Interview With Middle East Scholar Avi Shlaim

Interview With Middle East Scholar Avi Shlaim

Interview With Middle East Scholar Avi Shlaim

“The cycle of violence is likely to continue.”


Avi Shlaim is a fellow of St. Antony’s College and a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. He was born in Baghdad on October 31, 1945, and grew up in Israel, where he did national service in 1964-66. He read history at Cambridge University in Britain, and has remained in that country ever since, holding dual Israeli and British citizenship. Professor Shlaim is the author of numerous books, most notably The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, and is a regular contributor to The Guardian, the leading liberal British broadsheet. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

I wonder if we can look briefly at ongoing events in and affecting the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Israel and America. First of all, how would you advise President Bush to extract himself from the current calamity in Iraq?

My advice to President Bush would be to be honest. Either he plans to hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30 or he doesn’t. The Americans are playing games and are pretending that there will be a handover, but the Iraqi provisional government have chosen a president, and Paul Bremer tried to veto their choice. The Iraqis need to know where they stand: Either they are going to be given sovereignty and appoint their own leaders, or they are going to be dictated to by the Americans. It would be unwise for the Americans to treat Iraqis as pawns in the game, because the interim government would cease to have legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people if all the orders came from Washington.

Iran and Syria are also on the Bush Administration neocons’ list for intervention. Do you think the ongoing debacle in Iraq has effectively ruled out military action against these two nations?

The neocons had an ambitious agenda for the Middle East, and they were going to bring about regime change in Iraq as the first step in implementing a broader agenda. They wanted to turn Iraq into a model for the rest of the Arab world and the Middle East in general. The next targets were Syria and Iran, and after the initial successes during the war in Iraq, there were moves toward the regime in Damascus. American officials said that Syria was helping the remnants of the Saddam regime by smuggling weapons into Iraq and helping Iraqis to escape and find refuge in Syria. No evidence was produced to implicate Syria, so the rhetoric has died down. America is embroiled in a quagmire in Iraq, and it is in no position to invade or attack Syria, even if it wanted to. Iran is a bit more complicated. Iran is of course, one of the original members of the “axis of evil,” alongside Iraq and North Korea; and Iran also poses a long-term threat to Israel–particularly if it acquires nuclear weapons.

So the neoconservatives, who care deeply about Israel’s security, wanted to eliminate the Iranian threat to Israel. There was again talk of attacking Iran, and there was some loose talk about wiping out Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear installations; but now this talk is not heard anymore, because America is embroiled in Iraq without an easy way out. What has emerged recently is that Iran manipulated the neocons into attacking Iraq in order to get rid of this very awkward neighbor, Saddam Hussein. There were some revelations a few weeks ago where Ahmad Chalabi’s intelligence chief was in fact an Iranian agent to pass on misinformation and disinformation to the neocons that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So Iran manipulated America through Chalabi and his aides; and now it is the Iranians who have had the last laugh because America toppled Saddam and inadvertently prepared the ground for a Shia rise to power. America destroyed a secular Sunni regime, which is going to be replaced by a Shia regime that is going to be much more friendly and acceptable to Iran. If true, this is one of the greatest intelligence coups of modern times.

Do you consider yourself to be Iraqi to any degree?

Well yes, I was born in Iraq and I regard myself to be ethnically an Iraqi Jew, but not by nationality, and I don’t particularly identify with Iraq as a homeland. My criticisms of Anglo-American policies in Iraq are not grounded in the fact that I happen to have been born in that country. But I like to boast that I was in Baghdad before Blair and Bush were in their dads’ bags!

You recently wrote about the 1996 paper written by American Likud supporters Douglas Feith and Richard Perle titled “A Clean Break,” which seems to be the ideological underpinning of the Bush Administration’s policy in the Middle East: American military might would force regime change and usher in an era of reform and democracy. It strikes me that if democracy and reform spread throughout the Middle East, it would not be helpful for either Israel or America, as it is the current repressive regimes that keep these nations in the American orbit. Were there genuine democracy, nations such as Egypt would certainly not be supporting America, as the Arab street is far more uncompromisingly anti-Zionist than the more pragmatic Arab ruling class.

This is one of the great contradictions in the neocon outlook on the Middle East: the belief that democracy would lead to pro-Western and pro-Israeli governments in the Arab world. In fact, the reverse is true. The Arab ruling elites are much more pro-American in their attitude to Israel than the Arab street. The rulers are better informed and more pragmatic. The Arabs and the wider Muslim world are bitterly hostile to Israel because of the oppression of the Palestinians; therefore this is a misconception of the neoconservatives, to think that Arab democracies would be friendlier toward the West and Israel.

Recently the Canadian anticonsumerism magazine Adbusters created an uproar when it pointed out that most of the intellectual architects of the Iraq war were Jewish, with a history of pro-Israel activity. Daniel Pipes, a Zionist militant and one of the “outed” neocons, said the article was absurd “because of the implication that religion defines politics.” Pipes himself has campaigned for years to have American Muslims put under government surveillance because of their religion, saying that within the United States “all Muslims, unfortunately, are suspect.” Do you think it is right that Jewish–and Muslim, for that matter–policy-makers and intellectuals should be held to account if there is a suspicion of dual loyalty, or do you think the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust should give Jewish groups and individuals a degree of absolution from such charges?

I think it is inaccurate to claim that American Jews were the principal force behind the war in Iraq. It is true that some of the neoconservatives happen to be Jewish, but not all of them. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld are not. I would divide the proponents of the Iraq war into two groups: One would be the Jewish neoconservatives to whom the security of Israel is paramount–their thinking was that by destroying the Baath regime in Baghdad they would cut off a major source of support for Palestinian militants and create a new environment that would be much more conducive to peace between Israel and the Palestinians on Israel’s terms. The other group, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, I would label the American nationalists, who after 9/11 felt that a very strong response was called for; they wanted to use US military power to strike at America’s opponents. The nationalists wanted to assert American supremacy and insure American domination globally, and in the Middle East in particular. So there are two agendas here: the nationalists’ and the Jewish neocons’. Both nationalists and Jewish neocons support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. One can argue that the occupation of the West Bank is in Israel’s interest; but no logical argument has ever been made that the occupation serves any American interest. My conclusion is that the neocon agenda for the new Middle East incorporates a right-wing Likud agenda, and the link with Israel deepens hostility to American actions in Iraq.

Daniel Pipes is also the founder of Campus Watch (accused by some of modern-day McCarthyism), which monitors and exposes Middle East academics for alleged anti-Israel activity. Recently he and his friends have managed to get a bill proposed in Congress that would prohibit government funds from university programs critical of American and Israeli policies in the Middle East. Can you see the range of academic debate available on Middle Eastern studies dramatically contracting in the near future?

Yes, I think there are already signs of the curbing of academic freedom in America. The “war on terror” has been used as an excuse for denying all sorts of civil liberties as well as academic freedoms. Campus Watch is one of the most sinister and deplorable examples of the fallout of 9/11 in America, because what defines a university is complete freedom of expression, and the people behind Campus Watch are responsible for a direct assault on this basic and fundamental academic right. The sad truth is that they have had quite a lot of support from Congress, and the proposed legislation would end federal funding for campuses held to be anti-Israeli–and of course “anti-Israeli” is a very loose term, which can be attached to anyone whose views he happens to disagree with [Pipes described Shlaim’s War and Peace in the Middle East as “1994’s worst book on the Middle East,” adding that “Shlaim’s extreme-left outlook inspires an anti-American and anti-Israel animus of rare vintage”]. This is an extremely disturbing phenomenon on the American political and university scene.

Some of the neocons are dismissive of the notion of a Palestinian nationhood, claiming that the pre-1948 Arabs did not have national identities, and even that they migrated to a previously empty Palestine to share in the economic benefits brought by Jewish immigration. In your opinion, is there a Palestinian “nation”?

There definitely is a Palestinian nation. It emerged in the aftermath of the First World War and it was forged in the crucible of the conflict with the Zionists. The Zionist movement in Palestine posed a challenge and led to the emergence of the Palestinian sense of nationhood. The Palestinians are clearly a nation, because that is how they define themselves. They had a land called Palestine, and they were displaced from it. The end result is that the Palestinians have never exercised sovereignty over the land in which they lived: First they were under the Ottoman Empire; then they were under the British Mandate. The Israelis use this fact against them. They say, “you never had sovereignty over this land, and therefore you have no rights.” But during the struggle for Palestine, the Palestinians had a strong national movement under the leadership of the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. In 1948 they felt they had at least as much of a right to independence as the Iraqis or the Syrians or the Lebanese. The fact that some Israelis, like Golda Meir, have denied the existence of a Palestinian nation is neither here nor there.

Let’s talk a little bit about Israel. I watched Mordechai Vanunu give an interview on BBC television last night. [After exposing Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, former Israeli nuclear technician Vanunu was kidnapped by the Mossad in Rome, tried in secret in Israel and sentenced to eighteen years in solitary confinement. He was just released from prison.] He said that the defining moment came for him politically during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when he came to disbelieve all Sharon’s rhetoric on security, regarding it as an excuse to destroy the Palestinian national movement. Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid denounced Vanunu as a traitor to his country, his synagogue (a convert to Christianity, he is currently under the protection of the Palestinian archbishop of Jerusalem) and his nation. Would you like to comment?

I don’t share Lapid’s view that Vanunu is a traitor for being a whistleblower. He thought the world should know what was going on in Israel and the danger that it posed to the rest of the world. He broke Israeli law but has now served his sentence. It is deplorable that the Israeli authorities are still hounding and harassing him and persecuting any journalist who tries to interview him. They know that after eighteen years in prison he doesn’t have any information that he did not release eighteen years ago, and therefore poses no threat to Israel. He should be left to get on with his life.

Sharon seems to have been defeated on his plan to withdraw from Gaza. So what is next for Israel and the Palestinians?

Sharon hasn’t accepted the final defeat of his unilateral disengagement plan and has come up with a new plan, which is the rechristened old plan, revised and diluted, for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in three phases. This was more acceptable to the cabinet. This is all very disappointing, because withdrawal from Gaza was Sharon’s sole contribution to progress. It didn’t amount to very much but was something to begin with. Now the Israeli right is trying to sabotage even this very modest plan to evacuate 7,500 settlers. I suspect what will happen now is more of the same: more Israeli assaults on the Palestinians in Gaza, more house demolitions, more incursions and more retaliations by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The cycle of violence is likely to continue.

You view Sharon as a failure. However, that would seem dependent on the criteria you are using. Some left-wing critics allege that Sharon has been manifestly successful in promoting his agenda of destroying the “peace process” and keeping up the level of violence. Norman Finkelstein has written that Hamas was on the verge of accepting a cease-fire in July 2002 when Sharon deliberately ordered dropping of a one-ton bomb that killed a Hamas leader and sixteen others (including eleven children), which saw the violence massively escalate [Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, introduction to the second edition].

Sharon’s policy is to avoid negotiation or compromise with the Palestinians. He has been in power for three years and he has not resumed final-status talks with them. Sharon has been the unilateralist par excellence throughout his long and checkered career, and that is what he is now. He has his own agenda for Greater Israel, and he is trying to impose it by force on the Palestinians. As you note, Sharon does not want a cease-fire with Hamas. Every time he assassinates a Hamas leader, he knowingly provokes retaliation, which invariably takes the form of another suicide bombing. A continual low level of violence keeps Sharon in power. As the leading Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling explains in his book Politicide, Sharon’s basic aim is to deny the Palestinians an independent political existence in Palestine. His vision is to annex de facto half the West Bank, to redraw unilaterally the borders of Israel and to leave a few isolated enclaves for Palestinian rule. That would certainly not be a viable Palestinian state. You can call this a success. But in the long term, Sharon’s project is doomed to failure because the Palestinians will continue their struggle, and the economic, political and psychological price will become unsustainable for the Israeli public. In the meantime, Sharon is destroying both societies. This is not my idea of a successful policy.

You have been very harsh on Ariel Sharon, but is there really evidence to say that he is an anomaly in Israeli and Zionist history? The invasion of Lebanon aside, the level of violence against civilians that Sharon has been responsible for is well below that of the Zionist leadership in 1948 under David Ben-Gurion, when three-quarters of the Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee.

I disagree that Sharon is representative of Zionist leadership. He is not an anomaly but the personification of the most brutal, cruel and xenophobic version of Zionism. Mainstream (Labor) Zionism always accepted Jordan as a partner. The Labor Party was always committed to the survival of the Hashemite monarchy in Amman. Sharon is a proponent of the thesis that “Jordan is Palestine.” His ultimate aim is to let the Palestinians topple the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and turn it into the Republic of Palestine so that he would be able to argue that there is already an independent Palestinian state on the East Bank, and therefore there is no need for one on the West Bank. It would also make it that much easier to push the remaining Palestinians out of the West Bank and absorb the occupied territories into Greater Israel. One should distinguish here between a “hard” and a “soft” transfer. Sharon knows that the international community will not tolerate ethnic cleansing and the forced expulsions of large numbers of Palestinians, but soft transfer is happening all the time. The building of the wall is one example of the methods by which the Sharon government is putting constant and relentless pressure on the Palestinians to drive them from their land and livelihood, separating farmers from their land and workers from their jobs. As a result, a steady trickle of Palestinians are moving from the West Bank to the East Bank, to Jordan and to other Arab and Gulf nations. Sharon is still practicing the same policy of which he has been a practitioner throughout his career. He does not represent the Israeli public; he is a very extreme proponent of the “Iron Wall,” of dealing with Israel’s Arab neighbors only with extreme force, from a position of unassailable strength.

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