Book review: Avi Shlaim’s “Israel and Palestine”

When prolific writers compile a decade or more of their writing in a single collection, changes in style, political outlook, or interpretive tendencies are readily apparent. Consistency in all these respects is visible too. So it’s interesting to read Avi Shlaim’s latest book — Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations, a collection of articles published over two decades on Israeli historiography — because he is aware of the changes and continuities in his thinking.

Shlaim is at his best when writing as a political historian. He is a sensitive expositor of the context within which the Balfour Declaration emerged and an incisive analyst of the political maneuvering after the First and Second World Wars, Israeli collusion with the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and most of the minutiae of the Madrid Conference and the Oslo accords. Much of the book comprises reviews of Israeli academic history and sociology, letting us see Shlaim’s appraising gaze wander — here catching hold of a facet of Jordanian-Israeli diplomatic intrigue, there offering a warm embrace of critical Israeli social analysis.

Shlaim includes an extremely long, fascinating interview with King Hussein of Jordan that includes Hussein’s suggestion that the Hashemite Kingdom enfold the West Bank into its national territory. Shlaim’s reassessment of his initial analyses of the Oslo accords are honest and revealing — almost too much so when he praises the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said for having actually read the text of the Oslo accords “very carefully.” Odd praise. What did Shlaim do?

Still, the book is definitely useful. Shlaim is a usually reliable tour guide through the past 90 years of the political history of Israel and the pre-state Yishuv in Palestine, and a student of that history could rely on this book as a quick reference. No one reading it could possibly conclude that the Israeli government’s comportment over the past 40 years has been anything but repeated indefensible acts, continuous territorial expansions, and horrific slaughters, one after another. This is essentially his point.

The problem is that sometimes Shlaim becomes more of a curator, here and there commenting politely on dilapidated former pillars of Zionist orthodoxy, with far more appreciativeness than such dangerous self-serving artifacts are due.

Some of this is due to professional politeness, a hesitation over entering the neighborhood of polemic — he is after all an Oxford professor and not an activist or politician. Yet this approach reveals grating inconsistencies in the text. For example, referring to Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace, Shlaim says that Ross produces a “revealing record” of 13 years of attempted peace, a strangely restrained conclusion given that paragraphs earlier, Shlaim calls the book “simplistic, selective and self-serving.”

Elsewhere, Shlaim refers to Yitzhak Shamir’s statement, “we need to accept that war is inescapable, because, without this, the life of the individual has no purpose and the nation has no chance of survival.” Shlaim offers a desperately positive gloss on the statement, as he tries to avoid seeing it for what it is, and calls this the “most charitable construction.” Why that sort of statement merits charity is not clear.

This is in part an issue of taste, academic politesse gone slightly overboard. One can sometimes see that this affect troubles Shlaim, too. His chapter on Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter is cutting, the portion of the book in which he travels as far as he can from reigning orthodoxies. Shlaim almost feels out the contours of his own conceptual blockages, as he criticizes the Israeli desire to destroy Hamas by destroying the society within which it sits. But that’s as close as he gets. Shlaim harshly criticizes the political history of Zionist movements and the actions of the Zionist state. Zionism itself goes blithely unscathed.

This evasion takes two forms. One is that Shlaim seems temperamentally unable to practice ideologiekritik, criticism of society and its governing ideology. He cannot lay bare the basic fact of Zionism — its core and necessary subordination of the national rights of an indigenous people to the ostensible national rights of a settler-colonial people, arriving from Europe, some of them the desperate refugees from genocide. Ostensible, but Shlaim thinks immanent, as he refers to the “moral case for a Jewish state” being “unassailable.” But this moral case was not tried before magistrates adjudicating the merits of various land masses, finally setting on the Palestine Mandate, unpopulated, awaiting Jewish settlement — a social fact of the Zionist imaginary. The moral right granted by horrific Jewish suffering meant, in turn, the abrogation of another set of rights — those of a people living on their land.

Shlaim sidesteps the logic of this argument by referring to UN General Assembly Resolution 181. He says this affirms the “legality” of the Israeli state. This is tenuous, if not outright disingenuous — the history of that vote is too well known: the diplomatic pressure by the United States and the Zionist movement’s bartering and promises to sway votes. The United Nations General Assembly in those days was only barely grasping at legitimacy as an institution. Legitimacy differs from legality anyway, and legality differs from a legalism that’s a mere veneer for power-dynamics shaped by wrenching collective guilt.

Shlaim seems unable to step outside the Zionist self-construction of its own actions and sharply assess those actions and the context within which they occur. For example, when commenting on Israel’s invasion of Gaza, Shlaim insists on the Israeli right to self-defense. But a blockade is an act of war, and it was Israel that broke the June 2008 ceasefire on 4 November 2008, not Hamas. It was Israel and not Hamas that had other options, such as ending the asphyxiating blockade or ending the occupation, the chief grievances behind violent resistance.

Shlaim also seems unable to link the core tenets of Zionism with Israeli history. The Shamir quotation and others like it don’t deserve apologetic interpretation. The words of political leaders fetishizing war and state violence need to be dissected if not denounced, especially as they edge close to fascist ideology. Shlaim repeatedly criticizes the Israeli interpretation of security by claiming that it is one-sided or unaccommodating to the genuine security concerns of the Palestinians. Yet he won’t reconcile it with the claim that this conception has nothing remotely to do with security and everything to do with territorial maximalism, which has been embedded in the Zionist political project from the outset, as a bit of time with the primary documents makes obvious. Shlaim is obviously aware of these documents and the voluminous secondary literature analyzing them, and that he ignores them is disappointing.

This decision is, perhaps, due to Shlaim’s own ideological predispositions. While he acknowledges the tragedy of the Palestinian Nakba or forced dispossession in 1948 and Israel’s responsibility for the destruction of Palestinian society and the creation of the Palestinian refugees, he sees the June 1967 War as the inflection point. The aftermath of the 1967 War when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights was in his telling, Zionism’s transformation from a legitimate movement of national self-determination to an ideology tightly entwined with a colonial occupation. This legerdemain summons up a pre-1967 Israel brimming with innocence, and contrasts it with a post-1967 occupying power that is simple European settler-colonialism redux. History does give us hinge points, but this one is contrived. The aspiration to the whole of the land was embedded in Zionism from the outset, as was a privileging of the rights of European Jews over the territory’s native inhabitants.

An excessive emphasis on the decay of the Zionist project distracts Shlaim from these core points. Yet other “Israeli new historians” to the right of Shlaim have attacked the book as too “judgmental,” as Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev frothed in The New York Review of Books.

What is at stake here both is and isn’t clear. Nations are accreted layers of blood and atrocity, justified by the fairy tales we tell one another to justify the massacres for which we are responsible. Zionism-as-fairy-tale is different only in that its institutional mooring, the Israeli state, is in fact corroding as a result of adherence to the very ideology used to justify it. Its criminal record is still lengthening. One sees what it would cost an Amos Oz or the Peace Now liberals to admit this. Shlaim’s stubbornness is odd. Why not just drop it? The point isn’t to single out Shlaim. The point and the question generalize. But it is, in a way, the wrong question. The question isn’t precisely what dropping Zionism would cost its adherents. The question is what Zionism has cost and is costing its victims, because Zionism has become the ideology justifying and motivating practices though which victims — some of them — became perpetrators. It’s time for the 1967 Zionists to move past this tribalism — or past time.

Max Ajl was one of the principal coordinators of the Gaza Freedom March and blogs on Israel-Palestine at

Related Links