Avi Shlaim interview and dissenting perspective by Joel Beinin

1) Avi Shlaim interview: introduced by Lincoln Shlensky

Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, in an audio/video interview (also transcribed) with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, breaks down the responsibility for the current war in Gaza and clarifies the definition of “terror” as a term that should be applied both to Hamas and Israel. Based on Israeli Ministry of Defense statistics and public news reports, he refutes the “pack of lies” that makes Hamas primarily responsible for having violated the ceasefire. He contends that “the current vicious Israeli onslaught on the people of Gaza is the climax of this longstanding Israeli policy of shunning diplomacy and relying on brute military force.”

While defended Zionism as a legitimate national liberation movement, Shlaim nevertheless “reject[s] totally, absolutely and uncompromisingly…the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders.” In the context of the Greater Israel religious/ideological movement that has flourished since the early 1970s, Shlaim points out that “Gaza [is] a classic example of exploitation, of colonial exploitation in the postcolonial era.”

Hamas, in this view, has been doubly abetted by Israel: first, insofar as Israel encouraged the growth of the Islamic Resistance Movement in the late 1980s as part of a divide and conquer strategy, and secondly, by undermining Arafat’s Fatah party after the 1993 Oslo accords delivered nothing to the Palestinians that would have shown the value of compromising with Israel. Now Israel is attempting to decimate and extirpate a Hamas government that was elected democratically and that had demonstrated increasing signs of moderation since taking political control of Gaza. The military attacks are a dead end strategy for Israel, Shlaim maintains; only negotiations will prove decisive. Shlaim is still hopeful that the incoming American administration can sponsor such negotiations, even though he is concerned about President-elect Obama’s unexplained reticence during this crisis.

Lincoln Shlensky


2) Avi Shlaim interview: dissenting perspective by Joel Beinin

Avi Shlaim is a leading member of the Israeli “new historians” school.  His interview with Amy Goodman is very clear about the current situation in Gaza and on most matters relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967.  But his comments on Israel’s defensive stance towards its Arab neighbors from 1949 to 1967 are sharply contradicted by his own writing and evidence in his excellent book, The Iron Wall (and also in Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars).

He also has an overly optimistic judgment about the possibilities for a Palestinian state following the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles.  He attributes the failure of Oslo to Bibi Netanyahu, who became Israeli Prime Minister in 1996.  But Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was present at the failed 2000 Camp David summit and who served as the last Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is very clear in his own book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, that “failure was written into the genetic code of Oslo.”  Even if one doesn’t want to go that far, the platform of the Labor Party, which was in power until 1996, did not support a Palestinian state until just before it lost the 1996 elections to Netanyahu and the Likud.  So it was hardly obvious that Oslo was leading towards a Palestinian state when Labor and Rabin and then Peres were in office.

Avi’s hopeful view that Barack Obama is going to make a significant difference for Israeli-Palestinian peace is also misleading. The best that can be hoped for is that President Obama will be more responsive than his predecessor to a mass movement demanding peace.  His “monitoring” of the situation in Gaza in contrast to his active stance on the economy and even his statements about the Mumbai bombings does not portend significant change coming from the White House, but rather a cautious avoidance of commitment on Israel-Palestine.  Avi Shlaim is an excellent and important historian.  But this isn’t the first time that he has allowed his political hopes to overcome his cooler intellectual judgments.  Antonio Gramsci’s “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect” is a more appropriate stance.

Joel Beinin

Watch, listen to, or read the full interview with Avi Shlaim on Democracy Now! here:



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