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on 22 December 2009
Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford University, is the author of The iron wall, the best book on Israel's relations with its neighbours. This erudite work is a collection of articles that were originally published in the Journal of Palestine Studies and the London Review of Books.

Part 1 comprises ten articles on the 1948 war and after, Part 2 ten articles on the Oslo Accord of September 1993 and beyond, Part 3 five articles on the breakdown of the peace process, and Part 4 five articles looking at the current situation from various perspectives. He identifies three main watersheds, each the subject of heated debate: the founding of Israel, the 6-Day war of June 1967 and the Oslo Accord.

Israeli governments usually oppose a Palestinian state and a return to its 1967 borders, even though, as Shlaim argues, ending the occupation of the West Bank would enhance Israel's security. The Oslo Accord, negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians, with virtually no US or EU involvement, was a great step forward towards creating a Palestinian state. But tragically Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert wrecked the Accord, as Shlaim shows.

Shlaim recognises that the Iraq war had `no solid basis in international law' and that the invasion did not help to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict or promote democracy in the Middle East. You don't end one illegal occupation by starting another.

Shlaim argues that Israel's brutal military occupation of Gaza was `deliberate de-development'. The USA and the EU helped the Israeli state by imposing sanctions on Gaza, not on the occupier but on the occupied. As Shlaim writes, "The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence."

In 2005-8, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire from Gaza; in 2005-7, the Israeli Defense Force killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children. In November 2008, Israel broke the ceasefire which had held for four months. In its 22-day attack on Gaza, 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Bush and Blair backed the attack and opposed UN calls for a ceasefire.

Shlaim concludes, "A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria."
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on 31 August 2015
Overall, this is a good book and a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subject but with a major caveat which might not be obvious to a prospective reader, a caveat to which I’ll return, below.

For background, Avi Shlaim is an Iraqi Jew and an Israeli who served in the Israel army and who declares his support for Israel within its pre-1967 borders. He was, until his retirement, a Professor of International Relations at Oxford University.

He is deeply knowledgeable about Israel and Palestine. Perhaps as importantly, in what might be considered an introductory text, he writes with great clarity. Because he expresses a view about events and characters (mostly sound although I personally disagree with some) the book is useful not only as a relatively simple introduction for a reader with little or no prior knowledge but also for the more informed reader, as some events he describes might be less familiar and the perspective he provides is often interesting, even if it’s not one shared by the reader.

So, back to the caveat. What I had not realised when I bought the book – and which is not made clear anywhere on the cover - is that the book is not a single cohesive narrative about Israel/Palestine but rather a repackaged series of previously published essays, mostly reviews of books, although his “reviews” are quite loose and wander quite far from the book in question. On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with this, if the reader knows this is what he or she will get. But if a reader thinks they will get a chronological narrative they will be disappointed as the book is more a collection of fragments. Many of the essays are quite dated (some were written 20 years ago, although the book was published in 2009) and have been superseded by events or express views which have proven to be completely wrong. In addition because each chapter is a previously published essay there’s a good deal of overlap and repetition (I lost count of how many times we’re told that Bill Clinton was described as “the last Zionist”).

With that reservation, I would return to where I began by saying this is a worthwhile read, well written, interesting and passionate in places. It’s just not the book it might appear to be.

As a small postscript the book says that Rachel Corrie, a US activist, was shot by the Israelis; she was actually crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer (built in and supplied by the USA).
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on 13 February 2010
This is a great collection of fascinating articles from a learned and respected historian. It is precisely the reasons why I feel let down by Professor Shlaim naive treatment of the Nakba and by his conviction that the 1967 borders are the internationally recognised borders for Israel. He does not say why? He simply expects the reader to accept that argument without question. It is because of such light-hearted treatment of such a sensitive issue, that the Palestine-Israel question remains unanswered in this book. Professor Shlaim, moreover, states categorically that the two state solution remains the only solution to the problem. This raises another big question: How? Again, this book leaves this crucial question unanswered.
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on 17 November 2009
Shlaim believes that "job of the historian is to judge". This seems, alas, to entail some noticeable shoe-horning of reality to fit the requirements of ideological fashion and convenience.

There are some interesting passages here, but Shlaim's slightly facile and romantic positions are all too easy to take from the safe distance of Oxford, where Fatah's constitution can be read with agreeable detachment "Article (12): Complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence.
Article (19) ... this struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished and Palestine is completely liberated."

(There can be little responsible doubt about what "complete liberation of Palestine" or "eradication of 'Zionist' ... cultural existence" would concretely entail under an Islamic state, or even under a secular majoritarian hegemony, if such a thing could actually be achieved).

Generally, there is a too strong a sense of distortion of the historiographic project by an anxiety to conform to the uncomplicated ideological preferences of some of his northern european hosts. These are not perspectives that would ever be seen as more than fashionable posturing by an electorate in Israel, particularly by the 40% or more whose families have concrete experience of living in Arab countries before the Jewish nakba began in 1948, generating, by the 1970s, even more Jewish Arab refugees than Palestinian refugees.

The purely ideological section devoted to Benny Morris is diagnostic of Shlaim's predicament. It fails to engage with a single issue of technical historiography, and devotes itself instead to ad hominem fulminations against Morris's failure to be limited by the bounds of Shlaim's preferred, and structuring, ideology - namely that "the Palestinians, by any reckoning, can only be seen as the victims" while only the Israelis are to be seen as aggressive. Regardless of the evidence, apparently.

Fatah's Constitution, and Hamas's Charter, documents which are eloquently expressive of the history and balance of forces in these organisations, but uncongenial to Shlaim's romantic ideology, are not brought to the reader's attention.

Meanwhile, the review of this book by Benny Morris in The New Republic is worth looking at, I think.
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