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Robert Fisk’s World: Lessons in justice and fairness from a no-nonsense historian

He will go into the whole Middle East fiasco and come out fighting

Let us now praise famous men and their fathers that begat them. The famous man – he should be much more famous – is the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim whose wonderful "reappraisals, revisions and refutations" is coming out in September under the simple title: Israel and Palestine.

But to Avi's father first. I hope I tell the story correctly – Avi will be after me if I don't – but he first came to Israel from Iraq with his parents in 1950 and they found themselves in miserable circumstances, at least compared with the life they had left behind. And Avi's dad would always tell him: "The Jews have prayed for a state of their own for many generations – but they prayed in vain. Did it have to happen in my lifetime?!"

But to Avi. He recalls arguing with the late Edward Said – and there is a titanic voice to be ever missed, irreplaceable is the only word – over the Oslo agreement. Here is what Avi writes: "In the years since 1993, I have often asked myself: who was right and who was wrong? When things were going well, when progress was being made, when Oslo II was signed, for example, I thought that I was right and that Edward was wrong.

"When the political process (between Israel and the Palestinians) stalled with the inevitable return to violence, I thought that Edward Said was right and I was wrong. From today's vantage point, 16 years on, it is indisputable that I was wrong and Edward Said was right in his analysis of the nature and limitations of the Oslo accord."

Not often today do we find historians who are this honest and this bleak and this able – for some reason, I think here of T S Eliot's essays – to express truth so simply. The point about Eliot, I suppose (and here I recall the words of Dr David Craig, one of my English lecturers at Lancaster), is that he was unanswerable and that when he wrote, you felt he could not but be correct. There are few today to whom that can be applied (George Antonius being long dead) but Avi has, as we scribes say, a way with words.

Upon which note, a "deviation" as the French would say. I was once asked to give a lecture at the Hilton Hotel in London and invited my regular taxi driver if he'd like to park and come to the talk. He did. And as I emerged into the downpour, there he was waiting with the passenger door open. So how, asked Fisk – waiting for grovelling flattery – did he enjoy my talk? "Well," my driver replied, "you certainly know how to string the words together, don't you?" Deflation of Fisk.

But Avi does know how to string the words together. Here he is, for example, deflating Benny Morris, one of his Israeli academic colleagues who – after immense and scholarly research which proved that the Palestinian Arabs fled Palestine not with promises of Arab victory but in terror of the Israelis – suddenly believed that the Palestinians had brought the catastrophe of the second intifada on themselves. "His post-conversion interpretation of history is old history with a vengeance. It is indistinguishable from the propaganda of the victors. He used to have the courage of his convictions. He now has the courage of his prejudices."


Avi's splendid assault on Alan Dershowitz – the Harvard academic who managed to destroy Norman Finkelstein's career at the lamentable DePaul University in Chicago – and the so-called Campus Watch in the United States are classics. "As its mission suggests," he writes of Campus Watch, "this organisation is incompatible with the core values of higher education such as tolerance, free speech, and the dignity of difference."

Bang. There you have it. That last phrase – "the dignity of difference" – is the killer-takes-all. What does it say on Dean Swift's epitaph in Dublin? "Imitate, if you can, his strenuous vindication of man's liberty." No, Avi is no Dean Swift, but he is among those rare historians who will go into the whole Middle East fiasco and come out fighting. Here he is dissecting the events of 1948. "The UN resolution provided an international charter of legitimacy for the Jewish state. True, the Arabs were not responsible for the barbaric treatment of the Jews in the heartland of Christian Europe. Most Arabs consequently felt that the gift of part of Palestine to the Jews was illegal. However, a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly by a large majority cannot be illegal. It may be unjust but not illegal. Injustice and illegality are not the same thing. What is legal is not necessarily just."

Yet Avi has a dark humour which I always enjoy. When I called him yesterday – yes, of course I did, to check his dad's quote – he reminded me that the first suicide bomber was Samson, who broke the twin pillars (yes, we remember the other twin pillars), saying he wanted to take some Philistines with him. The Philistines lived in Phoenicia, a piece of real estate that would pretty much approximate to the sea shore just outside my Beirut balcony. And in Lebanon, we are all worried about earthquakes.