“Both Sharon and Netanyahu embody the most aggressive, expansionist, intolerant and blatantly racist brand of Zionism,”.
Prof Avi Shlaim talks to Samira Shackle exclusively for MEMO
October 03, 2012
Avi Shlaim, professor of International Relations at Oxford and fellow of the British Academy, has studied the history of Israel for over 30 years. The Iraqi-born British/Israeli academic is one of the New Historians, Israeli scholars who are critical of the history of Zionism and question the official state version of events. Believing that the “job of a historian is to judge”, he is frequently an outspoken critic of Israeli policy.
Writing in the New Statesman in 2005, he accused Ariel Sharon of waging a “savage…colonial war” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Is the current government continuing that trend? “Binyamin Netanyahu is one of the most hawkish Israeli Prime Ministers since the establishment of the state in 1948,” Shlaim tells me. “He is in direct line of succession to Ariel Sharon. Since Sharon came to power in 2001, Israel has shunned negotiations with the Palestinians. If I had to sum up Netenyahu’s objectives in one word, it would be the same word I applied to Sharon. The objective is ‘politicide’: to deny the Palestinians an independent existence in Palestine. The real aim of Netanyahu’s policy is to redraw unilaterally the borders of greater Israel.”
There is certainly no question that Netanyahu has made little effort to return to the negotiating table. In 2011, the leaked Palestine Papers, which showed a Palestinian executive desperately making huge concessions in the face of continued Israel intransigence, laid bare quite how one-sided compromise has been. “Both Sharon and Netanyahu embody the most aggressive, expansionist, intolerant and blatantly racist brand of Zionism,” Shlaim argues. This model has dominated Israeli politics in the last decade, which Shlaim blames [on] the assumption, spread by Ehud Barak, that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. “This is clearly not true,” says Shlaim. “But most Israelis, left, right and centre, share Barak’s view. If you don’t have a partner for peace, then you don’t vote for the Labour Party, which believes in negotiations with the Palestinians. You vote for someone tough who stands up for Israel. It is the mistaken belief that the Palestinians are not committed to a settlement that explains the prominence of the Israeli right. The current government is the most right-wing, the most hawkish, the most uncompromising government in Israel’s entire history.”
Indeed, rather than negotiation, the cornerstone of current Israeli policy appears to be the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank – not just of housing units, but of an elaborate infrastructure to serve settlers. Shlaim has always been a proponent of a two-state solution, believing that an independent state is the only way to ensure at least a measure of justice for the Palestinians. But given the reality on the ground – with settlement building continuing since 1967 under both Labour and Likud governments – he explains he has revised his view. “There is a solution to this conflict – a two-state solution – but Israel has systematically undermined the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Today we have reached a point where it is barely conceivable, given the magnitude of the presence of the Israeli state on the West Bank. I have shifted therefore to supporting a one-state solution with equal rights for all the state’s citizens. This is not what I would ideally like.”
Some observers have gone so far as to say that there is clear evidence of an apartheid system, both in Israel and the West Bank. “Israel, within its pre-1967 borders, is a flawed democracy, but still a democracy,” says Shlaim. “Israel plus the Occupied Territories is an ethnocracy in which one ethnic group is in complete control and there are two classes of citizens. The real debate is whether Israel has already become an apartheid state or whether it is on the road to becoming one.” Noting that some contest whether the word ‘apartheid’ is justified, he cites two examples. The first is the construction of separate roads for settlers in the West Bank, which Palestinians are not allowed to use. The second is the law which bans Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from gaining citizenship, even if they marry an Israeli citizen. “The facts speak for themselves,” he says. “Looking at the whole spectrum of differential rights, it seems to me that you have to conclude that Israel has become an apartheid state.”
It is against this backdrop that we are approaching the 19th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. In 1993, this appeared to be a historic compromise, symbolised in the handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Yet today, any compromise at all seems like a distant fantasy. Shlaim is adamant that the deal reached at Oslo was a good one. Why, then, did it fail? “Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that the Oslo Accord was incompatible with Israel’s security and with the historic right of the Jewish people to the whole land of Israel,” says Shlaim. Contesting this official position, he suggests instead that Oslo was “a modest step in the right direction” that failed to result in a solution because Israel reneged on its part of the deal. “I can summarise the reason for the breakdown of the Oslo peace process in one word: settlements,” he says. “Land-grabbing and peace-making do not go together.”
The Oslo Accords have not resulted in a Palestinian state, that much is clear. “The American-sponsored peace process has been going on for two decades and it is all process and no peace,” says Shlaim. “It’s a charade. But it’s much worse than a charade because the semblance of negotiations gives Israel just the cover it needs to pursue its aggressive colonial agenda on the West Bank.” What next, then? Is it time to move beyond the US-led peace process, and if so, how? Last year, Mahmoud Abbas made a bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN. While some criticised the move as empty diplomacy, grandstanding that did nothing to help people in Gaza and the West Bank, Shlaim believes it was a significant move. “It means the Palestinians are cutting their losses with Netanyahu and Obama,” he says, explaining that the Palestinians will not return to the conference table until there is a complete freeze on settlement activity. “They will only negotiate on the basis of international legality and UN resolutions. On 99 per cent of the permanent status issues, international legality supports the Palestinian position. Today there is a position of complete deadlock, but the Palestinians have at least adopted a principled position.”
While the Palestinians may be moving beyond dependence on America, Israel retains its close relationship with the US, its staunchest and most powerful ally. Indeed, Netanyahu’s behaviour over the last few months indicates that he may have forgotten the boundaries of this alliance. Flouting diplomatic conventions about staying out of foreign elections, the Israeli Prime Minister has openly supported presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “He has intervened in internal American politics in a very direct, overt and crude manner,” says Shlaim. “This strikes me as a high risk strategy. If Obama, as seems likely, gets a second term, Israel will pay the price for this anti-Obama campaign.” Nor is America the only area of foreign policy where Netanyahu has acted provocatively. He has been agitating for war with Iran for months now, claiming that the country’s nuclear programme is an “existential threat” to Israel. “The Israeli motivations are partly to do with internal politics. Pointing to an external threat to Israel rallies the public behind the government,” explains Shlaim. “Another reason is to deflect attention from the Palestinian issue. At the first meeting between Netanyahu and Obama nearly four years ago, Obama only wanted to talk about Palestine, and Netanyahu only wanted to talk about the Iranian nuclear programme. Obama said to Netanyahu, yes Iran is a problem, but Palestine comes first. At the last meeting, three years on, Palestine was not on the agenda and the Iranian nuclear programme very firmly was. In other words, Netanyahu has succeeded in imposing his own agenda.”
When discussing Israel’s influence on America, it is impossible not to mention the Israel lobby, the subject of increasing scrutiny. Does an equivalent Israel lobby exist in Britain? Shlaim points out that little has been written about these operations, but that certain groups, like BICOM, fulfil the function of speaking up for Israel. He also notes that each of the main parties has a “friends of Israel” group, with around 90 per cent of Conservative backbenchers belonging to theirs. “These different manifestations point to the existence of an Israel lobby in Great Britain,” he concludes. Yet the spectrum of opinion within the Jewish community in Britain is different to that in America. “While the majority of American Jews openly and strongly support Israel, Britain Jews have not been so open and have tended to operate behind the scenes,” says Shlaim. “In recent years, particularly since the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, more British Jews have become critical of Israel and particularly of the settlements. A small but significant group are now openly critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.” He singles out Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians (he is a member of both). “Of course, these and other liberal groups are a minority of British Jewry. The majority are probably still uncritical supporters of Israel and some British Jews are extremely vociferous in their support for Israel and in their criticisms of the liberal groups.” Shlaim cites Melanie Philips’ description of Jews for Justice for Palestinians as “Jews for Genocide” as evidence of “how strong feelings run and how deep the divisions are within the Jewish community in Britain.”
Last year’s Arab Spring saw huge changes take place across the Middle East. While countries have been focused on domestic issues, Shlaim believes that these new democracies will soon promote the Palestinian cause. “The Palestinian record of resistance, the two intifadas, was an inspiration to the demonstrators which showed them that people power is possible and that they can make a stand and assert their own rights.” Whether the deadlock in Palestine ends and these rights are realised remains to be seen.