The name Avi Shlaim may not be widely known on the street, but in the United Kingdom, and particularly in academic settings, it is.
An emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University, he has been a prodigious writer on the Middle East.
When it comes to Israel, where he once lived, Shlaim can barely contain himself, throwing any semblance of scholarship to the wind and working himself into a lather at its mere mention.
Take, for example, his op-ed in The Independent, a British daily, earlier this week.
Entitled “Obama must stand up to Netanyahu,” and published on the day that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met in the White House, Shlaim breathlessly mined the English language for ever more vituperative things to say about Israel and its leadership.
Here are some of the results:
Benjamin Netanyahu is “a bellicose, right-wing Israeli nationalist, a rejectionist… and a reactionary.” His government is “the most aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist government in Israel’s history.” It is a government of “militant nationalists.” It “is in danger of drifting towards fascism.” He is “a jimcrack politician.” He is “the war-monger in chief.”
Isn’t that the same Netanyahu who, whatever his other alleged faults might be, has moved his Likud Party to accept a Palestinian state, introduced a partial freeze on settlements as a goodwill gesture to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, and played a part in the economic revival of the West Bank and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority?
Oh, and Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, according to Shlaim, “regards diplomacy as the extension of war by other means.” Moreover, he is a “bitkhonist, a security-ist who wants 100 percent security for Israel which means zero security for the Palestinians.”
Isn’t that perchance the same Barak who, as prime minister, collaborated with President Clinton to offer Yasir Arafat a viable Palestinian state and the chance for enduring peace?
In fact, Shlaim has to draw from other things he’s written, since the English language apparently is not rich enough for ever new expressions of outrage.
In a 2010 edition of The Antonian, the newsletter of St. Antony’s College (Oxford), he wrote, in another brutal assault on Israel, that “Netanyahu is like a man who, while negotiating the division of a pizza, continues to eat it.”
In the Independent op-ed, he said “He (Netanyahu) is like a man who pretends to negotiate the division of a pizza while continuing to gobble it.”
Now, again, please bear in mind that we’re not just talking about anyone here, but about an emeritus professor at Oxford University. He has taught countless students from around the world and supervised who-knows-how-many dissertations.
And we’re also talking about a widely-read newspaper in Britain that opted to publish this – let’s call it by its proper name – screed.
At a time when the U.S. and Israeli leaders meet in Washington to discuss the ominous challenge of Iran’s nuclear program, Shlaim assails Israel for every alleged misdeed, yet, oddly, or perhaps tellingly, fails to address the Iran question.
Well, not exactly. He does claim Israel is trying “to drag America into a dangerous confrontation,” but doesn’t offer any solution of his own.
That might suggest he either doesn’t believe Iran has a nuclear program – which would put him at odds with the U.S. and European governments, not to mention the International Atomic Energy Agency – or he doesn’t feel it poses a threat to anyone. Wait, there is one more possibility. He might actually welcome the program as a response to the reviled Israel. Which is it?
And he also reveals his “penetrating” insights when he declares that “the main threat to regional stability is not Iran but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
Mind you, Iran is moving headlong towards nuclear-weapons capability and delivery systems, Arab neighbors are frightened to death, and all Shlaim sees is the Israeli occupation as the main threat to the Middle East.
President Obama declares that a nuclear-armed Iran would trigger a new arms race in the volatile Middle East, strengthen the hand of terrorist groups, and give Tehran a stranglehold on a good chunk of the world’s oil supply, but all Shlaim sees is the occupation.
The Sunni-Shiite rift is as pronounced as ever, but all Shlaim sees is the occupation.
Syria is butchering its own people right and left, but all Shalim sees is the occupation.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, is gripped by the mano-a-mano struggle for power between the military and the Islamists, and all Shlaim sees is the occupation.
The Arab world, according to the Arab Human Development Index, faces profound freedom, knowledge, and gender deficits, which put it way behind much of the rest of the world, but all Shlaim sees is the occupation.
And four consecutive Israeli prime ministers, including his arch-nemeses, Netanyahu and Barak, have embraced a two-state plan, only to be rebuffed by Palestinian leaders, but all Shlaim sees is the occupation.
I’m lucky, I suppose.
When I was at Oxford, I studied Soviet matters and, fortunately, had distinguished, clear-headed professors.
But pity the students who have been exposed to this kind of poisoned thinking.
And pity the readers of The Independent who are invited to read such drivel, all the more during a momentous week in Middle East and U.S.-Israeli diplomacy, when sober analysis is sorely needed.
As my beloved grandmother used to say, what’s the world coming to?