BOOK: “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations” by Avi Shlaim 3Oct10 October 5, 2010

Book reviewed by Rafael Behr  -  The Guardian -  3 October 2010

In Zionism’s case, the story told is of Israel restored to the Jews from antiquity, carved from empty desert, “a land without a people for a people without a land”. By extension, Arab hostility to Israel’s creation was irrational cruelty directed against an infant state.

It is a romantic myth requiring a big lie about the indigenous Palestinian population. Their expropriation was, in Shlaim’s analysis, the “original sin” that made conflict inevitable. He also sees the unwillingness of Israeli leaders to recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian grievance as the reason why most peace initiatives have failed.

There was a time of greater pragmatism, when ordinary Israelis at least were ready to swap land for peace. But that trend was crushed by a generation of turbo-Zionists from the Likud party. Instead of trading occupied territory for normal diplomatic relations with the Arab world, they aggressively colonised it, waging demographic war to shrink the borders and diminish the viability of any future Palestinian state.

Palestinian leaders are not spared Shlaim’s criticism. He singles out Yasser Arafat’s decision to side with Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war, for example, as a moral and political blunder. But most of the essays are about the cynical manoeuvrings of Israeli politicians. As a collection it is plainly one-sided. The same events can be projected through many lenses. But Shlaim does not aim at a comprehensive overview of the conflict so much as a running rebuttal of Israel’s version of it; an insurgency in the public relations war.

Shlaim believes the balance of power in that respect has shifted. Palestinian national suffering has overtaken Jewish refuge in Zion as the dominant moral narrative of the Middle East. The tide started turning, he says, at the landmark Madrid peace conference of October 1991. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir alienated world opinion with his paranoid obduracy. Running Shamir’s PR operation at Madrid was one Binyamin Netanyahu. His reward for helping obstruct peace nearly 20 years ago was a fruitful career in Israeli politics where, as prime minister, he obstructs peace to this day.

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