Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine – Book Review

By Jim Miles

Israel and Palestine – Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. Avi Shlaim. Verso, London, 2009.

This is a thought provoking if not fully developed work on the ongoing situation in Palestine/Israel. Avi Shlaim has compiled a set of his writings from previous publications that in a broad way cover the events of the region, with a brief look at the Balfour Declaration before jumping forward to look at the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and its resulting sequence of events.

Avi Shlaim self professes to be of the school of revisionist historians and his writing fully supports that claim. Throughout the writing one of the themes is the Israeli use of military power to solve its problems, a solution much preferred to negotiations and compromise. A corollary of this is that when negotiations were used, they were mainly as a mask to delay a solution while the ongoing status quo built more settlements and evicted more Palestinians from their homes and farms, especially after the 1967 war.

Another thematic reminder that reiterates throughout the work is that of the asymmetric power – mainly military – that reinforces the previous idea, but also adds the knowledge that there is no balance in the situation, that Israel holds all the power, to the point that “a voluntary agreement between the parties is simply unattainable;” and as seen within the Oslo agreement the Palestinians would have been “subject to the provisions of Israeli law…and military orders… rather than international law.”

International Law

One of the more thought provoking themes raised by Shlaim is that of international law and its place within the creation of Israel/Palestine and its place within the ongoing torments of the Palestinian people. Shlaim clearly identifies the occupation as the most significant component of Israel’s defiance of international law. Under this rubric falls all the defiance of international law that refers to annexation, settlement, attacks on civilians, torture, imprisonment, land confiscation et al. That Israel is in defiance of international law is well supported, and especially since the attack on Gaza in 2008, wherein “Israel’s disdain for international norms involves America in a pattern of hypocrisy and makes a mockery of its claim to moral leadership.” At the end of his examination of Israel’s attack on Gaza Shlaim states, that Israel “has become a rogue state with ‘an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders.’ A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction [also against international law] and practices terrorism – the use of violence against civilians for political purposes [ditto].”

Where I have questions – and they are truly more questions than arguments as I am no authority on international law – is with his support of the state of Israel under international law by way of the slim trail of paperwork from the Balfour Declaration through to the UN Partition Plan of 1947.

Shlaim “accept[s] the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders” based on the “inescapable fact that something on a titanic scale had to be done for them [European holocaust survivors] and there was nothing titanic enough except Palestine,” as the “moral case for a Jewish state became unassailable.” These positions are arguable, as are any arguments stated in absolutes and written from a singular perspective of Western guilt for atrocities against the Jewish people in World War II.

Having questioned the statements, I cannot argue with the fact of Israel: it exists albeit in a somewhat ill-defined manner suiting the pro-settlement, apartheid, right wing religious nationalists; and it will continue to exist in spite of its manufactured fears and presentations of itself being the victim of Palestinian intransigence and under threat from any of a number of self-perceived enemies.

But is it all ‘legal’? Shlaim argues that “a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly by a large majority cannot be illegal.” Okay, fine. The vote was 33 in favour, 13 against and 10 abstentions, with a requirement for a 2/3 majority. Is that a large majority? Abstentions obviously were not counted, but why and under what pressure of ideals were those abstentions made? And what about the other countries, more than the fifty-six voting within the UN, and probably more including the many colonies that were probably excluded at the time? Still, Israel exists and the vote is irrelevant, except perhaps for arguing about where the boundaries of Israel should be under international law.

1947 Partition

The UN Partition Plan of 1947 is of dubious validity – I would be glad to receive arguments on the pros and cons of it – based as it was on a limited and perhaps contrived vote count. But even accepting its validity, further questions arise from the Plan itself in which it says:

“The Security Council consider, if circumstances during the transitional period require such consideration, whether the situation in Palestine constitutes a threat to the peace. If it decides that such a threat exists, and in order to maintain international peace and security, the Security Council should supplement the authorization of the General Assembly by taking measures, under Articles 39 and 41 of the Charter, to empower the United Nations Commission, as provided in this resolution, to exercise in Palestine the functions which are assigned to it by this resolution;

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