In last week's Independent Dr Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations at the university of Oxford, unburdened himself of his views on Benjamin Netanyahu and the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Although Shlaim and I are well known to each other (we were both employed by the university of Reading in the early 1970s) we have never engaged in a public debate on these matters. This is not because of any bashfulness on my part. In autumn 2010 I willingly accepted an invitation to appear with Shlaim on a panel sponsored by the Belfast Festival - only to be told, by Shlaim (as we sipped tea together) that he did not wish to share the panel with the likes of me. So our comparative strengths as academic debaters have never been publicly tested. As a result I am forced to respond in print to whatever Shlaim may write.
In last week's Independent Shlaim wrote with great passion. "Netanyahu," he declared "is a bellicose, right-wing Israeli nationalist, a rejectionist on the subject of Palestinian national rights, and a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo…Netanyahu does not believe in peaceful co-existence between equals. He views Israel's relations with the Arab world as one of permanent conflict, as a never-ending struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness." Referring to Netanyahu's 1993 monograph A place among the nations, Shlaim insinuated that Netanyahu's apparent yearning for a democratic Arab world, with which Israel might make peace, was totally disingenuous, since Netanyahu confidently expected that this world would never come about. "The Arab Spring," Shlaim proclaimed, "has proved him wrong."
Shlaim graciously admitted that the present Israeli government was democratically elected but then damned it for "putting nationalism above morality and international legality". And after swipes at Netanyahu's propensities as a "land-grabber", Shlaim concluded that "the main threat to regional stability is not Iran but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories".
No amount of pleading would persuade the JC to give me the space I would need to engage in the scholarly demolition that Shlaim's essay deserves. But I have to say, for the record, that I am deeply shocked that an academic of Shlaim's reported distinction could deem it proper to resort to sweeping unsubstantiated assertion and to treat a very serious subject in terms - virtually exclusively - of a highly personalised attack on a politician he clearly detests.
I myself have never been one of Netanyahu's greatest fans. But facts are facts. For example, it is simply untrue to imply (as Shlaim did) that Netanyahu has rejected any freeze on settlement construction in Judea and Samaria. Shlaim made no mention of the fact that in 2009 Netanyahu agreed to a ten-month freeze. But from the Arab side there was no meaningful reciprocity.
The Arab Spring, Shlaim said, has proved him wrong
More seriously, Shlaim of all people (being Iraqi by birth) should know that the roots of the conflict lie well beyond any Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and are rather to be found in the Islamic view of Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state. These views are negative to a lesser or greater extent. Why blame the present impasse exclusively on Netanyahu and his democratically elected government while omitting to mention the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state?
Scarcely less outrageous is Shlaim's nutty assertion that "the main threat" to regional stability is Jewish control of the West Bank and not the rule of the mad mullahs in Tehran. The reality of the nationalised antisemitism of Iran is too well known (I trust) to merit any challenge. But Shlaim needs to remind himself that the present government of Iran is wedded to a Muslim-messianic view of its destiny and duty. He needs to accept that the intercontinental missiles Iran is constructing are aimed not just at Tel Aviv but at London and Washington. Then he needs to ask himself whether the mad mullahs of Teheran would ever be content simply to arm such missiles with conventional explosives. And then he needs to ponder whether such missiles can seriously be considered a lesser threat to regional stability than the recreation of Jewish society in historic Palestine.