to live up to the terms of the association agreement it has with EU. The preamble of this agreement says Israel must respect the human rights of all the people under its rule. Israel systematically violates the human rights of the Palestinians and therefore I think and I hope that the EU would suspend this agreement until Israel lives up to its obligations.
So going back to BDS, there is no hope for the Palestinians to bring about the end of occupation through the support of western governments or the UN, the only hope that the Palestinians have is through BDS.
That is not to say that in the foreseeable future BDS could bring about an end of the Israeli occupation. But that is the only hope the Palestinians have of making progress.