What else is new?

Sara Leibovich-Dar

Ha'aretz, 2 January 2002

Historian Avi Shlaim is not very impressed with Israeli prime ministers, past or present: He claims they always missed opportunities for making peace.

Prof. Avi Shlaim assigns grades to leaders. He believes this is his job as a historian. In his book, "The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World" (Norton and Penguin Press), he places the responsibility for the ongoing conflict in the Middle East on a series of Israeli leaders. "A historian is a judge and he can also be a hanging judge," he says. "I give marks to the people I write about because that's my role. As a historian, I studied what happened in the past and I have to pass judgment on the story that I'm telling. As a hanging judge, I convict Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon in the court of history. They are guilty of the bloodshed that's going on now."

Earlier prime ministers also earn low marks from Shlaim. Benjamin Netanyahu was "a shallow, superficial fellow" who destroyed Israel's ties with the Arab world. Yitzhak Shamir was very rigid, "a Jewish Assad," who missed the chance for a peace agreement at the Madrid conference. Menachem Begin ignored the commitments he made to the Palestinians at Camp David. Golda Meir was "a primitive and self-righteous woman," who refused to sign an interim agreement with Sadat in 1971, while Yitzhak Rabin, who met with King Hussein in 1974, did not want to continue pursuing these contacts with the aim of reaching a peace agreement.

Shlaim's thick, 600-page tome was published in English two years ago. Since then, he has been trying to get it published in Hebrew: "It's important that Israelis be made aware of this information," he says. The Hebrew publishers and press ignored him. "In Israel, they don't like my opinions. People here have grown accustomed to thinking that extremism was always on the Arab side and that Israel was always striving for peace."

Shlaim's book earned positive reviews in England and the United States. The New York Times said he'd shattered myths; The Herald Tribune called it a "superb chronicle," while The Guardian called it a "savagely honest report." The Washington Post said Shlaim had written a very powerful survey for which even the experts would be grateful.

Failure at school

Avi Shlaim was born in Baghdad in 1945. His father was a wealthy businessman who imported building materials from England. The family immigrated to Israel in 1950. Shlaim's father was never able to rebuild his business here and died at age 70, brokenhearted. His father never learned Hebrew. Shlaim also felt out of place.

"When my parents spoke Arabic with me in the street, I was embarrassed. Arabic was considered an ugly and primitive language. There was a sense that everything connected to the Arab world was foreign and inferior. Most of the teachers at school were Ashkenazis. The Sephardis were considered inferior. That was the natural order of things at school and in society, in general."

At his mother's home in Ramat Gan this week, Shlaim recalled how he'd sat in the back row in class and never participated in the lessons, how he failed to master English, didn't do his homework, and skipped school on a number of occasions. To his astonishment, at age 14, he passed an important exam. "One of the teachers, a cold Yekke [German-born] snob, told me that I'd only passed the test because of extra consideration given to the weak, Sephardi sectors of society."

When he had to pass a test in English one summer in order to go on to the next grade, "it was obvious that I wouldn't pass. My mother didn't want me to drop out of school, so she decided to send me to England." He was enrolled at a Jewish school in London. where things turned around for him academically.

"I lived in the principal's house. I studied every day until five. I didn't have friends. I didn't want to disappoint my family who'd sacrificed so much for the sake of my studies. I devoted myself completely to studying."

After high school, Shlaim returned to Israel to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. "It never occurred to me not to do that," he says. Doing army service in the signal corps from 1964-'66, "before the occupation," was a mostly pleasant experience, clouded by just a few minor incidents. For example, he got stuck with the nickname "Mademoiselle Fifi" after he was caught reading a book by that name while on guard duty.

But there were some more serious incidents, too. "One of the commanders stole a weapon from my tent. As a punishment, he forced my comrades and me to cross the border with Jordan in full gear - minus our pants and weapons. He told us that we were a disgrace to our country and that if the Jordanians shot us, we'd be getting what we deserved."

Four days after completing his army service, Shlaim left to study history at Cambridge University. His big dream was to become an Israeli diplomat. "I had nationalistic views," he recalls. But, to his surprise, when he finished his degree, he was offered a position as a lecturer at Reading University. "I became an academic totally by chance," he says. "Life is all coincidences."

Shlaim arrived at Oxford in 1987: "I met with Arab students and lecturers and the deeper I looked into the subject, the more skeptical I became of the Zionist version of the conflict."

Shlaim is married to a British woman of Welsh descent who works as a family therapist. They have one daughter, a student. He rides his motorcycle to the university every morning. Looking back, he is glad about the course his life ended up taking: "Had I remained in Israel ... I wouldn't have become an academic. I wouldn't have found my place."

Was it resentment toward Israel that propelled you to pursue this avenue of research?

Shlaim: "I don't have a single drop of resentment toward the country. On the contrary, I had great admiration for my country. I thought that the founding of a state was a tremendous accomplishment, an Ashkenazi trick, only I didn't have any part in this achievement."

Sharon's problems

Ariel Sharon is frequently mentioned in Shlaim's book, which predates Sharon's candidacy for prime minister. "Sharon appears very often in the 50 years of this conflict, and his long career is typified by two main characteristics," says Shlaim. "One is lying. Even today, he doesn't say the whole truth. He has a declared position that hides his true intentions. In fact, he's not interested in resuming negotiations."

Nowadays, it's quite accepted to lay most of the blame on Yasser Arafat.

"Sharon bears a significant portion of the responsibility for the bloodshed, because he refuses to return to the negotiating table. History shows that whenever a diplomatic process is cut off, war clouds gather. He wants to turn Arafat into some rag, to an Israeli subcontractor who does Israel's bidding."

Shlaim says Sharon's second definitive characteristic is cruel treatment of Arabs: "His cruelty is very consistent. In October 1953, he ordered the Qibiya raid, in which 69 civilians were killed. Afterward, some called him `The killer from Qibiya.' He perceived his job in the reprisal raids to be to kill as many Arabs as possible. Today, his cruelty is manifest in the assassination policy. It's a policy that does no good, but it led to the killing of Rehavam Ze'evi. From this perspective, the Israeli government is the one that killed Ze'evi."

Shlaim says that Sharon's newly minted kindly-grandfather image never ceases to amaze him. "Sharon is an army man who has always seen the Arabs as the enemy. This is his premise. He wants to take care of them once and for all, by means of a massive use of force."

So why does he enjoy such broad support?

"This support derives from the Camp David myth: According to it, Ehud Barak made the most generous offer [there] that an Israeli prime minister could make, Arafat totally rejected the offer and, therefore, Arafat is to blame for the collapse of the peace process and the return to terror. Everyone in Israel now accepts this myth ... And if that's the case, then there's only one option left - the Sharon option - to hit them hard. [President Bill] Clinton reinforced this myth when he fingered Arafat as the one most to blame for the failure of the Camp David summit."

Do you know something that Clinton didn't know?

"Barak had an obsession with finality, with the end of the conflict. He was eager to get the conflict over with, because he knew that if it continued, it would become hell here, as is happening now.

"At Camp David, Barak wanted Arafat to sign on the bottom line that he had no more demands, but Barak ... offered nothing on the matter of refugees and he insisted on Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. He didn't have enough courage to translate the de facto situation - Palestinian control of the Temple Mount - into a formal agreement. His proposals were suitable for an interim agreement, but because of his obsession with finality, he demanded that the Palestinians sign it as a final agreement. He behaved arrogantly and dogmatically. Barak is to blame for the fact that the diplomatic process is stuck."

Barak wrecked the chance for compromise and coexistence because "the number of apartments built in the settlements rose very significantly during his tenure. You can't be striving for a peace agreement, on the one hand, and confiscating land and expanding settlements, on the other."

Furthermore, says Shlaim, Barak "had this obsession of reaching an agreement with Syria, [which is] a significant military power whose surface-to-surface missiles can reach all of Israel, while the Palestinians were completely negligible as a military power. He thought that if he reached an agreement with Syria, he would weaken the Palestinians and dictate his conditions... But [Barak] didn't come with any original or creative solutions, and insisted on maintaining a small bit of Israeli territory around Lake Kinneret ...

"Even his aides couldn't understand why he was so obstinate when it was all so close to a breakthrough. He also wanted to expose the true face of the Syrians. He said several times that if the negotiations with them failed, he wanted the world to know that we had not left any stone unturned in this endeavor. It's a shame he didn't understand that it wasn't his job to overturn stones, that his job was to reach peace agreements."

A history of mistakes

Shlaim says that David Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister to reject peace agreements with the Arabs, and missed several opportunities to pursue negotiations.

"I went over all of his diaries from 1947-1964 and I assert unequivocally that he hated the Arabs and feared them. He knew many languages, but he never bothered to learn Arabic. He was `autistic' when it came to the Arabs: He was incapable of understanding their feelings or desires. He thought that time was on our side, that Israel would grow stronger over the years and the Arabs would eventually beg to make peace and be willing to lower their price. But he was wrong. Instead, the reprisal raids created a dynamic of deterioration and the conflict kept getting worse until it all led to the Sinai Campaign."

Golda Meir, who was prime minister from 1969-74, had, says Shlaim "a certain trait that I abhor. She was self-righteous and behaved as if all the justice was on one side, as if there was no justness at all to the Arab claim and the whole world was against us. She saw everything in black and white. It was the Arabs or us. She committed her biggest mistake in 1971, when she wouldn't agree to give back all of Sinai in return for an interim agreement with Egypt. This left Sadat with no choice but to go to war. I hold her accountable for the Yom Kippur War. She is to blame for all the victims."

In 1969, the U.S. Secretary of State, William Rogers, proposed a peace plan based on an Israeli withdrawal and a resolution of the refugee problem. "Golda Meir refused to accept the proposal," says Shlaim. "To the outside world, she always said she was ready to go anywhere, anytime, in order to meet any Arab leader ready to talk about peace. But in reality, her political survival was more important to her ... Her resignation brought to an end one of the most desolate periods in Israel's relations with its neighbors."

Israel's right-wing prime ministers, including those who signed agreements, had very clear positions regarding the Arabs. Benjamin Netanyahu's attitude toward the Arabs, for instance, was utterly negative and not at all open to change, says Shlaim. In 1993 when Netanyahu was elected, "he published his book, `A Place Among Nations: Israel and the World.' The book didn't contain a single positive mention of the Arabs, of their history and culture. In it, he argued that the Palestinians have no right to self-determination and contended that the conflict in the region is an outgrowth of internal Arab rivalries. A compromise with the PLO was not possible because the organization's objective is the destruction of Israel."

Shlaim wrote that Netanyahu's attempts to achieve peace and security while holding on to East Jerusalem, most of the West Bank and the Golan Heights "just proved that he was living in a fool's paradise."

But, in the end, Netanyahu shook Arafat's hand.

"He did that with obvious unwillingness and he never accepted Arafat as a legitimate leader. He started the ceaseless criticism of Arafat. He opened the Western Wall tunnel, which led to the deaths of 15 Israelis and 80 Palestinians. Under American pressure, he signed the Hebron agreement in 1997, which promised Palestinians control of 80 percent of the city. But in February, he announced the construction of 6,500 new housing units in Har Homa.

"In October 1998, he signed the Wye Accord, but then he didn't fulfill the agreement ... Israel confiscated land in order to build more settlements. On December 20, the government decided to suspend the implementation of the second redeployment, which had been agreed to at Wye, until the Palestinian Authority agreed to meet five conditions, most of which had never been mentioned before."

Netanyahu supported the peace agreement with Jordan.

"This agreement didn't entail any concessions on our part ... I met with King Hussein in England shortly before his death. For the first time, he spoke on the record about his meetings with Israelis. When he talked about Netanyahu, he was bitter and despairing. He couldn't understand why Netanyahu was causing so much damage. He told me that he felt responsible for the Israeli public as well and now everything was ruined."

Adds Shlaim: "It's hard to figure out why Netanyahu is so popular in Israel these days. Apparently, people have a short memory."

More missed opportunities

Shlaim expresses a grudging respect for Yitzhak Shamir: "At least he was consistent. He didn't vacillate and he wasn't an opportunist. He had a clear principle that guided him his whole life - the Greater Land of Israel."

It's a shame, adds the historian, that Shamir "missed an opportunity to sign a peace agreement with the PLO in 1991, after the Gulf War, when Arafat's standing was at its lowest and he'd lost public and international support. The Americans were very eager to resolve the issue. They put together the Madrid Conference, but Shamir was the one who missed the historic opportunity for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East."

In Shlaim's opinion, Shamir's predecessor, Menachem Begin, was "an ideologue with one ideology - the Greater Land of Israel. He signed a peace agreement with Egypt because, in his view, Sinai was not part of the Greater Land of Israel ... In March 1978, a few months after [President Anwar] Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, Israel launched the Litani operation. Begin also didn't intend to fulfill the declarations made at Camp David about the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. In 1981, the Knesset passed the law annexing the Golan Heights. With this, Begin showed the world that he was stopping the pursuit of a comprehensive peace.

"The tragic end of his life just goes to illustrate the illusion and lack of realism in the outlook of the extreme right, which doesn't understand that the conflict will continue until Israel withdraws from all the territories conquered in 1967."

According to Shlaim, during his first term, Yitzhak Rabin was not willing to negotiate with the PLO, which he defined as a terror organization, and he opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"On the one hand," the historian explains, "Rabin was opposed to settlements in the midst of densely populated Palestinian areas, but in his government, there was a strong lobby for settlements ... In terms of the Jordanians - Rabin met with King Hussein several times, but didn't strive to translate these meetings into a peace agreement."

In his second term, Shlaim writes, Rabin continued to believe that effective diplomacy had to be backed up by military power, but the emphasis shifted from military force to diplomacy. In Shlaim's view, Rabin erred by appointing Elyakim Rubinstein to head the talks with the Palestinians. Rubinstein created a better atmosphere, but did not come up with any radical peace ideas.

In contrast, the Oslo agreement was the brainchild of Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, who, in Shlaim's words, "dragged their hesitant and suspicious senior colleague after them."