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Avi Shlaim is not very impressed with Israeli prime ministers, past or present:
He claims they always missed opportunities for making peace.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
his mother's home in Ramat
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
it resentment toward Israel that propelled you to pursue this
avenue of research?
"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 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."
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."
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."
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."
why does he enjoy such broad support?
support derives from the Camp
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."
you know something that Clinton didn't know?
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.
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."
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."
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 ...
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."
history of mistakes
says that David Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister to reject peace
agreements with the Arabs, and missed several opportunities to pursue
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
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."
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."
wrote that Netanyahu's attempts to achieve peace and security while holding on
most of the West
Bank and the Golan Heights "just proved that he was living
in a fool's paradise."
in the end, Netanyahu shook Arafat's hand.
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.
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."
supported the peace agreement with Jordan.
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."
Shlaim: "It's hard to figure out why Netanyahu is so popular in Israel these days. Apparently, people have a
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."