Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris are both pioneer "new historians" of Israel who challenged some of the country's most potent founding myths. Shlaim's classic The Iron Wall – the one book everyone should read for a concise history of Israel's relations with Arabs from 1947 - showed, among much else, how consistently Israel pursued the imperative of negotiating from military strength, and the diplomatic opportunities it missed in the process. Morris, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, became the first Israeli historian to drive, in the words of Shlaim himself in this book, "a coach and horses through the claim that the Palestinians left Palestine of their own accord or on orders from their leaders."
But there the similarity ends. Other than in one movingly acknowledged respect, Shlaim has remained remarkably consistent over many years. The angriest of this richly varied and often entertaining collection of essays (including a vigorous critique of Morris) is on last winter's 22-day onslaught on Gaza, which concludes that it is "difficult to resist the conclusion that [Israel] has become a rogue state".
What makes this kind of argument more discomfiting for its antagonists is that Shlaim "served loyally in the Israeli army in the 1960s", "has never questioned the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders", and has "always" supported a two state solution. The one change of heart was to decide he had been wrong and his old friend, the late Edward Said, right about the "nature and limitations of the Oslo accords", with their transfer of responsibility without power to the Palestinians, and their fatal omission of any reference to "self-determination... or an end to Jewish settlements".
Although Shlaim changed his mind about Oslo, he did not abandon his preference for the two state solution, or his view thatYitzhak Rabin was the one prime minister who had "the courage, honesty and determination" to progress towards solving the conflict with the Palestinians. An opposite political journey was taken by Benny Morris, who like Shlaim had been "cautiously optimistic" about Oslo. By contrast, his was much more dramatic, as this short, bleak polemic demonstrates.
Whereas Shlaim (and many others) argue that Israel's West Bank settlement project has been a major obstacle to peace, Morris airily explains that the post-1977 "Likud-borne expansionist Weltanschaung was short-lived" (despite a doubling of the settlement population between 1995 and 2007). A large part of Morris's book is devoted to demolishing various "one state solutions" to the conflict. But for Morris there is a formidable a stumbling block to a conventional two state solution: what he sees as the deep-seated intention of Palestinians, "moderate" and secular as well as Islamist, ordinary citizens as well as leaders, to eliminate Israel and recover the whole land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
That's not what the polls say, but Morris doesn't trust even the most reliable Palestinian polls. Nor is his claim that the "main" reason for Hamas's election victory in 2006 was the "growing religiosity of the Palestinian masses and their 'recognition' that Hamas... will lead them to final victory over the infidels", remotely borne out by the more mundane evidence available to anyone who reported those elections in Gaza, let alone in the West Bank.
But then Morris is on a mission. In his account of an interview with Morris in 2004, the Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit contrasted the dispassionate "historian Morris" with the more nationalistic, opinionated "citizen Morris". The citizen was certainly in charge of this book; so much so that he sometimes appears to compromise his more scholarly alter ego.
For instance, Morris has made a genuine discovery: the Israeli negotiators' written response to Bill Clinton's 11th-hour negotiating "parameters" in December 2000. Yet the "points of clarification" in the letter, on refugees as well on Jerusalem, in fact bear out Shlaim's assertion that "the Israeli reservations were more substantial than the Palestinians'", rather than Morris's unquestioning acceptance that the Palestinians said "no" to Clinton and the Israelis "yes".
In another passage Morris, who elsewhere lays great emphasis on "cultural" differences between Jews and Arabs, rejects claims that most of those who survived the terrible 1929 massacre of Jews by Arabs in Hebron were rescued by Arab neigbours rather than by "British police intervention and by the fact that many Jews successfully fended off their assailants for long hours – though Arab neighbours did save several families." Yet in his book on the British mandate, Tom Segev counted 435 names on one Zionist Archive list of Jews saved by Arabs. If new evidence has come to light since then - or since Morris's own assertion in his book Righteous Victims that "hundreds of Jews were saved by Arab neighbours" - he does not say so.
Beyond the cursorily advanced idea of a Jordanian takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, Morris holds out little hope of a solution, and blames the Palestinians for the failure to make peace. Shlaim still believes the parties may come to a two state solution "when they have exhausted all the alternatives". While by no means uncritical of the Palestinians, he blames the "catastrophic mistake" of a 42-year occupation and issues a timely, so far unfulfilled, call to the US, in George's Ball's words, to "save Israel against itself".
It may seem unfair to quote Shlaim's remark that Morris used to have the "courage of his convictions" and now has the "courage of his prejudices". But it is not the only respect in which Shlaim has much the better of the argument.
Donald Macintyre is Jerusalem correspondent of 'The Independent'Reuse content